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Taking the Kalachakra Initiation

Originally published as
Berzin, Alexander. Taking the Kalachakra Initiation.
Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1997

Reprint: Introduction to the Kalachakra Initiation.
Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010

Order this book directly from Snow Lion Publications

Part II: External, Internal, and Alternative Kalachakras

3 External Kalachakra

Kalachakra: The Clear Tantra

Let us look briefly at some of the vast material in the Kalachakra Tantra itself. It is not necessary to study this material in depth in order to take the empowerment or attend as an observer. Nevertheless, some acquaintance with it helps to develop an appreciation of the wide range of topics included in the Kalachakra teachings and a respect for their value. This ancient text contains a great deal of practical advice for people and societies that is still relevant today. It is a veritable encyclopedia of not only sophisticated methods for attaining enlightenment, but also thought-provoking social commentary and scientific analysis.

Kalachakra is called the clear tantra, while the other anuttarayoga tantras are known as obscure. The main reason for this differentiation concerns the fourth initiation, which empowers us to perceive simultaneously and straightforwardly the two levels of truth concerning reality. The Kalachakra system formulates the two truths as clear light mind generated as an unchanging blissful awareness of the voidness of everything, and the appearances to which such a mind gives rise. In other anuttarayoga systems, the words of this stage of empowerment do not explain the unity of the two levels directly, just by analogy. The Kalachakra empowerment, on the other hand, explains this union explicitly. In fact, although Kalachakra differs significantly from the other anuttarayoga systems on many points, studying Kalachakra often clarifies enigmatic points of texts from those systems. Furthermore, the entire Kalachakra Tantra is written in clear language, unlike the other tantras which require an elaborate scheme to decode the many levels of meaning hidden behind their terse, poetic style.

The Textual Tradition

How was the Kalachakra Tantra actually written? According to tradition, Suchandra, the King of Shambhala was the main disciple for the first Kalachakra empowerment. He subsequently wrote down in verse, in his own language, the Root Kalachakra Tantra and an extensive commentary to it. Interestingly, a grammarian assisted him who purposely made several mistakes in the meter and count of the verses. He did this in order to help the King and the people of that time to overcome attachment to regularity and rigid forms. Although the Kalachakra material, with its external, internal and alternative cycles, abounds with symmetry, it is important not to be a slave to order and expect that everything in the universe be neat and regular, or that we can always be in control. As one of my Tibetan mentors, Sharpa Rinpoche, once said, "Symmetry is stupid." Although many things in this world are indeed analogous to each other, if we insist that everything is inherently symmetrical and therefore controllable, we are living in a fantasy of false expectation. Just because there are five of this, does not necessarily mean there are five of that. Unexpected exceptions always occur.

Suchandra was followed by six generations of kings before Manjushri-yashas inherited the Shambhala throne, becoming the first of a line of twenty-five Kalki rulers, or Keepers of the Caste. He composed the Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, while his son and successor, Pundarika, wrote a commentary to it, Stainless Light. These are the two basic Kalachakra texts that the visionaries Chilupa and Kalachakra-pada the Elder transmitted to India and which survive today. Each contains five chapters. The first two chapters concern the external and internal cycles of time, respectively, while the last three present the alternative cycles. The third chapter discusses the empowerment, the fourth the generation stage and the fifth the complete stage and the attainment of enlightenment. All later commentaries follow this five-part structure. Let us survey the contents of these chapters in the wider context of the rich Sanskrit and Tibetan Kalachakra literature.

Description of the Universe

The first chapter of the Abridged Kalachakra Tantra begins by explaining the method of condensing the Root Tantra, and presents the outline of that monumental opus. The text then sets the stage by telling how Buddha first gave the empowerment to King Suchandra and how the King brought the teachings back to Shambhala. To locate Shambhala requires the study of geography. The context for that is the discussion of the universe, which follows next in most of the commentaries.

The Kalachakra description of the universe is quite different from that presented in the other major Buddhist system of metaphysics: abhidharma, or special topics of knowledge. There are, of course, common elements in both, found in non-Buddhist Indian descriptions as well. These include multiple universes each passing through, at different times from each other, beginningless four-part cycles of formation, stabilization, disintegration and being empty, and each universe having a core mountain, Mount Meru, surrounded by continents, heavens and hells. The main differences between the two Buddhist systems concern the specifics of the four-part cycles, and the shape and size of the universe, Mount Meru and the continents.

