Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101” series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.

Sacred Geometry, Part 1

The geometry of the sacred in Buddhism is not the same as the study of iconometric measurements and grids. While the latter is used exclusively by artists to form deity and mandala diagrams to aesthetically pleasing proportions, the former is the understanding of shapes, functions, contexts, concepts, and colors of Tantric imagery and visualization.

There are four basic topics in the study of sacred geometry: General Shapes, Basic Elements, Cosmology & Continents, and Mandala Palace Shapes and Deities.

The General Shapes are the circle, half-circle, square, triangle, tetrahedron, and double-tetrahedron. Each of these shapes except the tetrahedron can be two- or three-dimensional, depending on the application and context in both iconography and visualization; the tetrahedron and double-tetrahedron are understood to be three-dimensional forms. The end of the tetrahedron is always directed downward, flat side up. 

The second topic refers to the Basic Elements of earth, water, air and fire, represented by a square, circle, half-circle, and triangle. They are typically depicted and imagined as two-dimensional. The sun and moon are also represented by a circle. The four elements along with the sun and moon each have their own colors. Mathematics and measurements do not play a major role in this topic.

Continents and Cosmology is the fourth topic. It has its own topic because of the specificity of the study of astrology, cosmology, continents, and mathematical equations. Each of the four continents and the two accompanying islands (subcontinents) have their own shapes. Mount Meru, the mountain at the center of the four continents has a specific and unique shape. The heavens—imagined to be directly above the mountain—also have a unique shape. Formulas are used to calculate measurements for each continent, the distances between them, and even the height of Mount Meru.

The palace at the center of a mandala, the residence of the deity, can take on different shapes. Most common is the square and less common are circles, triangles, and half-circles. In some rare cases palaces are placed within palaces, combining shapes to create such overlays as a circle within a square. Possibly the most unique and interesting shape—sometimes used in conjunction with a traditional palace—is the single or double tetrahedron. In some cases a single tetrahedron is imagined or drawn above a two-dimensional triangle, producing a Star of David-like shape. The merging of two tetrahedrons to create a double tetrahedron gives the same Star-of-David visual effect.

The dimensions of a palace are based on the size of the central deity in that specific mandala. The formula for the dimensions of the deity are generic, but require handspan measurements of the practitioner, making each measured visualization unique. It is up to the practitioner to determine his or her own measurements for the visualization of the retinue deities, palaces, and surroundings. The deities within a mandala are divided between the Five Buddha Families, or “races.” Families have corresponding directions, colors, elements, human characteristics, and emotions, in addition to other attributions with symbolic meanings and hierarchical values.

Sacred geometry is mostly concerned with the visualization of an idealized external universe. Tantric yoga, however, often combines internal meditations and visualization of geometric shapes with specific sizes, colors, and functions.

Mount Meru & Four Continents

Double Tetrahedron Mandala

Black Hayagriva atop a Single Tetrahedron

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