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Home > Advanced Meditation > Kalachakra > External and Internal Kalachakra: Brief Survey of the First Two Chapters of The Kalachakra Tantra

External and Internal Kalachakra:
Brief Survey of the First Two Chapters of The Kalachakra Tantra

Alexander Berzin
Graz, Austria, May 18, 2001

The Kalachakra Tantra contains five chapters: the first concerns the external cycles of time, the second the internal cycles, and the last three the alternative cycles. Let us examine the first two chapters as they appear in The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra and its commentary, Stainless Light.

Chapter One

The Audience for the Teachings and How the Text Was Abbreviated

The first chapter, about external Kalachakra, starts with a description of Buddha teaching the tantra to King Suchandra of Shambhala. Throughout the text, the symbolism is very important. For example, King Suchandra is an emanation of Vajrapani. Vajrapani is a Buddha-figure (yidam) often representing the powerful abilities of a Buddha. In many texts, he also represents the perfect ear and perfect hearing. Thus, in certain practices, we visualize Vajrapanis in each of our ears. The detail that Buddha taught the text to an emanation of Vajrapani indicates, then, that we need to listen to the teachings with a purified faculty of hearing, for which we all have the Buddha-nature potential.

King Manjushri Yashas wrote The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra seven generations after his forefather, King Suchandra, compiled The Root Kalachakra Tantra from the teachings he had heard from Buddha. After explaining the origin of the root tantra, King Manjushri Yashas presents its table of contents and shows how he abbreviated it.

It is noteworthy that the root tantra was in eighty-one sections, while the abridged tantra condensed it into thirty-two abridged points. The parallelism and symbolism are clear. The enlightening body of a Buddha has eighty exemplary features (minor signs) plus the body taken as a whole, condensed into thirty-two major excellent signs. The two texts, then, parallel and represent in their structure the enlightening body of a Buddha.

The Structure of the Universe and Particles

Since King Suchandra brought the Kalachakra teachings back to Shambhala, the text speaks next about this special land and its place in the countless universes that exist. It begins with a discussion of the cycles that each universe goes through. Kalachakra, after all, means cycles of time. There are empty periods, followed by successive periods of expanding, abiding, and perishing. The cycles repeat without beginning or end.

Within this presentation comes the discussion of atoms or particles. These are the particles of the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and space. The five are found in all Indian systems, both Buddhist and Hindu, but Kalachakra is unique in asserting space-particles. Unlike the presentation of the element particles that Buddha gave in his teachings on abhidharma (special topics of knowledge), the particles in Kalachakra are progressively smaller, somewhat like particles and subparticles. Moreover, although Kalachakra adds a sixth element, deep awareness, it is not a type of particle.

Note that the pan-Indic elements differ significantly from the Chinese set of five (earth, water, wood, fire, and metal). The elements in Indian systems are states of matter; while in Chinese thought, they are different movements of energy.

The text particularly discusses the smallest particle of all, the space-particle. It is one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s favorite topics. He enjoys discussing this with astrophysicists because the relation between space particles and the formation of the universe is suggestive of modern theories concerning black holes and the Big Bang.

The discussion of elements and particles introduces a recurring theme in the Kalachakra teachings and practice. Out of confusion, we project fantasies of true or solidly existent items onto particles and atoms. It is as if our mind is connecting the dots and painting them in. With our projections, for example, we paint “human being” and then “you idiot” onto just atoms. To rid ourselves of problems and their causes, we need to understand the relationship between mind, particles, projections, and appearances. Kalachakra discusses this theme in depth.

Multiple Descriptions of the Universe

The general discussion of universes leads to a presentation of the world system in which we live. Each universe contains innumerable world systems, each containing several continents and lands. One of the lands on the southern continent of our world system is Shambhala. The geography here differs from the description Buddha gave in his abhidharma teachings.