It is significant that Buddhism offers two descriptions of the universe. Each is valid for a different purpose, and in neither case is that purpose navigating a ship. This allows for the modern scientific depiction to be perfectly acceptable in Buddhism as valid for the purpose of travel, and there being no contradiction in having multiple portraits. The description of any phenomenon, then, is dependent on not only the conceptual framework of the author and the audience, but also the use to which that description is put. We would certainly explain the plans to send a manned mission to Mars in a different manner to the politicians who are deciding the budget than to the engineers who are designing the machinery. Both portrayals of the mission, however, are valid, useful and necessary. Appreciating this point helps us understand voidness. Nothing exists with inherent characteristics on its own side rendering only one correct way to conventionally perceive, apprehend or describe it.

The purpose of the abhidharma picture of the universe is to help practitioners develop discriminating awareness by working with complex systems of multiple variables. The purpose of the Kalachakra version is quite different. It is to provide the Buddhist equivalent of a unified field theory that explains the structure and workings of the cosmos, atoms, the human body and the experience of rebirth in a parallel manner. The need for this unified theory is to provide a comprehensive basis, covering as much of samsara as possible, at which to aim the meditative practices of alternative Kalachakra for gaining liberation and enlightenment.

A description of the external and internal worlds in terms of their unifying parallels reveals the shared underlying basis from which both derive – namely, clear light mind. The winds of karma that provide the impulses for a particular universe to evolve come from the collective karma on the clear light minds of prior beings. These clear light minds remain present during empty eons in between universal epochs. Likewise, the winds of karma that provide the impulses for a specific rebirth to occur arise from the individual karma on the clear light mind of a particular being. That clear light mind also continues during bardo periods in between rebirths.

Meditation in analogy with the cycles through which the external and internal worlds pass – and, in particular, in analogy with how each of these cycles periodically returns to its clear light basis – provides a means to reach that basis. This is a unique feature of the anuttarayoga tantra method. Once clear light mind is accessed, it is possible to make the necessary changes – namely, by focusing on voidness, to eliminate the confusion and its instincts that cloud it – so that this basis no longer gives rise to the problems and sufferings associated with the external and internal cycles. This is the deepest reason why the proportions and shape of the universe, human body, and the mandala and body of the Buddha-figure Kalachakra are all the same.

Space Particles and the Origins of a Universe

One of the most interesting points from the Kalachakra description of the universe is its description of space particles. The Kalachakra Tantra speaks a great deal about atomic particles and the six elements – earth, water, fire, wind, space and consciousness or deep awareness. This last element is not physical and corresponds to primordial clear light mind, the basis from which the other, grosser elements manifest and on which they rest. Corresponding to the five grosser elements are five types of atomic or subatomic particles – earth particles, water particles and so on – each more subtle than the last. The most subtle are space particles which constitute the smallest building blocks of matter. When the four grosser particles are manifest, space particles are the space between them.

In Kalachakra, these space particles are intimately linked to the origins of a universe. This presentation has aroused the interest of scientists, as it suggests certain points that can be related to modern ideas about the structure of the universe. All universes are made of atomic particles. According to current scientific theory, the universe starts with a big bang, expands by means of particles and atoms becoming increasingly complex and compounding together, and then contracts and ends with a big crunch. Similarly, Kalachakra describes eons of formation in which atomic particles also join together, followed by eons of endurance and eons of disintegration.

What is of particular interest is the period in between these cycles. Buddhism calls these periods "empty eons," while the closest equivalent in modern science is the period in which a galaxy contracts into a black hole. According to the abhidharma description, during empty eons the basic elements exist merely in potential form. The Kalachakra teachings, however, say that in this period only a space particle exists. In this context, a space particle consists of a trace of the grosser elemental particles of a universe which are no longer joined together. In scientific terms, this is a situation in which the ordinary laws of physics do not operate, as is the case with black holes.

An empty eon ends when, by the force of winds of karma from the actions of animate beings of previous eons, an impulse occurs for the subatomic particles once more to coagulate and for ordinary physical laws to take over again. Thus the space particle of a particular universe during its empty eon is somewhat like a super-condensed kernel of its matter from which its next phase of expansion grows. This depiction is especially interesting in light of the recent discovery that a black hole emits radiation as matter collapses into it, and suggests a correlation between the life-cycle of galaxies and of the universe in general. Even more intriguing is that the internal Kalachakra teachings elaborate a parallel process that operates during each person's experience of death and rebirth.

