Introducing the Taima Mandala

Recently I was chatting with some folks in my PBP group about mandalas, starting with the famous sand mandalas that the Tibetan community drew for President Obama, then mandala in Japanese Buddhism. This conversation woke up some old memories of mine, including an obscure mandala that I wanted to share: the Taima Mandala.

A reprint of the Taima Mandala with the Jodo Shinshu-sect crest at the top and bottom, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Taima Mandala (taima mandara, 当麻曼荼羅) is a tapestry that was created in the year 763 and currently stored in the temple of Taima-dera in the city of Nara although many reproductions exist. You can see the original here. In spite of the name “mandala” it is not technically related to the esoteric traditions of Buddhism, nor is it a mandala proper. Instead, it is part of genre of Buddhist art called hensōzu (変相図) in Japanese, graphic illustrations of the Pure Land of the Buddha or of the Buddhist hell realms.1

The Taima Mandala is a visual depiction of the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. It is in the Pure Land (jōdo 浄土 in Japanese) that the Buddha provides refuge for all beings, and here that they can dwell in an environment that is very conducive to the Buddhist path and ultimately Buddhahood of their own. Part of the appeal of the Pure Land as a Buddhist practice or “dharma gate” is its accessibility. The Buddha, in order to create this refuge for all beings, vowed to make it so accessible that one need only recite his name as little as 10 times, or do more if you wish.

Think of it as the ultimate Buddhist retreat, but far less exclusive, and far more affordable. 😉

If you click on the picture above you can see many details. In the center sits the Buddha Amitabha himself attended by his two attendant bodhisattvas Kannon (R) and Seishi (L).3 They are surrounded by many disciples of all kinds, who eager listen to the Dharma4 and toward the lower central area, you can see new beings being reborn in the Pure Land from buds of lotus blossoms. Around the edges are small pictures, depicting various scenes of the Pure Land, adapted from existing Buddhist sutras, and the bottom depicts the nine grades of followers who are reborn in the Pure Land. The primary source for all this is the Contemplation of Amitabha Sutra, if I recall correctly.

The creation of the Taima Mandala is attributed to a Buddhist nun named Chūjō-hime (中将姫), daughter of one Fujiwara no Toyonari. She was deeply devoted to the Bodhisattva Kannon (Guan-yin). According to the origin story, she finished transcribing a copy of a Buddhist sutra called the shōsanjōdokyō (称讃浄土経, “Sutra on Praises of the Pure Land”?),2 and that same evening, from the western direction of the setting sun, she beheld a vision of the Pure Land in its splendid detail. She was so amazed that she took tonsure as a nun at Taima-dera Temple, and with Kannon’s guidance was able to craft the mandala based on what she saw.

As an example of hensōzu art, the Taima Mandala is simply amazing. It is one of those “often imitated, but never surpassed” art works. While it is not a mandala in the strict sense, it has been called one for many generations because it does provide a very visual representation of the Pure Land that can’t be fully expressed in texts hence it has a religious impact all its own.

Very little information about the Taima Mandala or this artistic genre exists in English unfortunately, and I have only scratched the surface, but I hope this helps inspire readers and other Buddhists in some way.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Ages ago, I attended a museum exhibition in Kamakura which displayed many such medieval hensōzu artwork from local temples, and it was simply amazing. It had a big impression on me, and how I understand Pure Land Buddhism.

2 There is very little information about this sutra in English or Japanese, but it appears to be an alternate translation of the more famous Amida Sutra, brought by the famous Chinese monk, Xuanzang, from India during his journeys. It is also called the shōsan jōdo butsu shōju-kyō (称讃浄土仏摂受経). There’s no translation at all in English, so the above title is my best guess.

3 Buddhas were often depicted in “trinities” with two attendant Bodhisattvas. Shakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism, was often depicted with Monju (Manjushri) and Fugen (Samantabhadra) for example.

4 The Buddhist law of existence, or “how things work”. Buddhism at its heart is not a dogma but a way of expressing how reality works, not how we want it to work, with the aim to awaken and enlighten others.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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