Museum Dictionary

The Star Mandala

Have you ever heard of a mandala? Mandalas are a kind of Buddhist painting that are especially common in the Esoteric sect of Buddhism, which has many secret, mystical rituals. According to the beliefs of this sect, truth can not be expressed through just words but requires illustrations such as paintings. One such type of painting is a mandala.

The word "mandala" originally came, not from Japan, but from India. When Buddhism was brought to China, Chinese characters were assigned to fit the sounds of this Sanskrit word, but these characters themselves have no relation to the meaning of the word?

What does mandala mean? Well, the word itself means "a hitch," or "connector," something that connects an ox to a cart. Over time, however, this gradually took on a religious meaning, and the word came to mean a chart of Buddhas and gods symbolizing the order of the universe.

There are many types of mandalas. The mandala with the most images is called the "Mandala of the Two Realms." It depicts all the gods and Buddhas in the Buddhist pantheon! This important mandala forms the basis of all of Esoteric Buddhism.

The mandala pictured below, however, is another type, called the Star Mandala.

  • Star Mandala (Kumeidadera Temple)

It is a little easier to understand, and it has images that are closer to our daily lives than the images on other mandalas. Have you ever heard of astrology? This Star Mandala is actually an ancient kind of astrology.

Let's look more closely at the painting itself. The upper section of the mandala is darker in color than the lower section, but this is because for years it hung in a smoky temple. Outside the rectangular center section are two rectangular borders. Whitish medallions have been arranged in each section of the painting. The medallions represent stars. Inside each circular star is an image of a person or an animal. These are the star gods. In the middle section, slightly above the center, is a Buddha set against a round golden halo. This is Ichiji Kinrin, another name for the Buddha Shakamuni. He is the ruler of the Star Realm, pictured in this mandala.

Below the Buddha, there are seven medallions shaped like an "S" turned on its side, or a scoop. Inside each medallion is a figure wearing a headdress like a god. These are the Seven Stars of the Big Dipper, the most important stars in the Star Mandala. They are shaped like this to represent the constellation of the big dipper. Other medallions in the center section represent planets such as Mercury, Venus and Saturn, and the Sun and Moon.

The slightly greenish, inner border has images of the twelve signs of the zodiac, including a bull for Taurus, a crab for Cancer, and a scorpion for Scorpio. I bet you are familiar with these, aren't you? The outer border has images of gods from twenty-eight other signs of the zodiac. They have very cute faces, don't they?

These are all the gods and Buddhas that appear in the Star Mandala. The next question is, how did people in the old days use this mandala for to tell fortunes? These days, it is more common to tell fortunes from the twelve signs of the zodiac, but in the old days it was more common to tell fortunes from the seven stars of the Big Dipper. Your fate depended on which of the seven stars was ruling on the month and day you were born. The ruling star on the day the fortune telling is performed was also important. The sun, moon and planets and the twenty-eight signs played secondary roles to the stars of the Big Dipper. People prayed to these stars to help prevent disasters and to live longer.

Do you remember when a large group of comets collided into Jupiter in the summer of 1994? The god of Jupiter is depicted in this mandala in the center section as the seated male figure on the right side in the middle, just to the left of the shrimp-like scorpion. If you look closely, maybe you will be able to see the craters from the comet collisions imprinted in his cheeks!

Text by Takeo Izumi, Department of Fine Arts
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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