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Home > Advanced Meditation > Kalachakra > Background for Attending a Kalachakra Initiation for World Peace

Background for Attending a Kalachakra Initiation for World Peace

Alexander Berzin
Graz, Austria, May 18, 2001

We have a wonderful opportunity here in Graz next year to receive the Kalachakra Initiation for World Peace from His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. It is important to try, especially in light of furthering world peace. To help us take advantage of the opportunity to gain as much as possible from the experience, we need to know something about Kalachakra and the background of the empowerment into its practice.

External, Internal, and Alternative Cycles of Time

Kalachakra is a Sanskrit word meaning “cycles of time.” There are three cycles discussed here: the external, internal, and alternative.

On an external level, universes pass through cycles. Time, after all, is a measurement of change, according to the Buddhist definition. We can measure time by the motion of the planets, for example, or by astrological cycles or cycles of history. These are all external cycles.

There are also internal cycles by which we can measure time. On a general level, there are the cycles of birth, aging, death, and rebirth. Unless we die very young, each lifetime spans the life cycle of growing up, reaching maturity, aging, and dying. We also experience cycles of breath coursing through the body. We can measure a day by the number of breaths that we take, just as easily as we can by the movement of the sun. There are also the internal cycles of the various moods through which we pass.

All of these cycles, external and internal, occur under the influence of karma. Karma, in Buddhism, means “an impulse of energy.” Impulses of energy affect external happenings: not only the movement of the planets, but also the development of history and society. Internally, they affect our moods and our actions. In the West, we speak of “historical forces,” “ economic forces,” “social forces,” “psychological forces,” and so on. These are all karmic forces from a Buddhist viewpoint. Even our experiences of falling ill and recovering derive from changes in impulses of energy.

Normally, we experience impulses of energy in a compelling way and we act them out compulsively. Consider the example of the impulse to get depressed or the impulse for our bodies to age. We have very little control over them. Our moods change all the time. Many of us feel affected by the changes of seasons: the days grow shorter; the weather becomes colder; and many people, without any control, feel depressed. Many women experience uncontrollable changes in their moods because of the menstruation cycle. Being under the control of these external and internal cycles, we experience innumerable problems.

The alternative cycles of Kalachakra refer to a system of practice that helps us overcome being controlled by these external and internal forces. It is an extremely complex practice; one of the most complex systems that Buddha taught. It is so complex primarily because life is complex. There are different aspects of the practice for dealing with the many different aspects of life, on both external and internal levels.

The Parallel Structure of the Three Cycles of Time

The external and internal cycles parallel each other. We find this parallel between the macrocosm and microcosm in many systems of thought. In Kalachakra, it is quite pronounced. The alternative cycles are structured in the same way as the external and internal cycles are, to provide us with a special method for overcoming these external and internal forces.

For example, suppose a train is running out of control along a complex course of tracks and we want to stop it. We would also have to run or ride along exactly the same complicated course in order to jump onto the moving train and bring it to a halt. Like this, the Kalachakra meditation practice parallels the way the external and internal cycles flow, in all of their complexity.

Brief History

According to tradition, Buddha himself taught Kalachakra. At the head of his audience was King Suchandra, a king from the northern realm of Shambhala. We will speak about Shambhala a little later. The King came with ninety-six of his leaders to hear the teachings and then brought them back to his land and wrote down what he heard. What he wrote is called The Root Kalachakra Tantra.

Seven generations of rulers later, there came another great leader in Shambhala named Manjushri Yashas. He lived in a very difficult time when invasion threatened the land. He abbreviated the tantra that his forefather had compiled, because it was much too large for the people to study. The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra was much easier to understand. His son, Pundarika, wrote a commentary on his father’s work, called Stainless Light, which made it even easier to understand – although for most people it is still not very easy to understand! Only these latter two texts have survived to today, with only fragments left from The Root Tantra.

The Kalachakra teachings continued in Shambhala and eventually came to India in the tenth century, which is quite late for the appearance of a Buddhist text. In fact, they are among the latest to appear in India. Two masters brought them to India. Somehow, they had heard of Shambhala and had tried to go to there to receive the teachings.

Neither of the two masters actually made it to Shambhala. Both received the transmission of the teachings in visions and wrote them down. Of course, slight discrepancies appeared in what they recorded and, as is often the case, different interpretations developed. Consequently, four styles of Kalachakra practice evolved in India. They differed mostly in small details.

