Dr. Alexander Berzin: Overview of Kalachakra
The word kalachakra means cycles of time, and the Kalachakra system presents three such cycles – external, internal and alternative. The external and internal cycles deal with time as we normally know it, while the alternative cycles are practices for gaining liberation from these two. The structures of the external and internal cycles are analogous, similar to the parallel between macrocosm and microcosm discussed in Western philosophy. This means that the same laws that govern a universe also pertain to atoms, the body and our experience of life. The practices of the alternative cycles also follow this structure so as to allow us to engage with and surmount these forces in an efficient manner. Such mimicking is, in fact, one of the distinguishing features of the anuttarayoga tantra method.
Time, in Buddhism, is defined as a measurement of change. For example, a month is the measurement of change involved either externally in the moon circling the earth or internally in a woman going from one menstruation to the next. Such changes are cyclical in that the pattern repeats, although the events of each cycle are not completely identical. Externally, the universe passes through cosmic, astronomical, astrological and historical cycles. On an internal level, the body goes through physiological cycles, many of which bring about associated mental and emotional cycles as well. Furthermore, just as universes form, expand, contract, disappear and then form once again, individual beings pass through continuing rebirths with repeated conception, growth, old age and death.
Normally the passage of time exercises a debilitating effect. As we age, our sight, hearing, memory and physical strength gradually weaken and eventually we die. Due to compulsive attachment and confusion about who we are and how we exist, we take rebirth without any control over its process or circumstances, each time having to relearn everything we knew before. As each of our lives unfolds over the course of time, karmic potentials from our previous actions ripen at appropriate astrological, historical and life-cycle moments into the various events we experience. Some of these are pleasant, but many are not. We seem to have little choice about what happens in life.
In short, the external and internal cycles of time delineate samsara – uncontrollably recurring rebirth, fraught with problems and difficulties. These cycles are driven by impulses of energy, known in the Kalachakra system as “winds of karma.” Karma is a force intimately connected with mind and arises due to confusion about reality. Imagining that ourselves, others and everything around us exist in the way our mind makes them appear – as if with concrete, permanent identities established from within each being or thing – we act on the basis of this confusion with attachment, anger or stubborn foolishness. We think, for example, “I am definitely like this, those objects or persons are certainly like that, I must possess these things as mine and get rid of those that bother me,” and so on. Any physical, verbal or mental action committed on the basis of such a rigid, confused way of thinking builds up karmic potentials and habits. Under appropriate circumstances, these potentials or “seeds of karma” ripen in the form of compelling impulses to repeat these acts, and to enter into situations in which similar actions happen to us. We can readily see this if we examine carefully the impulsive behavior behind the personal and historical events we experience. How many people blunder from one bad marriage to another, and how many countries from one crisis to the next?
Karmic potentials, in fact, give rise to a broad array of impulses that affect our lives. Collective karmic potentials from previous actions of a huge number of beings – including ourselves – give rise, for example, to the impulse for a universe to evolve with specific environments and life forms into which we and these beings subsequently take rebirth. These collective potentials also give rise to the impulses that drive the physical and biological laws that govern that universe – ranging from the weather patterns of its planets to the life-cycle habits of each species on them. They also account for the impulses behind the instinctive daily behavior characteristic of each life form.
Within this context, individual karmic potentials, at the appropriate juncture in each being’s internal cycles – namely after each death – give rise to the impulse to take rebirth in a specific environment with a particular body. This impulse is relative to a particular evolutionary point in the external cycle of a universe. We cannot take rebirth as a dinosaur in a primeval forest when this life form and setting are already extinct. All these factors that ripen from karma work harmoniously together to provide the “container” within which we experience the ripening of other personal karmic potentials in the form of the impulsive behavior behind life’s events. Born in a nation at war, we impulsively become a soldier, bomb enemy villages and one day are killed in battle. The many levels of external and internal cycles of time intertwine in a complex manner.
In short, time has neither beginning nor end. There has always been and will always be change, which can be labeled as the passage of time. Universes, civilizations and animate life forms continually arise and fall. The form they take depends on the actions, and therefore the minds of those who precede them. This is why there is a harmonious fit between the bodies and minds of beings and their environment. Someone is born as a fish to experience life’s events in water or as a human in air, not vice versa. Because the minds of beings are under the influence of confusion, however, the bodies, mentalities and environments that result from the karmic actions they commit have a constricting, detrimental effect on them. These factors limit their abilities to benefit themselves and others. People living during the medieval plagues could do little to counter the horrors they faced.
