The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > Advanced Meditation > Kalachakra > Kalachakra, Tantra, and Their Relation with World Peace

Kalachakra, Tantra, and Their Relation with World Peace

Alexander Berzin
September 6, 2002

Background

In October 2002, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama will confer the Kalachakra initiation in Graz, Austria. The event is open to the public, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. The purpose of the initiation is to provide an opportunity for people of all faiths to gather in a peaceful atmosphere to listen to teachings on love and compassion and to reaffirm their commitments to upholding the pure ethics of their traditions. Hence, the initiation is publicized as "Kalachakra for World Peace." For Buddhist practitioners, the additional purpose is to empower them to engage in the advanced tantric meditation practices of Kalachakra.

Some people have misunderstood the intent of the event, because of confusion about certain aspects of the Kalachakra literature. To avoid interfaith suspicion and mistrust, it is important to examine the issues objectively, in a scholarly manner.

The Prediction

The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra warns against a future invasion by a non-Indic people who will follow the line of prophets: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mani (the founder of the primarily Iranian religion Manichaeism), Muhammad, and Mahdi (the Islamic messiah). To meet the threat, the king of the mythical land of Shambhala united the Hindus and Buddhists into one caste with the Kalachakra initiation. As a united society, the people of Shambhala would then be able in the future to follow a Buddhist messiah-king in defeating the invading forces and establishing a new golden age.

One of the main themes in the Kalachakra teachings is the parallel between the physical world (astronomy, geography, and history), the human body, and Buddhist tantra practice. Accordingly, the invaders that Kalachakra warns against, and which the forces of Shambhala will defeat, have historical, physiological, and meditative levels of meaning. Let us focus on the external level of meaning.

The Historical Context

Externally, the non-Indic-speaking invaders refer to followers of late tenth-century messianic forms of Islam who will claim to have the messiah Mahdi as their political and spiritual leader. Mahdi will unite and rule the Islamic world, restore Islamic purity, and convert the entire world to Islam before the coming of Dajjal (the Muslim version of the anti-Christ), the Second Coming of Christ (who is a Muslim prophet), the apocalypse, the end of the world, and the Last Judgment.

In the late tenth century – the period when the Kalachakra teachings first emerged in India - the Arab Abbasid rulers of Baghdad and their vassals feared invasions from Islamic empires having such ambitions. Specifically, they feared an invasion from their main rivals, the Fatimid Empire of Egypt and their vassals in Multan (central Pakistan). Such fear was the predominant mood of the times, due to the widespread belief that the world would end five hundred years after Muhammad – in the beginning of the twelfth century.

The Kalachakra Response

Based on the historical context of the Kalachakra literature, it is inappropriate to conclude that Buddhism at that time was anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim, or anti-Christian, or that it is now. Buddhism was merely responding to the spirit of the times from the Middle East to northern India at the end of the tenth century. In the face of widespread fear of an invasion, an apocalyptic battle, and the end of the world, and the popular preoccupation with the coming of a messiah, Kalachakra presented its own version of the prediction.

To face the threat, Kalachakra recommended a policy already followed by Hinduism and the ruling Abbasid Muslims. The policy was to show that Buddhism too had open doctrinal doors for including other religions within its sphere. An essential foundation on which a multicultural society needs to stand in order to face a threatened invasion is religious harmony among its people. Joining others in a Kalachakra mandala symbolizes this commitment to cooperation. However, as was the case with Hinduism and Islam, the implication of the Shambhala King's tactic was that Buddhism offered the deepest truth.

The Kalachakra depiction of the non-Indic prophets and its prophecies of a future war with their followers must be understood in this historical and cultural context. Despite the recommended policy, neither Buddhist leaders nor masters at the time actually launched a mass conversion campaign to bring Hindus and Muslims into its fold. No one held a Kalachakra initiation with such an aim in mind, nor launched a Buddhist holy war.

Does Buddhism Advocate Conversion?

Both Buddhism and Biblical religions have been tolerant of other faiths. Both have also instigated forced and subtle conversion campaigns, although each has used different methods. Biblical religions have launched holy wars, while the King of the mythical land of Shambhala gathered non-Buddhists into the Kalachakra mandala through a demonstration of psychic powers. Biblical religions have used economic incentives as a subtle means for conversion, while Buddhism has used debates of logic.

Is the Kalachakra portrait of joining the people of Shambhala into one "vajra caste" under the umbrella of Buddhism merely a description of what might have been beneficial and necessary in West Asia and the Indian subcontinent from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, or is it timeless advice? Granted the universal wisdom in members of all religions reaffirming the spiritual values of their creeds in order to ward off threats to their societies, is the optimal defense convincing as many people as possible to practice Buddhism?