About a hundred years later, in the eleventh century, the Kalachakra teachings were brought to Tibet – three different times to three different places by three different masters. Small pieces of the teachings came in other waves through the efforts of other teachers. The Tibetans made three separate translations, which also differ from each other. You can imagine the number of permutations of slightly different variations there are of the teachings.

Thus, when we look at all the varied Tibetan commentaries and Tibetan practices of Kalachakra that developed, we find many small differences. We cannot say, “This is exactly the way Kalachakra has to be practiced!” It is not like that at all. Nevertheless, if we survey the different Tibetan traditions and, within each tradition, examine the works of the various authors who wrote on Kalachakra, we might find that about eighty percent of the material is shared in common.

In the seventeenth century, the Kalachakra teachings spread from Central Tibet to what the Manchus called “Inner Mongolia,” from there to Beijing, the Manchu capital in Northern China, and from there to Northeastern Tibet (Amdo). Eventually, in the nineteenth century, they spread from Tibet to what the Manchus called “Outer Mongolia” and from there to Buryatia, the Mongol region near Lake Baikal in Siberia. In the early twentieth century, the teachings reached Tuva, a Turkic region north of western Mongolia, and Kalmykia, the Mongol region near the Volga River in European Russia by the Caspian Sea. In 1915, the Russian Czar even commissioned a Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg. Thus, Kalachakra being taught in the West is nothing new; it came to Europe a long time ago.

Kalachakra and World Peace

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, in his modest way, says he has no special connection with Kalachakra and there is no special reason why he gives the empowerment (initiation). He says this frequently. We shouldn’t think that he has some “master plan” and is planting power centers around the world to rule the universe from Shambhala. This is silly. As His Holiness himself explains, several of the line of Dalai Lamas have been practitioners of Kalachakra and liked it very much. He is one of those Dalai Lamas. Thus, he confers the empowerment when people request it and the circumstances are conducive.

Traditionally, however, conferring the Kalachakra empowerment has been associated with peace and His Holiness always emphasizes this when giving the initiation. The association with peace derives from when King Manjushri Yashas offered it to the entire population of Shambhala. His intention was to unite his people against the threat of invasion.

At that time, Shambhala was a land comprised of people from many different backgrounds and religions. Most, in fact, were Hindu. Caste prejudice was rampant and different groups within society refused even to eat with one another. As a divided society, Shambhala was weak.

The King’s intention was not for everyone attending to become a Buddhist; he was not forcing people to take the initiation to convert them. This was not the solution to society’s problem. Rather, the King understood that most people would come merely as observers. It is the same nowadays. This is true even when His Holiness and other Tibetan masters offer the empowerment to large groups of Tibetans – even Tibetans who are Buddhist – not to mention when they conduct it in the West before large gatherings containing few Buddhists. Even as Buddhists, very few people practice Kalachakra because it is so complex and advanced. For those who find it suitable, however, and who have the capacity, it is a magnificent practice and system.

The King of Shambhala said that he gathered his people in the Kalachakra mandala palace to join them together and convince them to reexamine their own customs and religions. He hoped to provide the circumstances for them to think about ethics and examine if they were really living up to the standards that their religions taught. There was a pressing need for everyone to do this, because the kingdom faced the threat of a terrible invasion from a horde of barbarians who were threatening to eliminate all possibility of spiritual practice.

The King said to his people, “Examine your customs. If you discover that you are acting no better than the barbarians, there is a great danger. Your children and your children’s children will be unable to tell the difference between the way you acted and the way the barbarian conquerors act. Because of this, if the hordes conquer Shambhala, they will easily gain their allegiance: the younger generations will easily accept and follow the barbarian ways.”

[For a more detailed discussion, see: Religious Conversion in Shambhala.]

We can see a parallel here with our modern situation. Today, we also face invasions of various barbaric forces, whether we identify them as tribes riding out of the steppes of Central Asia, as drug cartels, or as the aggressive warriors of big business bent on profit even at the cost of the environment. It is important to reexamine our religious and civil values, whatever they may be. We need to reestablish and reaffirm them so that our children and grandchildren will have pure standards of reference to inspire them not to let the waves of these invasions overwhelm them. Even those who come as observers to the Kalachakra initiation, in modern as well as in ancient times, are called upon to reexamine their own ethical beliefs and value systems.

The Aim of Conferring and Attending the Kalachakra Initiation

Thus, His Holiness says that the main reason for offering the Kalachakra empowerment is to bring a large, diverse group of people together to spend a week or more together in a peaceful atmosphere. In this peaceful atmosphere, His Holiness gives the preliminary teachings, usually on a text dealing with compassion, love, or ethics. This, he says, is the most important part of the event, because it stimulates people to think about these issues, just as the King of Shambhala intended. Consequently, the people attending live together in harmony at least for the duration of the Kalachakra event. This makes a strong impression on them, which contributes, on a larger scale, to world peace.