Liberation from Cycles of Time
The alternative cycles of time entail a graded series of meditative practices of anuttarayoga tantra. They serve not only as an alternative to the external and internal cycles, but as a way to gain liberation from them. The possibility of gaining liberation from time, however, does not imply that time does not actually exist or that someone can live and benefit others outside of time. Time, as a measurement of change, also occurs as a measure of the cycles of actions of a Buddha. Liberation from time means ridding ourselves of the confusion, and its instincts, that repeatedly give rise to the impulses, or karma, that render us at the mercy of the ravages of time. Once free, we are no longer adversely affected by external winter darkness, eclipses, wars and so on that periodically recur. Nor are we restricted by the type of body that is under the control of periodic biological forces, such as hunger, sexual urges, tiredness or aging. As a result of the full understanding of reality, it becomes possible, instead, to generate cycles of forms that benefit others beyond any limitations imposed by time.
The process begins with the Kalachakra initiation. Properly empowered, we engage in generation and then complete stage meditation practice in the form of the Buddha-figure called Kalachakra. Through these two stages, we access and utilize the subtlest level of our mind to see reality. Remaining continually focused on reality with it eliminates forever confusion and its instincts, thus bringing liberation from the external and internal cycles of time. This is possible because our basis tantra, our individual clear light mind, underlies each moment of experience and, like time, it has no end. Once our subtlest mind is freed from the deepest cause giving rise to the impulses of energy that perpetuate cycles of time and bondage to them, it gives rise, instead, to the bodies of a Buddha, in the form of Kalachakra.
The Spread of Kalachakra
In deciding whether to take the Kalachakra empowerment, it is helpful to know the origin of these teachings and the history of their spread. We then have confidence that its methods have been tested and proven effective over time.
According to tradition, Buddha taught the Kalachakra Tantra more than two thousand eight hundred years ago in present-day Andhra Pradesh, southern India. The rulers of the northern land of Shambhala were the main audience and preserved these teachings in their country. In the tenth century, two Indian masters, in separate expeditions, attempted to reach Shambhala. On the way, each experienced a pure vision of that land in which he received transmission of the Kalachakra empowerment and corpus of material. Each spread these teachings in India, with only slight differences in their presentation. One of the last tantra systems to emerge historically, Kalachakra quickly achieved prominence and popularity in the monastic universities of the central Gangetic plain and then, shortly afterwards, in those of Kashmir. Four styles of practice eventually emerged. Masters from these areas taught Kalachakra in northern Burma, the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, but it died out in these areas by the fourteenth century.
Together with Tibetan translators, Indian teachers also transmitted Kalachakra to Tibet. There were three primary transmissions between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, with each lineage passing on a different blend of aspects from the four Indian versions and introducing further slight differences due to translation. Lineages, combining different components of these three transmissions, have passed down to the present through first the Sakya and Kagyu, and then also the Gelug traditions. Since the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism transmits only Indian texts that reached Tibet and were translated prior to the early ninth century, there is no direct Nyingma lineage of Kalachakra. Later Nyingma masters, however, have received and conferred Kalachakra empowerment from other lineages, particularly that of the nineteenth-century Rime or nonsectarian movement, and written commentaries on all aspects of the teachings. Moreover, there is a Kalachakra style of dzogchen, or great completeness practice.
Among the four Tibetan traditions, Kalachakra is most prominent within the Gelug. The study, practice and rituals of Kalachakra first received special attention in the fifteenth century at Tashilhunpo, the monastery of the early Dalai Lamas and later the Panchen Lamas in central Tibet. In the mid-seventeenth century it spread to what the Manchus soon called “Inner Mongolia,” where the Mongols built the first monastic college dedicated specifically to Kalachakra. By the mid-eighteenth century there were Kalachakra colleges at the Manchu imperial court in Beijing, then Tashilhunpo, Amdo (northeastern Tibet) and so-called “Outer Mongolia.” During the nineteenth century the Tibetans and the Mongols of Inner and Outer Mongolia transmitted Kalachakra to the Buryat Mongols of Siberia and they, in turn, at the beginning of the twentieth century, spread it to the Kalmyk Mongols on the Volga River and the Siberian Turkic people of Tuva. As in other Mongol areas and Amdo, large sectors of the major monasteries of each of these regions devoted themselves to Kalachakra practice.
This enthusiasm of the Mongols, Amdo people and Tuvinians for Kalachakra is perhaps due to their identification of their countries with the fabled northern land of Shambhala. For more than a century many Russians also have embraced this belief as a result of their contact with the Buryats and Kalmyks. Madame Blavatsky and Nikolai Roerich, for example, gave Shambhala a prominent role in theosophy and agni yoga, the esoteric traditions each respectively founded. Agvan Dorjiev, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Buryat envoy to the Russian imperial court, convinced the last czar, Nikolai II, to sanction construction of a Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg by explaining to him Russia’s connection with Shambhala.
