All (two-dimensional) mandalas are representations of a three-dimensional palace, or universal environment as you see here:
In two particular places in the world the three-dimensional mandala can be experienced: the Borobodur on Central Java, Indonesia (right), and Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia (below).
These large Buddhist temple complexes are built in the shape of a mandala. This is best seen from above as you can see from the picture on the right, where you clearly see the 4 wind directions with entrances and many levels leading up to the holiest place in the center of the structure.
The Borobudur on Java, Indonesia (right), is shaped as a mandala which is best seen from the air.
The Borobudur is a 9th century Mahayana Buddhist Temple complex, designed in Javanese Buddhist architecture, which is a mix of Indonesian ancestor worship and the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana.
It’s a monument that consists of nine stacked platforms (six square ones and three circular), leading to a central dome, or stupa. The structure is decorated with 2,672 relief panels(the largest and most complete set of Buddhist reliefs in the world) and no less than 504 Buddha statues. The stupa in the center on top is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated, bell like stupa. The Borobudur is one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world as well as the world’s largest Buddhist temple.
The Borobudur serves both as a shrine to the Buddha and as a place for Buddhist pilgrimage. The journey for pilgrims begins at the base of the structure and follows the path clockwise around the monument, slowly ascending to the top through three levels or realms (dhatus) symbolic of Buddhist cosmology (see below).
Like the Borobudur also the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia is built in the shape of a mandala:
The Universe (or Mount Meru)
The mandala traditionally represents the entire universe, with the Mount Meru in the center, surrounded by the continents. Mount Meru is a mythical, sacred mountain with five peaks and is considered to be the center of all universes (physical, metaphysical & spiritual) in the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmology.
Many famous Buddhist temples (but also Hindu and Jain temples) have built symbolic representations of the Meru mountain, or have painted it on the inner walls of the temple.
The ancient Buddhists thought of the universe as essentially flat, with the Meru Mountain at the center of all existence. This universe was made of many different planes of existence and three realms (dhatus). The three realms are:
- Arupyadhatu (the formless realm)
- Rupadhatu (the realm of form)
- Kamadhatu (the realm of desire)
Each of these realms are further divided into multiple worlds where different kinds of beings live.
A modern mural painting of Mount Meru (from a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Nepal).