It is significant that Buddha’s teachings contain two descriptions of the universe. It means there is no absolute way in which it really appears. We can describe the universe and our world in several manners, each for a different purpose. Neither of the ones Buddha gave was for navigating a ship. Thus, there is no contradiction with the modern description of the world and our universe. If two descriptions are useful, so can three.

The description of the world that we are familiar with is for navigating ships and it works very well for that. The Kalachakra depiction presents the structure and proportions of the universe as symmetrical with the structure and proportions of the human body. In the Kalachakra practice, the Buddha-figure Kalachakra and the mandala palace in which he and the other figures live also have the same proportions. This description of the universe is for the purpose of understanding the parallel external and internal structuring that arises from karmic impulses, so that we can meditate in analogy to overcome being under their control.

The Location of Shambhala

Although the text describes Shambhala as a human realm where everything is conducive for Kalachakra practice, we cannot travel there as we would to a normal physical place. Both Indian and Tibetan masters have written guidebooks for reaching Shambhala, but they all agree that a physical journey is not enough. We need to repeat millions of mantras and other practices, and only then can we arrive in Shambhala. Remember, the two Indian masters who brought the Kalachakra tantra to India never actually reached Shambhala physically.

The state of Shambhala, then, is actually a level of spiritual attainment. After all, Shambhala means “the source of bliss,” referring to the clear-light mind. Nevertheless, certain locations on our planet may represent Shambhala. The Kabul region of Afghanistan may have represented it as the historical reference. In other contexts, the reference seems to be the Mount Kailash region in southwestern Tibet. The text gives the calculation for determining the length of the shortest day of the year as we travel progressively north. When we perform the calculations, the latitude corresponding to Shambhala is that of Mount Kailash, which is also called “the source of bliss” and the home of Shiva in Hindu mythology. Many layers of meaning are overlaid here.

The search for Shambhala as a spiritual Shangrila on this planet, then, is rather fruitless, although it fired the imaginations of many Russians, including Madam Blavatsky and Nikolai Roerich. Remember, Kalachakra reached Europe long ago with the Mongols in Russia.

The History of Shambhala and the Title Kalki

After describing the geography of our world and the location of Shambhala, the text presents the history of Shambhala. It describes how this land is subject to periodic invasions by barbaric forces. On a deeper level, this represents and parallels our clear-light minds (Shambhala) passing from one lifetime to the next, with confusion periodically overwhelming it and preventing further spiritual development.

The text then describes how, to overcome the challenge of an invasion, the King gathered all the people of Shambhala together in the Kalachakra mandala. On a deeper level, this represents the need to gather all the disarrayed energies of the subtle body to the center of the heart chakra, to the land of bliss, to Shambhala, in order to bring them into harmony.

Since a large proportion of the population in the Kabul area was Hindu at the time, the most skillful way to convey the message of cooperation to them was to use images and terms with which they were already familiar. Shambhala, for example, also appears in The Vishnu Purana, a popular Hindu text of the period. Of the ten avatars or incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, the tenth, who will destroy all corruption and thus end the Age of Degeneration (the kali yuga), will be Kalki, who will be born in Shambhala. Thus, King Manjushri Yashas, who brought everyone together in the Kalachakra mandala, adopted “Kalki” as his title. All subsequent rulers of Shambhala followed suit and used the same title.

In Sanskrit, “Kalki” means one who ends corruption and evil. In a Buddhist context, we can understand this to imply the one who ends unawareness (ignorance) and the destructiveness that comes from it. The Tibetan translation, Rigden (rigs-ldan), means the holder of the castes – the one who unites and holds together all the castes. We can understand this on an external level of bringing together the diverse castes of Shambhala and, on a deeper level, bringing together the energy-winds.

Moreover, the term for castes, rig, also means Buddha-nature. By bringing the energy-winds to the central channel and into the source of bliss of the clear-light mind, Kalki brings about the realization of Buddha-nature. On an external level, bringing everyone harmoniously together in the Kalachakra mandala and conferring the empowerment awakens everyone’s Buddha-nature.

This is a good example of the didactic method used in Kalachakra. The texts employ well-known Hindu terminology and reveal deeper Buddhist interpretations of their meaning.