It would be difficult to defend this position, either in reference to only the above-mentioned historical period or as general advice, without being chauvinistic. The unbiased conclusion, then, is to admit that the tone of the Shambhala legend is indeed chauvinistic, although understandable, given the circumstances of the times. It does not follow, however, that Buddhist teachers nowadays need to be or are chauvinistic when presenting Buddhism to non-Buddhist audiences.

When teaching in the West, the Dalai Lama always stresses that he is not trying to win converts. He is not challenging others to a debate contest, with the loser required to adopt the assertions of the victor. He explains that he is merely trying to educate others about Buddhism. Peace among different societies comes from understanding each other's systems of beliefs. Educating others differs greatly from trying to convert them. If others find something of value in Buddhism, they are free to adopt it, without any need to become Buddhists. For those who are strongly interested, they are welcome to pursue their studies further and even to become Buddhist, but only after a long period of deep reflection. For most, however, the Dalai Lama strongly cautions against changing religions.

Buddhism is no different from other religions or philosophical systems in that it claims to have the deepest truth. Nevertheless, the Buddhist assertion is not an exclusivist claim to the "One Truth." Buddhism also accepts relative truths – things that are true relative to certain groups or to certain circumstances. So long as one's views are not aggressively antagonistic, one's relatively true beliefs may serve as provisional stepping stones on the way to the deepest truth as Buddhism defines it. They may also serve as stepping-stones to the deepest truths that other religions teach. So long as the Buddhist assertion of deepest truth is not chauvinistic and does not belie a missionary policy, it may benefit those for whom it suits.

Does Buddhism Advocate Holy Wars?

Often, when people think of the Muslim concept of jihad or holy war, they associate with it the negative connotation of a self-righteous campaign of vengeful destruction in the name of God to convert others by force. They may acknowledge that Christianity had an equivalent with the Crusades and the Inquisition, but do not usually view Buddhism as having had anything similar. After all, they say, Buddhism is a religion of peace and does not have the technical term holy war.

A careful examination of the Buddhist texts, however, particularly the Kalachakra literature, reveals both external and internal levels of battle that could easily be called "holy wars." An unbiased study of Islam reveals the same. In both religions, leaders may exploit the external dimensions of holy war for political, economic, or personal gain, by using it to rouse their troops to battle. Historical examples regarding Islam are well known; but one must not be rosy-eyed about Buddhism and think that it has been immune to this phenomenon. Nevertheless, in both religions, the main emphasis is on the internal spiritual battle against one's own ignorance and destructive ways.

The Kalachakra presentation of the Shambhala war and the Islamic discussion of jihad show several similarities. Both Buddhist and Islamic holy wars are defensive tactics for stopping attacks by external hostile forces, and never offensive campaigns for winning converts. Both have internal spiritual levels of meaning, in which the struggle is against negative thoughts and destructive emotions. Both need to be waged based on ethical principles, not on the basis of prejudice and hatred.

Moreover, just as many leaders have distorted and exploited the concept of jihad for power and gain, the same has occasionally occurred with Shambhala and its discussion of war against destructive foreign forces. For example, Sukhe Batur – leader of the 1921 Mongolian Communist Revolution – inspired his troops with the Kalachakra account of the war to end the kaliyuga ("the age of disputes"). During the Japanese occupation of Mongolia in the 1930s, the Japanese overlords, in turn, tried to gain Mongol allegiance and military support through a propaganda campaign that Japan was Shambhala.

It is faulty reasoning, however, to take these isolated examples as proof of a general policy and to infer that present Buddhist masters conferring the Kalachakra initiation have a similar hidden military agenda. It is also unfair to Buddhism as a whole to focus on abuses of Kalachakra's external level of spiritual battle and to dismiss the internal level of battle against the destructive forces within one's own mind. The same is true concerning Islam and Christianity.

[See: Holy Wars in Buddhism and Islam: The Myth of Shambhala.]

Shambhala and Shangrila

Many additional myths have grown around the idea of Shambhala. James Hilton's twentieth-century American novel Lost Horizon speaks of Shangrila, a spiritual paradise found in an inaccessible, hidden valley in Tibet. "Shangrila" is undoubtedly a romantic corruption of "Shambhala." Many people have even set out to find this utopian paradise. In doing so, they have often mixed various Buddhist ideas with concepts from other religions and some ideas of their own. It is important not confuse what they have taught with Buddhism itself. Let us look at some of the more famous examples.