The Location of Shambhala

Just as modern science describes galaxies and the universe in general as having a center around which everything revolves, Kalachakra also portrays each universe as having an axis, but in the form of a mountain, called Meru. The continents do not actually revolve around this core mountain, but encircle it, remaining stationary while the sun, moon, planets and stars rotate overhead. The land mass is divided into twelve continents, paralleling the division of the ecliptic into the twelve signs of the zodiac. The ecliptic is the band in the sky through which the sun, moon and planets course. The northern half of the southern continent is divided into six regions, like horizontal bands. India is the southernmost, while Shambhala is the fifth.

The first chapter later presents the calculations for the length of the shortest day of winter in these six regions. Based on these, Shambhala can be identified with the region surrounding Mount Kailash, the mountain in southwestern Tibet holy to both Hindus and Buddhists. This makes sense because, according to Tibetan etymology, Shambhala means the abode of bliss, a synonym for both the Hindu god Shiva and the Buddha-figure Heruka. Hinduism regards Mount Kailash as the seat of Shiva, and Buddhism as the main location of Heruka. Some scholars identify the three regions between India and Shambhala – Bhotia, Li and Chin – as Tibet, Khotan and China, and then presume that Shambhala is somewhere in East Turkistan (the modern Chinese province of Xinjiang), but this seems to be erroneous. These three names are also used respectively for the Terai, Kathmandu Valley and Dolpo regions of southern, central and northwestern Nepal. The sixth region, Himavan, the land of snows, is a common name for Tibet.

Mount Kailash is not really Shambhala, however, but only represents Shambhala on this earth. The Kalachakra Tantra speaks of four holy places around Vajrasana (Bodh Gaya), the site where Buddha manifested his enlightenment: Five-peaked Mountain in the east, Potala Mountain in the south, Shambhala in the north and Oddiyana in the west. These are the special places associated, respectively, with Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, the Kalki rulers and Guru Rinpoche. They can be identified with Wutaishan in northern China, the Vindhya Range in southern India, Mount Kailash in southwestern Tibet and Swat in northern Pakistan. If we go to these places, however, we do not actually find these great beings living there, or even archeological traces of them. As explained earlier, the journey to Shambhala is a spiritual, not a physical one.

The Threat of Invasion


The first chapter continues with a discussion of the history of Shambhala and particularly the times of the first Kalki ruler, Manjushri-yashas, in which the threat of invasion by a barbaric horde loomed over the land. Although the Kalachakra teachings had been present in Shambhala for seven centuries, they were primarily studied and practiced at the royal court. Most of the people were Hindus, but the pure principles of Hinduism had greatly declined. Caste differences were extremely rigid and the society was not harmonious. The King saw that if his people remained strongly divided, with certain groups unwilling to eat with or even associate with each other, there would be no way to resist the invasion. Therefore he decided to unite all the castes into one by making everyone "vajra brothers and sisters." He accomplished this by gathering the entire population into the huge Kalachakra mandala palace his ancestors had built in the royal park, and conferring empowerment on those who wished to participate. The rest observed.

The King's intention was not to convert everyone to Buddhism. Rather, he explained that each religion teaches the same basic moral principles, but when people do not follow their religions purely, they fall from these principles. By joining everyone into one caste in the Kalachakra mandala, he called upon his people to return to the pure teachings of their own religions. Only with such a basis could they best face a demoralizing threat to their society. The King's call for unity and peace through Kalachakra initiation is still relevant today. Observers of a Kalachakra empowerment are not asked to forsake their native religions, but to live up to their ideals and unite in brotherhood and sisterhood with others doing likewise.

Barbaric Hordes

Some scholars identify the barbarians mentioned in the Kalachakra literature as Muslims, but this is a hasty and irresponsible conclusion. The Sanskrit word for barbarian, mleccha, means anyone who speaks a non-Sanskrit language, eats beef, and behaves coarsely and crudely. Indians have used this term to label all invaders, starting from Alexander the Great. If we examine world history, invasions by barbaric forces inimical to spiritual freedom seem indeed to be cyclical. Although the Kalachakra literature describes many features of the barbarians that suggest they were Islamic – such as their tradition being founded in Mecca, being centered in Baghdad, men being circumcised, women wearing veils, special religious methods for slaughtering cattle, and so on – it does not seem that Islam in general is the reference.