[For further detail, see: Religious Conversion in Shambhala.]

Invasion by Barbaric Forces and Advice for Preventing It

The text then predicts a future attempted invasion of Shambhala as part of a larger war. When we calculate the date, it comes to 2424 of the Common Era. The King advises how to prevent disaster at the time of the future invasion. His advice is especially relevant to our modern situation. He says we can prevent defeat by making knowledge completely public.

In those days, astrology was very important. There were great pundits, the so-called experts, who made tables of figures for the positions of the planets. They said, “You don’t have to learn the mathematics, you don’t have to learn the calculations; we will make a list of tables with the positions so you just have to look them up.” What this meant was that nobody could do the calculations themselves, nobody knew them anymore, and these experts controlled the knowledge. This meant that they could manipulate the figures and nobody would know. If we want to win a battle, we need to consult astrology to determine the best position of the planets and thus the best time for launching an attack. If the pundits manipulated the tables of planetary positions, the armies would attack at the wrong times and the enemies might win.

Consider this warning in light of the present world situation. Nowadays, many young people are weak in basic arithmetic, because they have pocket calculators and computers to do all that. It is quite easy to see that the great pundits, “the experts,” control technology and, especially for complex matters, ordinary people often have no idea how anything works or how to figure anything out. If a malevolent dictator were to come into power and gain the backing of the technology pundits, together they could control the computer systems and cause great trouble, such as by manipulating credit ratings.

Thus, it is very important to make education universal and to share technology and knowledge. When most people know how to calculate and do things, so-called experts will have difficulty fooling them and gaining control. On a deeper level, it is similarly important to know the technical details of the spiritual path ourselves, and not just rely on some expert “guru.” This underlines the need for study in order to gain stable spiritual progress.

Astrology and the Purpose for Its Study

Next, the text provides the mathematical formulas for calculating the calendar and the positions of the heavenly bodies. Much of the mathematics for the Tibetan calendar and for Tibetan astronomy, in fact, derives from here. The text also gives a detailed linguistic analysis of the Sanskrit vowel and consonant systems, which forms the basis for calculating additional features of the Tibetan calendar and for analyzing mantras.

The reason for knowing the calendar and position of the planets is for making astrological calculations to choose the best time to engage in battle against the barbaric hordes. On a deeper level, this means that if we are going to fight against our disturbing emotions and attitudes, we need to know and understand the astrological cycles that affect our minds and energies. With this knowledge, we can launch our meditation attacks when the circumstances of karma, astrology, and energy are most favorable. Although we work to eliminate being under the control of astrological forces, still, before we have rid ourselves of their influence, we need to practice within the context of our astrological charts and our karma.

Wartime and Peacetime Technology

To fight a battle, we need weapons. Thus, the text gives the technological details for building military equipment, such as catapults. Thus, the Kalachakra literature preserves a great deal of medieval Indian science. On a deeper level, the weapons represent various Buddhist insights, such as love, patience, and discriminating awareness of reality. We need to know how to build them up and how and when to deploy them.

The text then explains that once the war is won, we need to build such things as merry-go-rounds, parks, and irrigation systems, to help us celebrate and enjoy ourselves. It therefore gives instructions for their construction. On an external level, if we win a war, we need to try to bring happiness and enjoyment to the people in material ways. Likewise, when we win the internal battle and reach enlightenment, we need to bring joy and happiness to the people through our spiritual help.

The first chapter ends with a description of the flourishing of the Buddhist teachings, particularly those of Kalachakra, which will follow with the dawning of a new golden age.

Chapter Two

The Life Cycles

The second chapter of The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra concerns the internal cycles of time, which parallel the external cycles. The grossest cycle is death, bardo, and rebirth. Thus, the text describes the different manners of rebirth that are possible, such as from a womb or an egg, and the different life forms associated with each of the five elements.