Theosophy, the Source of Hitler's Misconceptions about Shambhala

Madame Helena Blavatsky was born in the early nineteenth century in the Ukraine to Russian nobility. Endowed with extrasensory powers, she traveled the world in search of occult, secret teachings. She was particularly interested in Egypt, India, and Tibet, and spent many years on the Indian subcontinent. She purportedly also visited Tibet.

Madame Blavatsky regarded all the esoteric teachings of the world's religions as one body of occult knowledge, and in the process, confused everything together. She encountered fragments of Tibetan Buddhism at a time when European Oriental scholarship was in its infancy and hardly any translations were available. Consequently, she interpreted these fragments within the inappropriate contexts mostly of Hindu Yoga and Vedanta, mixing in freely ideas from ancient Egyptian lore and European spiritualist movements. As her interest was in psychic phenomena and mystery, she stressed the supernatural, as did other early European seekers of the occult in Tibet.

Madame Blavatsky said that Indian and Tibetan "Mahatmas," who are supernatural humans from Shambhala, telepathically dictated to her their teachings, which she compiled in The Secret Doctrine. Shambhala, she explained, is a mystic kingdom in Tibet, which preserves the secret teachings of Atlantis. Its inhabitants are the descendants of the people of Atlantis, the land mentioned by Plato that sunk beneath the sea. In actuality, however, Kalachakra has no mention whatever of the mythical land of Atlantis. The association was a product of her vivid imagination.

Blavatsky purported that the Atlanteans of Shambhala are a fourth human race who are nearly immortal and who work for the good of mankind and fight evil. The present world must learn their teachings since soon a great war will occur. The forces of light must combine to combat the forces of darkness. She also discussed another mystic kingdom in Tibet, Agardhi, which is more aligned with mankind.

[See: Mistaken Foreign Myths about  Shambhala.]

Hitler and the Quest for Shambhala

Even Hitler was intrigued with the idea of Shambhala. In his youth, he studied the occult and yoga in Vienna. Later he turned to Theosophy. After assuming power, Hitler gathered information about as many occult groups of the world as he could. His aim was to find the elements common with Theosophy and to reinterpret these teachings in terms of its theory. With the help of the explorer Sven Hedin, he sent several expeditions to Tibet. Misled by Blavatsky's fanciful description, they were searching for contacts with the fabled Shambhala to obtain their help for ruling the world. They claimed that although Shambhala rejected them, they were able to contact and gain help from the mystic kingdom of Agardhi that Blavatsky had also mentioned. Clearly, the Nazi expeditions ended in farce.

[See: The Nazi Connection with Shambhala and Tibet.]

The Kalmyk Mongol Connection

The false notion that thousands of Tibetans lived around Berlin during the Third Reich arose from confusion about the Kalmyk Mongols. The Kalmyks are a Western Mongol people who migrated to the Volga Region of European Russia in the seventeenth century. Having sided with the anti-Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution, a large number emigrated to Belgrade, Serbia, in 1920.

Starting in 1932, Stalin destroyed the Buddhist monasteries and temples in Kalmykia and severely persecuted the population. Hoping to overthrow Stalin and to liberate Kalmykia, many Serbian Kalmyks fought with the German army on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. Kalmyks in Kalmykia supported their efforts. When Stalin deported the entire Kalmyk population to Siberia in 1944, this was in punishment for their siding with his enemy.

Wishing to gain occult support for the war, Hitler brought a small group of Kalmyk monks to Berlin to perform rituals for his victory. Like the medieval Mongol conquerors Chinggis Khan and Kublai Khan, he was desperate for any supernatural help he could win. According to private interviews with survivors from among those monks who later settled in Munich, the Nazis had no understanding of Buddhism or of the tantric rituals the monks were performing. Realizing the Nazis' true intentions, the Kalmyks prayed merely for the liberation of Kalmykia and for world peace.

Confusion about Tantra

One of the more perplexing and most easily misunderstood aspects of tantra and its ritual is its imagery suggestive of sex, devil-worship, and violence. Buddha-figures often appear as couples in union and many have demonic faces, stand enveloped in flames, and trample helpless beings beneath their feet. Seeing these images horrified early Western scholars, who often came from Victorian or missionary backgrounds.

Even nowadays, some people believe that the couples signify the sexual exploitation of women. Others imagine that couples in union represent the transcendence of all duality to the point that there is no difference between "good" and "bad." They think that, consequently, tantra is immoral and not only sanctions, but even encourages usage of alcohol and drugs, and hedonistic, criminal, and even despotic behavior.

