Of the two kinds of mandala that are described, the accomplishment mandala and the offering mandala, it is the latter that we shall discuss here.
In the Ancient Translations’ tradition of the Secret Mantra Vehicle, the most widely known mandala is the one with seven piles, representing Mount Meru, the four continents, and the sun and moon.
There are other traditions, with eleven, fifteen, and thirty-seven piles, and ones that are even more elaborate.
In particular, the texts of the Great Perfection’s pith instructions speak of the mandala of the body of manifestation, which is the one that has just been mentioned, the mandala of the body of perfect enjoyment with eight piles, and the mandala of the absolute body with five piles.
In the original Indic texts related to the New Translations, there are numerous rituals for the mandala offering, including those of the masters Sucharita and Nishkalankashri, but the most important one, described by the great masters Buddhaguhya, Kambala, and others, uses twenty-three piles—Mount Meru, the four continents with their subcontinents, the seven attributes of royalty, the treasure vase, and the sun and moon.
Mañjushrikirti and Nishkalankavajra also used mandalas of essentially twenty-three piles, but with the difference that the former substituted one’s own body for the treasure vase while the latter offered all kinds of treasures such as sapphires. Jetari taught a mandala with seventeen piles.
From these and other traditions there evolved a large number of different practices here in Tibet. Of these, the followers of the Kalachakra offer mandalas with nine piles and twenty-five piles, obtained by adding Rahu and Ketud to the seven – and twenty-three-element mandalas respectively.
In both cases, details such as the disposition of Mount Meru and the continents follow the Kalachakra tradition. Other traditions have mandalas with more or fewer elements, but they all share the arrangement of Mount Meru and the continents common to both sutras and tantras, and they aretherefore accepted as being in agreement with the third chapter of the Treasury of Abhidharma.
Nowadays the detailed mandala that is best known and most widely used in all the different schools is the thirty-seven-element mandala said to have been composed by Chögyal Pakpa Rinpoche. It consists of the twenty-three piles to which have been added the four particular attributes of the four continents, the eight offering goddesses (the Lady of Charm and so on), and the canopy and victory banner. This is the mandala that is most practiced.
Dudjom Rinpoche – A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom – Shambhala Publications