Next, the text focuses on human rebirth and the ten stages of the life cycle from conception to death. Three of the stages describe the development of a fetus in the womb. The ten stages have the same names as the ten incarnations of Vishnu. Kalki, the last, represents death. “Kalki,” remember, means the destroyer of corruption. On an internal level, death brings to an end the corrupting influence of a rebirth thrown and ruled by the forces of karma. On a deeper level of advanced meditation, the ten stages parallel the ten-stage process for dissolving the energy-winds at the heart chakra, to reach their death in the state of clear-light mind.

The Subtle Energy-System and the Four Subtle Creative Energy-Drops

The text discusses human anatomy next, first the subtle energy-system of chakras, channels, energy-winds, and creative energy-drops. Within the topic of creative energy-drops, it presents a set of four that are extremely important in Kalachakra theory and practice: the four subtle creative energy-drops.

The four subtle drops resemble energy-kernels found in the centers of certain chakras along the central channel. Each is associated respectively with the occasions of being awake, dreaming, sleeping with no dreams, or experiencing peak moments of bliss. At various times, the winds of our karma pass through one or another of these drops as they course through the subtle body. As if carrying a paintbrush, the winds of our karma dip the brush into one of the drops and then paint projections of appearances on either gross external particles or subtle internal ones. Thus, periodically, our minds give rise to appearances of external objects, internal dreams, darkness while deeply asleep, and intense worldly pleasure. We work in meditation to end forever this uncontrollable process.

The Relation between Mind and Appearances

Despite the description of the winds of karma creating appearances, Kalachakra is not a system of subjective idealism. It does not assert that everything exists only in our heads. If everything did, why would we need to develop compassion? No one would exist except us. Solipsism does not accord with the basic Buddhist worldview.

What the mind creates through the winds of karma are cognitive appearances. If I sit here and look at you, and then move over there and look again, the cognitive appearances of you created and perceived by my mind will be different. The appearance depends on the angle and distance from which I look. Everyone in this room, for example, may be looking at the translator or at me, but each person sees a different cognitive appearance because he or she is looking from a different perspective.

In addition to merely the visual images we perceive, we project further appearances on top of them, which we also imagine we see and experience. For example, we project the appearance of someone as the most beautiful person in the world or the most terrible one. Such inflated cognitive appearances are also created by the mind and “painted” by the winds of karma.

Kalachakra asserts that there is a material world, with subtle particles coming from different natal sources than our cognitions of appearances painted on them. Nevertheless, we can’t say that the material world exists totally independently of minds. This is because what happens materially, for example in the environment, is also affected by behavior, attitudes and so on. If we decide to chop down all the trees, it will affect the material environment, won’t it? Similarly, the minds and karmic actions of those who lived before have affected the formation of our universe and the type of life forms that have evolved in it.

The reason for discussing the material world in this way, as affected by the mind, is because all we can ever really talk about is what we experience; and what we experience is, of course, through the mind. If we wish to change what we experience, we need to change our attitudes and behavior. We need to “change our minds.”


If the way that everything appears is dependent on the mind, the question naturally arises. “ What is reality? How do things actually exist?” To understand how everything exists, Buddha taught that we need first to refute and eliminate how things do not exist.

We often hear the term voidness (emptiness). A more accurate and perhaps more helpful translation is an absence. It is an absence of impossible ways of existing. We imagine that things exist in all sorts of impossible manners. For example, imagine that this person is the most wonderful person in the world, and that person is a monster. We not only imagine that, we perceive the persons as such, and it feels like this is reality. It feels really true. On a more fundamental level, we imagine that things exist only as what we see in front of our noses, which, of course, is a very limited perspective.

All of these are impossible ways of existing. What is absent is what we perceive corresponds to anything real. That is what voidness is talking about, that absolute absence. Nobody exists as a TRUE monster. That way of existing is nonexistent; it is absolutely absent. That is what reality is not; it does not exist in any of these impossible ways.