Some go as far as wildly accusing well-respected tantric masters of plotting to take over the world and that the Kalachakra teachings were the source of Nazi ideology and are the inspiration for modern Neo-Nazi cults. Curiously, such paranoid accusations parallel the Nazi obsession with blaming the Jews for all the evils of the world. Extreme caution is required.

Modern Confusion about Tantra Is Nothing New

Westerners were not the first to declare tantra a degenerate form of Buddhism. When tantra originally came to Tibet in the mid-eighth century, many took the imagery literally as granting free license to ritual sex and blood sacrifice. Subsequently, in the early ninth century, a religious council banned further official translation of tantra texts and prohibited the inclusion of tantra terminology in its Great Sanskrit-Tibetan Dictionary. One of the main incentives for the Tibetans' inviting Indian masters for the second spread of Buddhism in Tibet was to clarify misunderstanding about sex and violence in tantra.

Not all Westerners who had early contact with tantra found the imagery depraved. A number misunderstood it in other ways. Some, like many early Tibetans, found the images erotic. Even now, some people turn to tantra hoping to find new and exotic sexual techniques or spiritual justification for their obsession with sex.

Still others found the terrifying figures alluring for their promise of granting extraordinary powers. Such people followed in the footsteps of the thirteenth-century Mongol conqueror Kublai Khan, who adopted Tibetan tantra primarily in the wish that it would help him gain victory over his foes.

Misunderstanding about tantra, then, is a perennial problem. The reason for tantra's insistence on secrecy about its teachings and images is to avoid such misconceptions, not to hide something perverse. Only those with sufficient preparation in study and meditation have the background to understand tantra within its proper context.

The Imagery of Sexual Union Does Not Refer to Ordinary Sex

Tantra in Buddhism is an advanced method of practice that emphasizes the union of method and wisdom. The union is represented by a couple in union. The Tibetan word for the couple, yab-yum, means "father and mother." Just as a father and mother in union are required for producing a child, likewise method and wisdom in union are required for giving birth to enlightenment.

Method, the father, stands for bodhichitta, the determination to achieve enlightenment to benefit others as much as is possible. It also represents various other causes taught in tantra for gaining the enlightening physical bodies of a Buddha. Wisdom, the mother, stands for the realization of reality with various levels of mind, as causes for a Buddha's enlightening mind. Gaining the union of a Buddha's physical bodies and mind requires practicing a union of method and wisdom. Because traditional Indian and Tibetan cultures do not share a Biblical sense of prudishness about sex, they do not have taboos about using sexual imagery to symbolize this union.

Another level of meaning of father as method is blissful awareness. The union of father and mother signifies blissful awareness conjoined with the realization of reality – in other words, the realization or understanding of reality with a blissful awareness. Here, blissful awareness does not refer to the bliss of orgasmic release as in ordinary sex, but to a blissful state of mind achieved through advanced yoga methods to control and centralize the subtle energies of the body. The embrace of father and mother, then, also symbolizes the blissful aspect of the union of method and wisdom, but in no way signifies the use of ordinary sex as a tantra method.

It is important not to become confused or misled by symbols used in foreign cultures. Someone unfamiliar with Christianity, for instance, might see the symbol of a man nailed to a cross and think that Christianity teaches methods of torture. One must always look deeper to learn what symbols represent. For example, tantric textual references to union with a series of nine women progressively one year older, starting with twelve, symbolizes gaining progressively more intense levels of blissful awareness of reality. It represents the nine stages of eliminating the subtlest level of confusion about reality and certainly does not refer to sexual abuse of teenagers.

Tantric Vows Do Not Give Free License to Kill

Tantric initiations, such as Kalachakra, require the taking of vows to refrain from destructive behavior. These include "bodhisattva vows" to refrain from behavior that would either harm others or damage their abilities to help others. The required foundation is upholding some level of lay or monastic vow, such as refraining from taking life, stealing, lying, engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior, and taking intoxicants.

Initiates also pledge not to use these vows as an excuse for refusing to take life, steal, and so on, when compassion demands taking drastic actions and there are no peaceful alternatives. For example, to stop a rabid dog on the loose that is biting people, or a mass murderer who is shooting at a crowd from a tower, it may sometimes be necessary to shoot the dog or the murderer. This is only the case if it is impossible, with peaceful means, to stop the dog or the murderer from injuring or killing more people, and only if one has the ability to stop the continuing attacks by resorting to forceful means. In such situations, to refuse to use those forceful means is a breach of the tantric pledge.

In short, the pledge not to refuse to take life is a pledge of commitment to use even drastic measures to stop harm to others, if absolutely necessary, but only if all other methods fail. Moreover, it must be implemented based on sincere compassion, not based on fear or hatred. It is certainly not an oath to kill enemy troops wantonly, as when joining an army.

