Buddhism Maṇḍala
Heather Blair
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0100


English glosses and definitions for the Sanskrit term maṇḍala vary considerably, ranging from “circle” to “energy grid” to “psycho-cosmogram.” Although it is quite common to interpret mandalas as maps, to do so downplays their ability to be what they show. Therefore, it may be fairer, if more longwinded, to say that mandalas represent and instantiate the enlightened universe and/or the enlightened mind of the practitioner, which they figure as a bounded territorial and architectonic system over which a particular deity presides. Some mandalas are imagined, but many others take form as material objects; among the latter, the best known are two-dimensional polychrome designs exhibiting biaxial symmetry and depicting an array of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities, usually in a palace setting. However, mandalas are not necessarily figural: some display syllables rather than anthropomorphic deities, and others are made of ritual implements. Moreover, mandalas can and do take three-dimensional form in sculpture and architecture, and they are also commonly read onto (or out of) bodies and landscapes. Through all these variations in form and medium, mandalas tend to function as structural matrices that support an ordered conceptualization of reality, organize ritual practice, and control territory. Long integrated into meditational and ritual practices, they have now entered the canons of art. As a result, many aesthetically fine and historically significant two- and three-dimensional mandalas are now curated in museums.

General Overviews

Leidy and Thurman 1997 provides a good, general survey of the history and material forms of mandalas, as well as an introduction to the concepts and practices associated with them; for an account of the development of esoteric Buddhist ritual and roles played by mandalas therein, see Shinohara 2014. Brauen 1997 is an excellent and accessible resource, particularly for Tibetan and Himalayan mandalas, whereas Ten Grotenhuis 1999 provides the standard introduction to mandalas in Japan. Especially when paired with more recent encyclopedia entries and synopses (e.g., White 2000), Strong 1996 offers a useful commentary on research trends at the end of the 20th century. Most any treatment of Tantric or esoteric Buddhism will include some discussion of mandalas, and readers are advised to consult other bibliography entries on Zhenyan, Shingon, and other similar subjects. In a theoretical vein, Carl Jung’s ahistorical treatment of mandalas (Jung 1969) has been tremendously influential. Not only did Jung bring mandalas to the attention of the general public in the West, but his psychological approach has also influenced many academic studies, including Tucci 2001 (cited under the Himalaya [Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan]). In an unusual foray into Durkheimian theory, Wayman 1961 provides a sociologically inflected foil to Jungian readings. For a direct critique of psychologizing and aestheticizing approaches to mandalas, see Lopez 1998 (cited under the Himalaya [Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan]). For analyses of the history, iconography, ritual, and politics of mandalas in a range of geocultural contexts, see sources cited under the subheadings below.

  • Brauen, Martin. The Maṇḍala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism. Translated by Martin Wilson. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.

    Excellent overview of the structure and ritual use of mandala. Cogent organization begins with Abhidharmakośa cosmology, treats conceptualizations of the human body and stupas as mandalas, and then takes the Kālacakra mandala as an example of Tantric practice. Extremely well illustrated with diagrams, plates, and photographs.

  • Jung, C. G. “Maṇḍala Symbolism” and “Maṇḍala.” In Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Vol. 9. By C. G. Jung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

    Jung eschewed any interest in the historical contexts, doctrinal subtleties, and ritual applications of mandalas. His decision to adopt “the mandala” into his psychological theory as a universally applicable archetype of wholeness helped to bring mandalas into mainstream culture in Europe and the Americas.

  • Leidy, Denise, and Robert Thurman. Maṇḍala: Architecture of Enlightenment. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.

    Catalogue for an exhibition co-sponsored by the Asia Society and Tibet House in New York City. Leidy’s well-annotated introductory essay is recommended as a historical introduction and survey of major types and examples of mandala. High-quality plates illustrate a wide variety of mandalas from across Asia.

  • Shinohara, Koichi. Spells, Images, and Maṇḍalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

    Account of the development of esoteric Buddhist ritual (including the use of maṇḍala) based on scrutiny of Chinese sutra literature. Particularly valuable for its attention to ritual context and diachronic change.

  • Strong, John. “The Moves Maṇḍalas Make.” Journal of International Association of Buddhist Studies 12.2 (1996): 301–312.

    Provides the capstone to a special issue of the Journal of International Association of Buddhist Studies on mandalas from the 8th to 9th centuries; includes useful methodological commentary and research citations. Focus is on the intercultural and interregional migrations of mandalas, their systematizing potential, and their ability to effect the presence of buddhas.

  • Ten Grotenhuis, Elizabeth. Japanese Maṇḍalas: Representations of Sacred Geography. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999.

    A decade after its publication, this remains both the most detailed and the most comprehensive Western-language book on Japanese mandalas. Covers esoteric mandalas as well as adaptations of mandalic forms and concepts in kami worship and Pure Land movements.

  • Wayman, Alex. “Totemic Beliefs in the Buddhist Tantras.” History of Religions 1.1 (1961): 81–94.

    DOI: 10.1086/462440

    In contrast to Tucci’s Jungianism (see Tucci 2001, cited under the Himalaya [Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan]), Wayman draws on Durkheim’s exposition of totemism to suggest that the analogical classification schemes found in Tantric expositions of mandalas are patterned after, and likely derived from, social formations—that is, ancient Indian clans. Unusual foray for an eminent Indo-Tibetanist.

  • White, David Gordon. “Introduction.” In Tantra in Practice. By David Gordon White, 3–38. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

    See pages 9–13 and passim for a concise and cogent introduction to tantric understandings and uses of mandala. Suitable for classroom use.

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