The preliminary teachings on love and compassion are followed by the actual empowerment ceremony, usually spanning three days. As His Holiness says, only some people will be sufficiently prepared to take the initiation. After all, receiving an empowerment like this requires taking vows and committing ourselves to a daily practice: it is a big step. His Holiness does not expect that too many people will do that and there is no pressure for anybody to do it. Everybody makes that decision for him or herself and keeps it private; there is no need to tell anyone. We can be there and put a red ribbon around our foreheads and take sips of water when it is passed around, but that does not mean that we actually receive the empowerment. So, nobody needs to feel uncomfortable. However, as His Holiness says, even if we are observers, and most people will be, we can still benefit from the ritual itself. The ritual contains many steps, which even observers can participate in and benefit from.

That is a little background about the tradition of giving the Kalachakra initiation to such a large group of people. It is interesting how over history, for some reason, let’s call it a karmic reason, Kalachakra attracts the largest number of people of any Buddhist event. So, it is a wonderful opportunity no matter what our level of interest, motivation, or commitment might be.

Special Features of the Kalachakra Practice

We might think that Kalachakra is the highest Buddhist practice of all. That is not so. It belongs to the class of tantra practice that is considered the most advanced – anuttarayoga – but, as the commentaries state clearly, it is not that Kalachakra is better than any other practice. Of course, we can always find authors and teachers who demonstrate the “football team mentality”: “ This is my favorite practice so it is better than any other!” The more objective commentaries, however, explain that all bodhisattva methods lead to enlightenment. There is no special Kalachakra enlightenment, different from enlightenment attained by any other means.

One thing that is so special about Kalachakra, however, is that it is the “clear tantra.” The other anuttarayoga tantras are “hidden tantras.” There are many explanations of the difference between hidden and clear, but one explanation is that the other tantras explain things in an obscure and hidden way with symbolic language. Such language is impossible to understand without an enormous amount of commentary and explanation, whereas the Kalachakra tantra itself is in clearer language. It presents everything in a more explicit manner.

The Spiritual Path as a Battle

The classical texts present the spiritual path of Kalachakra in terms of a battle. Many of us in the West think this is a bit strange. Here is an event associated with peace and yet it discusses the spiritual path as if it were a war; but this is nothing new. We need to remember that Buddha himself came from a ruling family of India, and rulers at that time were from the warrior caste. From the start, martial imagery has played a prominent role in the language of Buddhism. Buddha is “ The Triumphant One,” “The One Who Has Defeated the Enemy,” and so on.

Authors throughout the history of Buddhism have continued to use such language and imagery – for example, Shantideva, the great eighth-century Indian master who wrote the standard text on bodhisattva practices, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Skt. Bodhicaryavatara). There, he says that the main battle is the fight against our own confusion and disturbing emotions. Thus, the military terms and battle imagery are symbolic of an internal battle, waged against the internal forces of karma and our being under their control. In terms of Kalachakra, we need to fight against being under the influence of both internal and external forces: the internal and external cycles of time.

[For a more detailed discussion, see: Holy Wars in Buddhism and Islam: The Myth of Shambhala.]

Buddha as the Source of the Kalachakra Teachings

Several Western scholars have debated over where and when the Kalachakra teachings could have emerged. Whether Buddha Shakyamuni personally taught the material himself or whether the texts were written by Buddhist masters centuries later depends on how we understand Buddha.

The anuttarayoga tantra tradition does not look to Buddha as simply an historical figure, the way that the Western scholars would. From the point of view of the anuttarayoga tradition itself, Buddha is actually the clear-light mind – the subtlest level of mental activity that each person has – when it is fully purified and all its Buddha-nature potentials are fully realized. Such a clear-light mind is the enlightening mind of a Buddha.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: Making Sense of Tantra: 2 The Authenticity of the Tantras.]

Etymologically, the word Shambhala (bde-‘byung) means “the source of bliss.” Buddha’s teaching of Kalachakra being associated with a source of bliss represents that the teachings have arisen from an enlightening mind, which has a totally purified blissful awareness of voidness. Such teachings are directed to the clear-light minds of appropriate disciples – those in which the Buddha-nature potentials for a similar blissful awareness have been awakened by an empowerment.

