My journalist friend, Kathryn Kukula visited the high mountains of China and Tibet this summer with a women’s adventure group. She brought me this intricate metal enameled “mandala” of nesting rings. I was intrigued. It was beautiful and I’d never seen anything like it. We started to do some research and learned about the three dimensional aspects of mandala offerings.
A mandala represents an idealized universe. It’s a symbolic way to envision how the universe works. Mandalas represent the universe from the point of view of an enlightened being. It is a classic Vajrayana practice to work toward enlightenment by working to see the world as an enlightened being does.
The kind of mandala is a little different. The stacking rings are used as a preliminary practice and a form of offering. One visualizes the entire universe as something very pure and filled with all kind of precious substances, then offers that to the Guru and the Buddha.
The basic form of the world one envisions is a central mountain with four surrounding continents. That’s why it has a stacking form. There is an elaborate system for filling it up, each handful of rice representing continents or a precious elephant, or the sun or the moon, and so on.
The tiered mandala is part of temple offering, an is often accompanied by water vessels and flowers. The rice mandala cone, with its three tiers, is made up daily by the temple attendant, and is a symbolic offering according to Hindu and Buddhist cosmography, with Mount Mem (Tibetan: Rirab), the abode of the gods, as the culminating point.
The Mandala is a rich, complicated symbolic structure having many forms. One of the best resources I have found for the seriously curious is here.