During the early Abassad Caliphate, specifically during the second half of the eighth century and the start of the ninth, fanatic terrorist groups attacked the orthodox Sunni Muslim rulers in Baghdad, Samarqand and elsewhere, trying to overthrow the dynasty. These terrorists followed a religion that they called Islam, but which was actually a cult that adulterated the pure teachings of the Quran with many other doctrines, including those of Manichaeism, another religion of the time. The fact that the Kalachakra literature records the list of prophets of the barbarians as including not only Adam, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and the future messiah Mahdi, but also Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, suggests that the barbarians were in fact some of these terrorist groups. After their defeat, many of them migrated to present-day northern and central Afghanistan where they encountered a multi-religious society of Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians and Muslims. Their coming would certainly have been seen as a potential invasion of barbarians, and the call for everyone to join together in harmony and follow purely the ethical principles of their own religions would have been made to the local Muslims as well. This is an important point to remember in our present world. Each religion has its fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist element. We must always take care not to confuse the policies of these disruptive small groups with the pure, original teachings of their mother religions.

The Buddhist solution to barbaric terrorism and violence is for society to face them with ethical solidarity. This approach is not unique to Buddhism. Nowadays many religious and political leaders around the globe call for a return to basic moral values. King Manjushri-yashas advised his people to examine their customs and those of the barbarians. If they found them similar, then their children and grandchildren would see no great difference between the ways of their forefathers and the barbarians. That being the case, they would more easily accept barbarian rule. The belief of Manjushri-yashas was that if we immediately resort to violence in dealing with all threats to ourselves and our society, we are no different from savage barbarians. We must seek peaceful solutions.

Levels of Meaning of Shambhala

From the above discussion, we can see that from a modern historian's point of view, Shambhala is most likely in what is now northern and central Afghanistan. The fact that major Buddhist monasteries in this area followed the pre-Islamic Iranian court custom of depicting the twelve signs of the zodiac around the ceiling of their main halls adds further support for this hypothesis. Figures representing the twelve zodiac signs also surround the Kalachakra mandala. Thus just as different purposes call for distinct descriptions of the universe, the same is true concerning Shambhala. For explaining the calculations for the length of the shortest day of the year, Shambhala is the Mount Kailash area. For the sake of explaining historical cycles of invasions, it is northern and central Afghanistan. For the sake of a spiritual goal, it is a state of mind that can be reached only by intensive meditation practice. Shambhala, then, is simply a name given to various places relative to specific needs. Upon ultimate scrutiny, Shambhala cannot be found.

The relevancy of understanding this point is that it eliminates suspicion about the origin and validity of the Kalachakra practices. Traditionally it is said that Buddha taught Kalachakra 2800 years ago and that it was preserved in Shambhala and reintroduced into India through a transmission received in a vision. To most modern people this sounds rather incredible and they naturally doubt whether Kalachakra is an authentic teaching of the Buddha.

Dharmakirti, a seventh-century Indian Buddhist master, has explained that if a teaching is consistent with what Buddha has expounded and is effective for achieving its stated goal of liberation or enlightenment, then we can say that its source is Buddha's omniscient mind, whether or not the historical Buddha actually delivered it. Thus, for the purpose of gaining confidence in omniscient mind, we can label the source of the Kalachakra teachings as Buddha and Shambhala. For the purpose of historical analysis, we can postulate its source as the Buddhist monasteries of ninth-century northern and central Afghanistan. From the point of view of voidness and dependent arising, there is no contradiction. Since the Kalachakra teachings are consistent with other systems Buddha taught, and their practice certainly seems to bring about their intended results, as evidenced by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other great contemporary Kalachakra masters, we can rest assured that the empowerment is the entrance to a reliable spiritual path.