Whether the Kalachakra material was actually taught by the historical Buddha and written down by the kings of Shambhala, whether it was written down by someone centuries later in Central Asia, or whether it emerged from the minds of the two Indian masters who received them in visions is ultimately irrelevant to a tantra practitioner. From the viewpoint of anuttarayoga, the origin of the Kalachakra tantra in each of these cases is Buddha. It is important not to become hung up on where this tantra actually came from, from a Western point of view. More precisely, it is important not to become caught up in thinking, “Buddha couldn’t possibly have personally taught Kalachakra, and if the historical Buddha didn’t teach it, then it is just a crazy vision that someone had.”

Western Analysis of the Origin of the Kalachakra Teachings

If we examine where and when the Kalachakra teachings might first have surfaced, however, I would make an educated guess, based on research of medieval Central Asian history, that it was in the area of Kabul, Afghanistan either some time between the late eighth and early ninth centuries, or in the mid or late tenth century. Actually, the only aspect of the Kalachakra teachings that we could make an educated guess about would be the references to an invasion in the chapter on external cycles of time. Perhaps different parts of the depiction of the predicted invasion emerged in each of these periods.

Between the late eighth and early ninth centuries, the Kabul area was the center of the Turki Shahi kingdom. Kabul itself had several large Buddhist monasteries, one of which had astrological symbols on the ceiling of its main hall, reminiscent of the astrological motif in the Kalachakra mandala. The rulers favored Buddhism, but the population included large numbers of Hindus, and a smaller number of followers of the Zoroastrian and Manichaean faiths.

The Arab Abbasid Dynasty had been founded, with its capital in Baghdad, in the middle of the eighth century as a successor to the Umayyad Dynasty. Among the various Islamic groups of the area, many launched rebellions against the new rule. They followed heterodox sects of Islam, were branded as heretics by the Abbasid orthodoxy, and were persecuted as rebel “terrorists.” Many fled to the Kabul area.

Moreover, as part of campaigns of military conquest for political and economic gain, Umayyad and Abbasid generals had recently attacked kingdoms to the north and south of the Kabul area. They had plundered several Buddhist monasteries there that had harbored resistance, although the ones in northern Afghanistan had quickly recovered. The times were fraught with military campaigns as the Arabs, Turks, Chinese, and Tibetans fought for control of Central Asia. Tension was always high in anticipation of future invasions.

A number of Buddhist scholars from Kabul and northern Afghanistan served translating texts at the Abbasid House of Knowledge in Baghdad. Official Islamic orthodoxy was not only tolerant of other religions – except what it considered heretical sects of Islam – but wished to learn from other cultures. Many intellectuals among the officials at the Abbasid court, however, belonged to the heretical Manichaean-Islamic sect and were seen by the rulers as threats to their supremacy. It is clear from the Kalachakra texts themselves that the barbarian hordes combined features from both Islam and Manichaeism. Further, it is plausible that the Buddhist scholars working in Baghdad were influenced by the Abbasid official line and likewise saw all opposition heterdox Islamic groups as extremists and terrorists – in other words, as barbaric hordes.

The other possibility of when parts of the Kalachakra account of the invasion emerged is during the mid to late tenth century, also in the Kabul area. This was the time of first the Samanid and then the Ghaznavid Dynasties, both of whom were vassal states of the Abbasids. The Buddhist monasteries were still functioning. The rulers of these two dynasties were Sunni Muslims and feared an invasion from the Ismaili Shia kingdom of Multan in central Pakistan. Many people also feared an approaching apocalypse and the end of the world. It is possible that the Buddhist scholars at that time conflated the Manichaean-Islamic “heretics” with the Ismaili Shias of Multan to derive their description of the barbaric hordes. This is supported by the inclusion of Mani in the standard list of Ismaili prophets cited in the Kalachakra texts.

[For a detailed discussion, see: The Kalachakra Depiction of the Prophets of the Non-Indic Invaders. See also: Historical Sketch of Buddhism and Islam in Afghanistan.]

Thus, it is important not to identify the barbaric hordes mentioned in the Kalachakra texts as the mainstream followers of one or another major religion. For example, some interpret Kalachakra as indicating that Buddhism is against Islam in general, because the texts contain several references to Islamic elements in the barbarian customs. This conclusion is incorrect and irresponsible. The reference for the threatening barbaric hordes at that particular historical moment was undoubtedly militant rebel factions within heterodox Islamic sects – those who would destroy every type of spirituality, including that of orthodox Islam. The main Kalachakra message, in face of such threats, is for everyone from all religions, including Islam, to reaffirm his or her spiritual and ethical values in order to unite in peace and harmony.