Visualization is a key practice in Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism). In visualization practice you would select an object to visualize such as the Buddha, bodhisattvas, mandalas (cosmic diagrams of the spiritual realm) or other sacred objects and concentrate on that image in the image space of your mind (that is the mental screen that appears to be around where your forehead is). In these practices, rather than letting the imagination run wild into future and past scenarios, it is recruited to aid practice. Visualization can help you to achieve mindfulness and spiritual empowerment by taking on the qualities of the imagined deities, changing habit patterns of mind, and so forth.

According to Buddhist scholar Michael Willis, mandala literally means “circle” or “enclosure,” but they represent more than this — a sort of cosmic diagram that provides a structure to guide meditation practice. A typical mandala would have outer rings of concentric circles representing the oceans and mountains. Inside these circles would be a square form with four gates, one on each side representing the cardinal directions. Each has its own characteristic color: white for the east, red for the west, green for the north, and yellow for the south. In the middle of the form resides a special meditation deity.

Willis explains, “Elaborate mandalas painted on cloth scrolls or on temple walls were once common in many parts of the Himalayas, the best preserved examples being found in Buhtan, Nepal, and those parts of India which are culturally Tibetan, such as Ladakh.”

The most spectacular mandalas are also the most ephemeral. Tibetan Buddhists monks will labor for weeks creating an elaborate mandala made of colored sand. These mandalas can be six, eight, or ten feet in diameter. Once completed, the sand is swept away in a closing ritual and then deposited in a nearby body of water.

Visualization was practiced in China in the late fourth and early fifth centuries from texts that were newly authored at that time. Here, practitioners would meditate on images such as the “Medicine King.” Visual contemplation of Amitabha Buddha became a central component of Pure Land Buddhism in sixth century Chinese Buddhism. These practices had many forms. To visualize the Buddha in your mind is to make your mind Buddha.

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