The Use of Hindu Images

In order to unite his people, King Manjushri-yashas followed Buddha's example by using the language and metaphors of the audience he taught. Since the majority of his subjects were Hindu, he freely borrowed Hindu images, concepts and terminology. He styled himself and his descendants as Kalki rulers. Kalki is the tenth and final avatar or incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu who will come in the future as a messiah to fight in an apocalyptic war. In the Hindu purana literature, Kalki will be born in Shambhala, located in the mountains of present-day northern Uttar Pradesh, India. Perhaps Manjushri-yashas just borrowed the name Shambhala to refer to his kingdom and it was never actually called by that name. It hardly matters. The important point is that for achieving peaceful cooperation among people of different cultures and religions, it is unwise to try to force everyone to speak our own language, use our own cultural metaphors and convert to our own religion or political philosophy. The way to encourage others to be open-minded and receptive to the message of peace is to appeal to the specific aspects of their own culture, religion and political philosophy that naturally resonate with this aim.

The Prophesy of a Future World War

King Manjushri-yashas prophesied another barbaric invasion for the year 2424, when anti-spiritual forces will wage a galactic war of conquest and destruction not limited to this planet. He advised the people of that future era to unite in the same way as his own subjects. He also predicted that forces from Shambhala, led by the twenty-fifth Kalki ruler, would arrive at that time in flying ships to turn the tide of battle and defeat the invading hordes. On the basis of this prophesy, some people have proposed that Shambhala is somewhere in outer space and that its inhabitants travel in flying saucers. As supporting evidence they cite the belief of the Aymara Indians of Bolivia and the Zulus of South Africa that several millennia ago extraterrestrial beings brought the science of calendar-making and other technological skills to this planet. We must take care, however, not to jump to hasty conclusions. Although Buddhism accepts the presence of intelligent life in other parts of the universe, as soon as we open the door for outer space heroes to soar in on flying saucers, we also open the door for witches to fly in on broomsticks.

The Kalachakra commentaries explain that wars against spirituality must be understood on two levels: as invasions by external hordes of barbarians, and as attacks by internal swarms of barbaric disturbing emotions and attitudes, led by confusion about reality. The various weapons and forces mentioned by the King that need to be used to win victory symbolize various realizations gained through spiritual practice, such as compassion, clear seeing of reality and so forth. These forces have their home in clear light mind which, like the etymological meaning of Shambhala, is the abode of bliss.

The fifteenth-century Gelug commentator Kaydrubjey has cautioned not to consider these wars on only a symbolic level, and to remember that they also refer to historical events. The external, internal and alternative cycles of time are all equally real. The closest example in Western culture is the account of exodus in the Old Testament. In the mystical tradition of Judaism, exodus symbolizes the spiritual path. Born into the slavery of confusion, we first must free ourselves from its grossest bonds and then wander in the desert of further spiritual practice until finding the promised land. This symbolism is based on a historical occurrence and its application as an analogy does not question that the event actually happened. The same is true of the prophesied war of the future.

Preventing War through Sharing Technology

How best to handle a threat of war? King Manjushri-yashas advised that sharing the achievements of our culture could turn invaders from their barbaric ways without resorting to battle. If others can appreciate the advantages offered by a more refined way of life, and have its advances made readily available to them, they may shed their violent methods more easily. The King used the example of sharing the scientific and technological knowledge of Shambhala with the barbarians and warned against keeping this knowledge secret. The King's wise counsel is still relevant today. Universal education and equal opportunity for self-improvement are the most potent methods for preventing violent crime.

At the time of King Manjushri-yashas, tables of planetary positions were compiled and circulated so that people did not have to work out the complicated mathematics themselves. In some societies at the time, however, this was done with the intention that the public would soon lose the skill and ability to make the calculations themselves. On one level, this would force people to rely on the pandits, the so-called "experts," who could exploit their ignorance for economic gain and social status. On another level, it would render the public open to deception because those who circulated these tables could easily tamper with them.

Leaders in those days planned uprisings and attacks on the basis of auspicious astrological signs. Strategy based on planetary positions given in fraudulent official tables would be incorrect and no one would have the knowledge to check or correct them. To avoid such exploitation, it was essential for the mathematics to be kept widely available for anyone to learn. It is for such reasons that the first chapter of the Kalachakra Tantra presents the mathematics for calculating the position of the planets, the timings of eclipses and for creating a lunar calendar correlated with a solar year.

We face similar dangers nowadays if people become so dependent on calculators and computers that they are no longer able to do simple arithmetic. And if we recall how difficult it is to correct computer errors with our telephone bills or credit ratings, we can appreciate the necessity for public knowledge of how to redress misinformation.