Tantric Vows Do Not Release One from Ethical Responsibility

Initiation into the two highest classes of tantra, such as Kalachakra, also requires taking the "tantric vows." These entail restraint from behaving in ways that would damage one's spiritual progress, such as neglecting to remain mindful of the true nature of reality each day, in terms of voidness.

Voidness does not mean that everything, including ethics, in actuality do not exist. It never negates the conventional distinctions between destructive and constructive behavior, or the functioning of behavioral cause and effect. Nonduality, as represented by couples in union, means that categories such as "destructive" and "constructive" do not exist independently of each other. They are designated in relation to each other and in relation to their causes and effects. Thus, going beyond dualism does not mean gaining authority for indulging in selfish or exploitative behavior and for abrogating responsibility for one's actions. It means gaining awareness of the totality of reality, with a vision of the interrelatedness and interdependence of everything.

The Symbolic Tasting of Alcohol

Moreover, when tantric practitioners accept a small taste of specially consecrated alcohol and meat during certain rituals, this symbolizes the purification and usage of the subtle energies in their bodies for reaching enlightenment. As in the taking of specially consecrated bread and wine during a Christian communion, the symbolic act hardly sanctions alcohol or drug abuse.

Forceful Figures Do Not Represent the Devil

Buddha-figures may be peaceful or forceful, as indicated on the simplest level by their having smiles on their faces or fangs bared. More elaborately, forceful figures have terrifying faces, hold an arsenal of weapons, and stand surrounded by flames. Part of the confusion that arises about the role and intent of these forceful figures comes from the usual translations of the word for them as "wrathful deities."

For many Westerners with a Biblical upbringing, the term wrathful deity carries the connotation of an almighty being with righteous vengeful anger. Such a being metes out divine punishment as retribution for evildoers who have disobeyed its laws or somehow offended it. For some people, a wrathful deity may even connote the Devil or a demon working on the side of darkness.

The Buddhist concept has nothing to do with such notions. Although the Tibetan term derives from one of the usual words for anger, anger here has more the connotation of repulsion – a rough state of mind directed toward an object with the wish to get rid of it. Thus, a more appropriate translation might be a forceful figure.

Forceful figures symbolize the strong energetic means often required to break through mental and emotional blocks that prevent one from being clearheaded or compassionate. The enemies the figures smash include dullness, laziness, and self-centeredness. The weapons they use span positive qualities developed along the spiritual path, such as concentration, enthusiasm, and love. The flames that surround them are the different types of deep awareness (wisdom) that burn away obscurations. Imagining oneself as a forceful figure helps to harness the mental energy and resolve to overcome "internal enemies."

Conclusion

In conclusion, "Kalachakra for World Peace" might appear to some as a chauvinistic claim by Buddhism that it has the exclusive umbrella for interfaith cooperation. It might also appear inappropriate to some to associate Kalachakra with world peace when its account of Shambhala suggests mass conversion and, under a Buddhist messiah, fighting a war against a future invasion by a false messiah. However, one must not lose sight of the historical and cultural contexts in which the Kalachakra teachings arose.

At the end of the tenth century of the common era, a widespread belief pervaded the Middle East and parts of South Asia that the apocalypse and the end of the world would occur a little more than a century later. Most people of the time were preoccupied with the issue of the coming of a messiah, and Buddhism responded to their need by presenting its spiritual path in a structure relevant and meaningful to their situation. Thus, it fashioned a prophecy that paralleled the advanced stages of Kalachakra meditation practice. Accordingly, accepting the prophecy opened the way for people of that time and region to accept the Kalachakra spiritual path. To read more than that into the external level of the Kalachakra prediction seems to be stretching the point. The material neither reflects nor shapes the current Buddhist view of the present world situation.

The Dalai Lama has never claimed to be a Buddhist messiah intent on forging the entire world into a "vajra caste" under his rule to fight off an invasion of immoral forces. Moreover, tantra does not teach sexual magic that can rid the universe of all evil. Even in the face of the current "moral war against terrorism," the Dalai Lama does not claim to be the moral symbol to unite the world.

In conferring the Kalachakra initiation, the Dalai Lama states that he is merely presenting an opportunity for people of various faiths to join together for a few days in a peaceful atmosphere and to reflect on compassion. Non-Buddhists who find something useful in his teachings are welcome to accept them into their own belief structures. Anything they might find unreasonable, they are welcome to dismiss. Such type of honesty and openness is the hallmark that makes the Kalachakra initiation indeed for world peace.