Mandalas, Meditation and Mantra are also very important synonymous of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. While Mandalas, Meditation and Mantra make a good alliteration, they are not necessarily practised together!
Mantra is a Sanskrit word which roughly means a set of syllables or words that are changed repetitively. Mantras have deep philosophical meanings and are used in many different practises in Tibetan Buddhism. At its most basic level a mantra is used as a form of meditation. Mantras are said to represent enlightenment. Mantras in Tibetan Buddhist practise is often associated with a deity. For example, the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is associated with Chenrezig (the Bodhisattva of compassion).
Meditation is something that is very intrinsic and an essential part of Buddhism in general. Thus it is no surprise that Tibetan Buddhism has a rich tradition of meditation. There are so many meditation techniques in Tibetan Buddhism that one article would not suffice to discuss them. This article will briefly explain about meditation. Buddhist meditation can be narrowed down to two main types - Analytical and Concentrative.
The first category of meditation is Analytical meditation. This includes techniques mentioned in texts such as Lam Rim (Gradual path to enlightenment), applying logic to examine parts of the identity, consciousness, mind, etc.
The second category, which is more popular is called Concentrative meditation. This involves techniques such as repeating a mantra, or concentrating on the breath or a flame, etc. In concentrative meditation, the point is to still the mind and direct its focus towards one particular thing only. Most Tibetan meditation techniques use a combination of both analytical and concentration methods. Popular meditation techniques are Dzogchen, Mahamudra, and chanting.
Mandalas are spiritual and ritual symbols which represent the entire cosmos. Mandalas are generally made by skilled, trained monks and they use coloured sand to create the mandalas. Mandalas take weeks to make and involve a group effort by different monks. There are special rituals conducted before, during, and after the mandala construction.
Mandalas also represent the concept of Samsara or cyclic existence (birth, death, and rebirth). Images of Buddhas, animals, skulls, and fire are common symbolisms in mandalas. These represent enlightenment, rebirth in lower worlds, death, etc. Mandalas also represent impermanence, an important aspect of Buddhist philosophy. After the painstaking work involved in constructing a mandala, it is destroyed in one sweep by a broom. This is to represent the impermanence of all phenomenon. Also mandalas are used as meditation aids in Tantric practises, where the practitioner contemplates the mandala as a visual guide and as a representation of enlightenment.
Tibetan Buddhism is rich in deep philosophy, cultural traditions, and rituals. For someone looking from an outsider’s perspective it can seem confusing and even primitive. But it is far from any of that. Tibetan Buddhism has deep, logical philosophies on life, death, rebirth, and existence. Most of these insights are derived from the rich meditation and contemplation culture in Buddhist practise. To fully enjoy the aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, a background knowledge as well as an open mind is necessary.