Just as the Kalachakra and modern scientific descriptions of the universe are not equivalent since each serves a different purpose, likewise the positions of the planets derived from each do not correspond to one another. The main purpose of Kalachakra astronomy and calendar-making is not to make interstellar navigational guidance systems, but to gain astrological information Thus King Manjushri-yashas explained that if we are forced to fight a war, we need astrological means to determine the best times to start campaigns and attacks. This is true whether the battle is external or internal. In this context, the first chapter of the Kalachakra Tantra presents an elaborate body of astrological calculations and teachings. This forms the basis for a large part of the Tibetan-Mongolian system of astrology, which derives the rest of its material from the Chinese tradition.

Karma and Astrology

Since the alternative cycles of time are methods for liberating ourselves from the domination of the external and internal cycles – from being under the control of karma – it is essential to understand clearly the relation between karma and astrology. Otherwise, astrology may simply increase superstition. At the time of King Manjushri-yashas astrological superstition led to the widespread custom of sacrificing animals and even humans to the sun in order to gain good fortune. Therefore the King emphasized that heavenly bodies do not cause events to occur in life. From the Buddhist perspective, no event is fixed or predetermined, otherwise liberation and enlightenment would be impossible.

Every person is born with an enormous array of karmic potentials built up over beginningless lifetimes. A natal chart and the predictions based on it are only indicative of a dominant karmic pattern with which we are born. There are many other possibilities as well. Moreover, an astrological chart only deals with a limited number of variables, whereas karma is infinitely more complex. As Kaydrubjey has said, if a natal chart indicated everything, then a man and a dog born at the same time in the same place would have the same personalities and experiences. Similarly, if an auspicious day were favorable for everyone, no one would be injured or killed in an accident that day anywhere in the world. Astrological configurations merely provide possible circumstances for appropriate karmic potentials to ripen. Without those potentials, nothing special happens, and even with them, sometimes further circumstances are necessary for their ripening.

Kalachakra Astrology

Keeping these points in mind, let us briefly survey the Kalachakra astrological material. Like other Indian systems, Kalachakra shares certain features with ancient Greek astrology. These include the twelve signs of the zodiac and their names, a seven-day week with days named after the heavenly bodies, and discussion of the sun, the moon and the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

The Kalachakra Tantra also discusses the north and south nodes of the moon, which it presents as planets. These nodes are called Rahu and Ketu in Hindu astrology, and Rahu and Kalagni in the Kalachakra system. Although the sun and moon both course through the band of the sky called the ecliptic, their orbits do not exactly coincide. Their intersection points are the north and south nodes of the moon. When, on a new moon, the sun and moon are both at one of these points in the sky, there is a lunar eclipse. When, on a full moon, the sun and moon are on the opposing points, there is a solar eclipse. The symbolism of eclipse is a major theme that repeats in the internal and alternative cycles of time.

As with descriptions of the universe and calculations of planetary positions, astrological systems also differ according to their purpose. Western astrology analyzes the personality based on a natal chart – the position of the planets relative to the exact time and location of a person's birth. It predicts a person's future experiences by comparing these natal positions with where the heavenly bodies are located at different points in his or her life. Hindu systems also calculate a natal chart, but emphasize the unfolding of a person's life through periods ruled by successive planets. Kalachakra shares the Hindu orientation and features, but stresses predictive astrology based on using the calendar itself along with extensive almanac information.

Methods for Predicting the Future

Kalachakra astrology employs two main systems for making predictions. The first divides the ecliptic into twenty-seven constellations rather than the twelve that constitute the more common zodiac. It assigns one of four elements – earth, water, fire, and air or wind – to each constellation and each of the seven days of the week. Comparing the element of the day of the week with the element of the constellation the moon is in at a specific time during that day, it interprets the combination to determine the auspiciousness of the moment for starting an undertaking such as a field battle, meditative retreat or monastic life.