Kalachakra has also received prominent attention in the medical and astrological institutes of all four Tibetan Buddhist traditions within Tibet itself, Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia. This is because the calculations for compiling the Tibetan calendar and determining planetary positions, a large part of Tibetan astrology and a certain portion of Tibetan medical knowledge derive from the external and internal Kalachakra teachings. The Mongolian calendar, as well as astrological and medical systems, subsequently derived from the Tibetan ones. Kalachakra is thus the Buddhist equivalent of the “patron-saint” of these sciences.
Kalachakra and the Line of Dalai Lamas
Many people wonder what is the connection between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Kalachakra, and why does he give this initiation so often. His Holiness modestly claims there is no special relation between the line of Dalai Lamas and Kalachakra, despite the Dalai Lamas being considered incarnations of one of the Shambhala rulers. Nevertheless, the First, Second, Seventh, Eighth and the present Fourteenth Dalai Lamas have taken strong interest in the Kalachakra system. Since the time of the Seventh Dalai Lama in the early eighteenth century, Kalachakra ritual and meditation practices have been specialities of the Namgyal Monastery, the personal monastery of the Dalai Lamas at the Potala Palace in Lhasa.
There is no restriction on the number of times the Kalachakra empowerment may be given during the lifetime of a master and there is no special reason why His Holiness the present Dalai Lama confers it so frequently. His Holiness has said he is happy to give it when requested, provided the circumstances are conducive. Since 1970, he has conferred the empowerment in numerous places in India, as well as in North America, Europe, Mongolia and Australia. Several other great masters of the Gelug, Kagyu, Sakya and Nyingma traditions have conferred it widely as well. It makes little difference from which lineage the Kalachakra initiation is received. They all empower us to study and practice the vast array of its teachings.
Kalachakra and World Peace
We always hear that the Kalachakra empowerment is for world peace. Some people even choose Kalachakra over other anuttarayoga tantra systems because of this association. But what exactly is the connection between Kalachakra and peace, and why do so many people attend? Although empowerments for other tantras are intended for only a small number of disciples at a time, there is a historical tradition of conferring the Kalachakra initiation to large crowds of people. Buddha first gave it to the king of Shambhala and his entourage of ninety-six minor rulers. In time, their descendants conferred it upon the entire population of Shambhala in order to unite them against the threat of a possible invasion and avert annihilation. This is the origin of the association of the Kalachakra empowerment with world peace and the tradition of conferring it upon large numbers of participants.
According to the Kalachakra presentation of historical cycles, barbaric hordes periodically invade the civilized world and try to eliminate all possibilities for spiritual practice. A future invasion is predicted for the year 2424 of this common era, when it is said there will be another brutal world war. At that time help will come from Shambhala to defeat the barbarians. A new golden age will dawn, with everything conducive for spiritual practice, particularly of Kalachakra. All those who have previously received the Kalachakra initiation will be reborn at that time on the victorious side. The highest motivation for receiving the empowerment is to be able to practice the Kalachakra methods now in order to achieve enlightenment in this very lifetime. Nevertheless, people have traditionally flocked to the initiation with the motivation of planting karmic seeds to connect themselves with this future golden age so as to complete its practice then.
Since Shambhala plays a prominent role in the Kalachakra system, most people are curious to know what Shambhala actually is and where it is located. It is undoubtedly from a distortion of the name “Shambhala” that the Western romantic writer James Hilton has derived the myth of Shangri-la – a hidden paradise on Earth. Although there may be a place in this world representative of Shambhala, that is not the actual fabled land. Shambhala cannot be found on this planet or even in some distant world. It is, however, a human realm in which everything is conducive for spiritual practice, particularly of Kalachakra.
Meditation masters have written guidebooks, in both Sanskrit and Tibetan, for reaching Shambhala. They describe the journey as a physical one only up to a certain point. The sojourner must subsequently repeat millions of mantras and other special practices in order to arrive at the final goal. The journey to Shambhala, then, is primarily a spiritual one. The aim of receiving Kalachakra initiation is not to reach or be reborn in Shambhala, but, like all other mahayana, or “vast vehicle” Buddhist practices, is to gain enlightenment here and now for the benefit of all. The empowerment plants the seeds enabling us to reach this goal and helps purify some of the grosser internal obstacles that would prevent its attainment.
Assessing Our Preparation for Receiving Empowerment
Suppose we develop interest in Kalachakra based on knowing something about the special contents of its teachings, its history and relation to world peace. We still need to decide whether we are actually ready to receive empowerment and embark on its practice, or whether it is better to attend as a well-informed and admiring observer. The most reasonable course is to base our decision on how well prepared we are. Although hundreds of thousands of prostrations, repetitions of the hundred-syllable Vajrasattva mantra and so forth are extremely helpful, the main preparation is training in lam-rim – the graded pathways of behaving, communicating, thinking and feeling that lead to enlightenment.
