- An Illustrated History of the Maṇḍala: From Its Genesis to the Kālacakratantra by Kimiaki Tanaka
An Illustrated History of the Maṇḍala: From Its Genesis to the Kālacakratantra
Boston, MA: Wisdom, 2018
xv, 349 pp., 141 ills., tables, list of Tibetan terms, list of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean terms, plus extensive bibliography. $34.95 (paperback); $19.99 (ebook)
Kimiaki Tanaka’s book An Illustrated History of the Maṇḍala: From Its Genesis to the Kālacakratantra represents a milestone in research about the development of the Buddhist mandala, made available with this publication in English eight years after the Japanese version (289). What distinguishes this book from other studies on the topic available so far is its approach, the breadth of the sources used—covering multiple languages from South Asia to Japan—and its methodology. Concerning the latter, the author states that he aims “to elucidate the historical development of esoteric Buddhism and the maṇḍala, paying particular attention to proper names, mudrās and mantras” (11). More precisely, the author uses proper names of deities, their gestures or symbols (mudrā), their speech forms (mantra), and the doctrinal categories associated with them to establish connections between textual sources and to draw conclusions from these on the interrelations between texts. He then uses those inter-relations to build a development of the ideas surrounding the mandalas that are mentioned or described in them. Considering the languages involved, the fluidity of the terminology used in esoteric Buddhist texts, and the issues around their dating, the chosen methodology sounds much simpler than it is, and in many ways relies on the validity of previous, predominantly Japanese, scholarship around the different sources used, their dates, and their interpretations. This approach is nevertheless extremely productive and ultimately forms the basis of the book’s structure and a range of graphics illustrating it.
The chosen methodology builds on the fact that historically the most successful esoteric Buddhist texts have largely been created within the Buddhist tradition and, once spiritual gain became their main aim, built on conceptual and doctrinal frameworks already existing within the tradition. This is also apparent from their cross-referencing and the classification of esoteric Buddhist texts that develop along [End Page 284] with them.1 In Tanaka’s book this becomes particularly apparent with the Kālacakra system, the base ideas of which are analyzed in some detail in chapter 7, “The Maṇḍala of the Kālacakratantra,” the book’s last historical chapter. Five of the six chapters preceding it largely focus on the respective emergence of other key texts exemplifying the development of esoteric Buddhism, the exception being chapter 3, “Maṇḍalas of the Prajñāpāramitānayasūtra,” between the Garbha-and Vajradhātumaṇḍala (see below). The book concludes with a chapter summarizing “The Development of the Maṇḍala and Its Philosophical Meaning.”
While the book’s aim is to reconstruct the development of the mandala in India, the early chapters are conceived around the famous Japanese twin mandalas of Vairocana—the Womb World mandala (Genzu mandara) and Diamond World mandala (Kue mandara), respectively—the earliest extant version of which can be dated to 859–880 ce.2 While this is understandable, given that they are among the earliest representations that have come down to us, it has to be kept in mind that they also represent very specific interpretations.3 Given the methodology and the topic, the text of the book is dense, full of details and references, and at times difficult to follow, especially where it presumes previous knowledge or summarizes different positions taken in Japanese scholarship. Here it builds on a dialogue that is not reflected as such in English but which is interesting in itself. Basic knowledge of the development of esoteric Buddhism and its key texts, thus, makes the book a more rewarding read, but it can also be used to gain some of that knowledge. Further, the book is an invaluable source for references, illustrations of well-known and obscure mandala representations, as well as references and ideas for interconnections that are worth following...