The meaning and purpose of mandalas are a bit out of my frame of reference and except for the few used in Shingon practice, I am among the uninitiated. That isn’t to say that I can’t respect and enjoy the talent, time and practice that goes into their creation. But the process involved in the practice requires a teacher and guidance and they are in short supply out here but I still pound along with my two Shingon ones…
A mandala is a symbol, a representation of the aspect of the universe. No matter how small or vast, it is represented by the body of the mandala and thus internalized into your practice. It is a meditative tool that is entirely holistic and complete but still disseminated into smaller portions. While I don’t take too much stock into the real esoteric nature of the mandala, the manifestation of the Buddhas represented in the mandala in the Shingon tradition do give a much-needed focus to my practice. Like the mind, a mandala is seemingly chaotic and without underlying order but through concentration and meditation a story begins to appear.
Some of that story is born from the mandala but much of it you provide through your own introspection and nature. Like a koan, it is not immediately understood but understanding will arise and probably give a good solid kick in your ‘nads. Like a mirror it reflects only what you put in front of it. Would I know from experience? No. My practice is short, ugly and prickly like a cactus but hopefully budding into a wonderful flower from which I can make tasty, tasty tequila (speaking of which…check out the Tricycle blog and leave your opinion of the 5th Precept).
In Shingon practice only two mandalas are utilized, both brought by Kobo Daishi to Japan from China during his travels. I regret that is about as much as I can really explain without referencing a few texts and that seems like cheating, so I’ll just provide the following better and fuller explanationof general Vajrayana mandala practice…
Tonight we are going to speak about mandalas. The Tibetan word for a mandala, kyilkor (dkyil-‘khor), means literally “that which encircles a center,” goes around a center. And “Center” here, what it means is “a meaning,” and that which encircles it is a symbol, or a representation of the meaning. So, a mandala is basically a round symbol, or a representation of some sort of a deep meaning that it stands for. They don’t all have to be round, however, that’s just an expression that’s used. They’re not all round.
Now there’s a difference between a symbol and a representation – some mandalas are symbols and some are representations – so let me point that out. A symbol is something that the meaning of it is obvious to anybody who encounters it. You don’t really have to be told what it means, like for instance a round, white circle is a symbol for a moon. It’s quite obvious what it stands for, that’s a symbol. Whereas a representation is something that it is not so obvious what it means at all and it has to be explained to us. For instance, a vajra is a representation of method and a bell is a representation of wisdom. It’s not at all obvious if you just see a vajra and bell what they stand for, is it? That’s a representation, they’re not symbols, so you have to be told what the representation means. Like that, some mandalas are symbols, some are representations.
There are lots of different types of mandalas, and they’re used for many, many different purposes, both in sutra and tantra. So first I’d like to give a little bit of a survey of what are the most common types of mandalas that we find used in Buddhism, and then, if we have time, I’ll go a little bit more deeply into some of these. [from Berzin Archives, read the rest of the explaination here]