The first step is to take the safe, sound and positive direction in life indicated by the Buddhas, their teachings and the community of those well-advanced in that direction. Usually translated as “taking refuge,” this is the direction of working on ourselves to overcome problems and gain the qualities necessary for benefiting others as fully as possible. Putting this direction in life means leading our life on the basis of understanding and confidence in the laws of behavioral cause and effect. To avoid suffering and problems, we refrain from acting destructively, and to experience happiness, we act in a constructive manner.
The most important preparation for tantra is striving to develop the three principal pathway attitudes, or outlooks on life: renunciation, bodhichitta and the understanding of voidness. Renunciation is the willingness to give up problems and their causes, and is based on a strong determination to be free from the suffering they engender. For example, because we are totally disgusted with being lonely and frustrated, we are willing and determined to give up not only our unhealthy relationships with others, but also our negative personality traits and confused, distorted self-image which make our relations nonfulfilling. Bodhichitta is a heart that is set on achieving enlightenment – overcoming all shortcomings and realizing all potentials – for everyone’s sake. It is motivated by love and compassion for all beings, and a sense of responsibility to help them as much as possible to overcome their problems and attain lasting happiness. Voidness means an absence of fantasized ways of existing.
Normally, we imagine ourselves, others and all phenomena to exist in impossible ways that do not accord with reality. We mentally fabricate fantasies of varying levels of subtlety and project them onto ourselves and onto everything and everyone around us. For example, on one level we imagine we are born to lose, we can never succeed in establishing or maintaining a satisfying relation with anyone, and that the other person or external circumstances are never at fault when things go wrong. On a more subtle level, we are preoccupied with ourselves, thinking we exist as some solid “me” inside our head whom we fear no one will like and everyone will reject. Confusing these fantasies with reality, we act out of ignorance and the insecurity it generates. Even before any conflict arises, we are so nervous and self-conscious that we ensure the relationship fails. Our behavior not only builds up and reinforces a pattern of karmic potentials for problems to ripen in future relationships, but also triggers the ripening of past potentials in the form of present rejections.
Before entering tantric practice, we need to understand that at least the grossest levels of our projections do not refer to anything real. No one is a born loser and no relation is doomed to failure. Such understanding comes from an outlook on reality, or “correct view” of voidness, corresponding to at least one of the mahayana systems of philosophical tenets Buddha taught –chittamatra or one of the several madhyamaka ones. According to these systems, not only ourselves, but everything is devoid of existing in fantasized ways. The particular systems differ primarily according to the level of subtlety of fantasy they address.
As further preparation for tantra, faith and confidence are needed in the tantric methods in general, and particularly in those of its highest class, anuttarayoga, as constituting the most efficient and effective means for attaining enlightenment. Anyone having this confident belief, the frame of mind of the three principal paths and a background in lam-rim is called a “proper vessel” for receiving the Kalachakra empowerment. We must judge for ourselves if we are sufficiently prepared.
Overview of the Initiation
The initiation process spans several days, with the first day being a preparation ceremony, followed by usually two or three days of actual empowerment. The most important part of the initial procedures is taking refuge and the bodhisattva and tantric vows. Without all three, we cannot actually receive empowerment, although we may witness it and derive great benefit. The empowerment itself involves a complex procedure of imagining ourselves transforming into a series of special forms, entering the mandala of the Buddha-figure Kalachakra, and experiencing in it a sequence of purifications and the awakening and enhancing of potentials for future success in the practice. The mandala is an enormous multistoried palace, in and around which are 722 figures, including a principal couple in the center. The master conferring the empowerment simultaneously appears as all these figures, not just as the central one. Thus, throughout the process we visualize ourselves, our teacher and our surroundings in a very special way.
The steps of the initiation are extremely intricate and, without familiarity, the visualizations involved can be quite perplexing. But if, as a proper vessel, we take the vows with full sincerity and at least feel, with strong faith, that all the visualizations are actually occurring, we can be confident that we are receiving the empowerment. With this basis secured, the next step is seeking further instruction and then trying, as sincerely as possible, to travel the full path to enlightenment as presented in the Kalachakra Tantra.
Originally published as Berzin, Alexander. Taking the Kalachakra Initiation. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1997. Reprint: Introduction to the Kalachakra Initiation. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010. Font: https://studybuddhism.com/en/tibetan-buddhism/tantra/kalachakra/overview-of-kalachakra