When we have eliminated how things do not exist, we are left with how they do exist. Everything throughout the infinite expanse of space and the infinite span of time arises and exists interdependently, interconnected with and influencing everything else. Anytime that we try to deal with something out of the context of absolutely everything, we become confused. For example, to perceive who someone conventionally is – he is a doctor – and to understand his behavior that we observe, we need to understand absolutely everything that influences him. We need to take into consideration not only his personal situation, family, health, and so on, but also all of history, evolution, and so on. Everything affects what this person is now and how he behaves, doesn’t it?

When we say even one word to somebody, such as “hello” to someone we pass on the street, the consequences of our action are infinite. It affects everything. If, for example, the person becomes happy and smiles, this will affect his or her actions for the rest of the day. That, in turn, will affect everyone he or she meets that day and that, in turn, will affect the behavior of those people. The chain of behavioral cause and effect goes on ad infinitum. That is reality. If we imagine that we can say something to someone and that it will have no consequences other than what we directly observe at the moment, we are confused about reality. This is an impossible way of existing.

Cycles of Breathing

After discussing subtle anatomy, the four subtle creative energy-drops, and the relation between them and appearances, the text continues with a description of gross anatomy. In particular, it presents the cycles of breathing and the manner in which the breath passes through the gross and subtle bodies.

This is a complicated and sophisticated analysis. The text describes the cycles as the breath shifts from predominantly passing through one nostril to the other and through specific energy-channels in the chakras to others. While passing predominantly through one nostril, the strength of its passage and the part of the nostril through which it passes also go through cycles. By being aware of the cycles of breath and the point in the “biorhythm” cycle that we or someone else is experiencing at a given moment, we can determine the best moment for undertaking an action. When proficient, we can even read someone’s mind.

Certain features in the Tibetan medical system concerning the breath and the anatomy of the subtle energy-system derive from the material in this chapter. A few commentaries on the chapter, written from the viewpoint of its medical application, have also appeared. Thus, the Kalachakra Buddha-figure has become somewhat like the “patron saint,” if we may use the Western term, of Tibetan science: medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and calendar-making.

Alchemy and the Preparation of Precious Pills

To cure the body from illness and to remedy imbalance, we need an assortment of medicines, both pills and incense. Thus, the text presents the formulas and procedures for preparing several varieties. The ingredients include herbs, metals, minerals, and animal products. The Tibetan medical system still manufactures “precious pills” and healing incenses from these instructions. There are several varieties of precious pills and they have proven effective against diseases such as cancer and hepatitus.

The text also predicts terrible sicknesses that will appear in the future and gives the formulas and procedures for preparing additional precious pills for treating them. Some of the diseases sound like radiation sickness, toxic waste poisoning, and AIDS. Following the Kalachakra instructions, Tibetan doctors have made these precious pills and used them successfully for treating these modern plagues.

Part of the procedure for preparing precious pills involves purifying or detoxifying normally toxic substances, particularly mercury. The text presents the procedures in terms of alchemy: the transmutation of base metals into medicinal substances. On a deeper level, the alchemical process represents transmuting normally toxic subtle energies in the body, such as those of desire, so that they can be used on the path to bring enlightenment, as the pinnacle of spiritual health.

The Last Three Chapters of the Text

The material covered in the first two chapters of The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra is extremely extensive. The text preserves an encyclopedia of knowledge and presents the material in such a way that we can follow a spiritual path analogous to it. By following this path of the alternative cycles of time, we can overcome being uncontrollably under the force of the external and internal cycles, so that we can bring benefit and joy to everyone.

The last three chapters of the text present the alternative cycles of time. The third chapter discusses the empowerment. The actual Kalachakra meditation practice has two stages. Chapter Four presents the first of the two, the generation stage, when we work with the powers of imagination. Chapter Five outlines the second, the complete stage, when all is complete to bring about changes in the subtle-energy system through advanced meditation. The last chapter also describes the attainment of enlightenment by means of this practice.

[For a discussion of the Kalachakra style of anuttarayoga tantra practice, click here for Making Sense of Tantra: Part II, Chapter 10.]