The word mandala (dkyil ‘khor) in Tibetan actually means centre and periphery, i.e. a circle: the circle of a king, a magician’s circle, an organization with a centre (chairman) and periphery, and so on.
In Buddhist meditation there are many kinds of mandala, A mandala is the way we experience the world (samsara), inclusive of a kind of centre (the experiencer) and the periphery (the experienced). It includes the tone (emotional/intellectual) of that experience; it is both quantitative and qualitative – albeit the purpose of Buddhist meditations is to change/transform the qualitative aspect. This would mean change in the perceiver/experiencer, the quality of the experience thereof and the experienced. It can be said that a restructuring of emotional and thinking patterns takes place in this kind of mandala change.
A mandala is one’s existential situation, with oneself as the centre and one’s experience as the periphery of the mandala. The way we see/feel/experience our situation this very moment, here and now, is our mandala. Of course this bring us to the problem that we do not experience this moment in all its fullness/completeness/perfection. That is why it is called Ignorance Mandala. It is painted by ignorance, so we are incapable of experiencing the richness of the moment. If we could, every moment or experience would be the great perfection – nothing to add, nothing to subtract. Thus the purpose of Buddhist meditation is to transform the Ignorance Mandala into the Wisdom Mandala.
Besides these two basic varieties of mandalas, i.e. the Ignorance Mandala and Wisdom Mandala (ajnana mandala and jnanaa mandala), we as individuals have an infinite number of mandalas - the poet mandala, the artist mandala, the father-mother mandala, the lover mandala, the husband-wife mandala, the school teacher/managing director mandala etc. We are constantly moving from one mandala to the other, but due to individual grasping the transitions may not be so smooth or we may even transmute a give mandala through our fixation on it into a perilous “me” mandala, the ajnana mandala, imagining it to be our basic identity. But samsara is in flux, and so a fixed identity mandala is untenable. Thus there is friction – sorrow. The first tenet of Buddhism is to realize the need to be able to let go of any fixation on any mandala or group of mandalas and to be able to flow freely within the infinite dimensions (mandalas) of the mind. This is the purpose of all Buddhist meditation. As Zen master say, “When hungry I eat, when tired I sleep.” When we can really do that, without memories of the past, imaginations of the future distorting the moment mandala, we are in the jnana mandala. This is the state without grasping or rejecting, without hope for a better situation mandala or fear of a worse mandala. In other words of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, this state is completely hopeless, i.e. free of hope and fear. Such a state is free of meditation or no-meditation; this is why it is called non-meditation. All Buddhist meditation techniques aim towards this state. In fact, non meditation is the only true meditation. All other forms of meditation are only attempts to meditate.
To transform the ajnana mandala into the jnana mandala we need to let go, stop fixating. In order to let go or stop fixating, it is crucial to gain insight (vipashyana) into the fact that the centre of the mandala is centreless or, in more orthodox terms, empty (shunyata) or anatma (no-self). Centre-less-ness is the centre and the periphery is peripheryless, i.e. again empty. As the Pali text says, sabbe dhamma anatta, i.e. all dharmas (centre and periphery) are empty of a self. In Mahayana language, this is called pudgala nairatmya and dharma nairatmya. This is the jnana mandala in Vajrayana. The mandala is thus a true existential application of the Buddha’s teachings. This is the mandala as the ground/bhumi.
The mandala as the path/marga can be divided into three types. The first is the body mandala of the Mahayoga. The deities in thangkas belong to this group. These mandalas are used to transform the conception of ordinary bodies and their mandalas into Deity bodies and their mandalas through meditation. This Mahayoga-level mandala is a whole and restructured way of perceiving the perceiver and the perceived, inclusive of emotional tones, language structures, thinking patterns and styles of interpreting. For example, diseases are diagnosed or interpreted in terms of male spirits, female spirits and nagas. Devas, nagas etc. are the language structure and though patterns of this group of mandalas.
The second class of mandalas is called Anuyoga or the mandalas of nadi chakras. Here, samsara again is reconstructed into a new pattern of vision. The language structures etc. again change even though it is the same samsara, that is, even though we are still talking about the same thing. All the deities become seed mantras. Diseases now are diagnosed or interpreted as imbalances in the channels and winds. We have to understand that this is just a user of another vision (language structures, thinking patterns) for the same thing as the male spirits, female spirits and nagas of the Mahayoga.
The third class of mandalas is that of the Atiyoga. Its members could also be called mind mandalas. Here, everything is treated in terms of the mind, or as unity of emptiness and luminosity. Diseases are seen as an imbalance of emptiness and luminosity etc.
These three mandala categories are not exclusive but are three different ways of perceiving samsara. They are used as the path (meditation) to bring about a transformation from Ignorance Mandala to Wisdom Mandala.