The second system is called "arising from vowels." The Sanskrit alphabet has five families of vowels: a, i, vocalic r, u and vocalic l. These are correlated to the five elements, respectively, of space, wind, fire, water and earth. Associated with the vowel of each family are a diphthong and semivowel, for example e and ya with i, and all of these have lengthened forms, such as â, ai and . The system assigns the resulting thirty vowels, one each, to the thirty dates of a lunar month. Someone wishing advice about the outcome of an undertaking consults an astrologer who compares the element of the first vowel of the client's name with the element of the vowel assigned to the date on which he or she asks the question. The system also assigns an element to each direction. Thus an astrologer can employ similar methods to determine the best direction from which a specific general should attack on a particular auspicious date, or from which a meditator should approach a ritual fire for making burnt offerings at the conclusion of a retreat.

The presentation of the "arising from vowels" system leads to a full phonemic analysis of the Sanskrit alphabet, with each letter assigned one of the five elements. This system has a counterpart in the internal cycles of time, but plays an especially prominent role in the alternative cycles. It constitutes the basis for analyzing seemingly nonsense words in mantras, Sanskrit phrases that are repeated to help maintain mindfulness of a Buddha-figure. It is also used to understand "seed-syllables" – Sanskrit letters that are either initial syllables or code names for a Buddha-figure or one of the elements. Like a seed, they are a trace of what they signify and out of which what they signify appears. During the empowerment, and later in meditation practice, we repeatedly imagine them at specific points in our body, and we generate various figures and objects from them. When we keep in mind the correlation between the five vowel families and the five elements, these otherwise bewildering visualizations start to make sense.

Wartime and Peacetime Technology

The next section of the first chapter of the Kalachakra Tantra presents the technology for building weapons such as catapults and flamethrowers. Some people find it strange that a Buddhist text discusses how to wage an actual war, not just a symbolic one against our own delusions. Buddhism, after all, teaches nonviolence. In explaining the meaning of true nonviolence, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives the following example.

Once there were two meditators sitting by the side of a rushing torrent, when a crazed man arrived intending to swim across. Both meditators knew that the current was extremely treacherous and that the man would surely drown. They tried to dissuade him from crossing, but the man would not listen to reason. One of the meditators decided that nothing could be done and so resumed his absorbed concentration. The other got up and punched the man unconscious so that he would not kill himself in the river. Who committed the act of violence? It was the meditator who shunned the opportunity to save a life. Thus, if all other means fail to end a drastic situation, then out of the wish to prevent others' suffering, and without anger or hatred, we need not hesitate to use forceful means. In doing so, however, we need to be willing to accept the painful consequences of our actions, even if it means hellish suffering. This is the conduct of a bodhisattva.

When the battle is won, wartime technology is turned over to peacetime purposes. Therefore the first chapter continues with instructions for building merry-go-rounds and other amusements for the public to celebrate victory, decorative fountains to ease their minds, and irrigation schemes to help with their livelihood. Establishing a peaceful, pleasant environment provides conducive circumstances for friendly relations between people to grow. Maintaining a high level of weaponry, on the other hand, is more likely to provide the circumstances for distrust and fear, and for people to use them.

The Golden Age of Kalachakra and the Age of Aquarius

The chapter ends with a prediction of a new golden age during which the spiritual practice of Kalachakra will flourish. Using the Hindu names of the four eras of a world age, but defining their lengths differently, it prophesies that the present kaliyuga, or dark age, will end with the defeat of the barbaric forces in this future war. The new golden era that dawns will begin in 2424, a date which corresponds within a few years to the start of the astronomical age of Aquarius, although the Kalachakra literature does not call it by that name.

The date for this shift of ages derives from a phenomenon known as the precession of the equinox, which refers to the equinox moving backwards. There are two commonly used zodiac systems in astronomy and astrology. According to the sidereal or fixed star system used in all Indian traditions, including Kalachakra, when the sun is located at the beginning of the constellation Aries, its position is zero degrees Aries. This does not occur on the same day each year. In the tropical system used by the Greeks and in the West, this position is linked with the solar calendar. Thus regardless of the actual constellation in the sky where the sun is located, its position on the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere – the first day of spring, when the day and night are of equal length – is called zero degrees Aries. This position moves slightly backwards in the sky each year. Now it is in the constellation Pisces, the one immediately preceding Aries. When it enters the constellation Aquarius, the new golden age by that name begins. When New Age advocates assert the imminent dawning of the age of Aquarius, they are using astrological terminology for the Christian millenarian view.

The external cycles of time continue past the dawn of this new golden age. The universe again will pass through four eras, ending in another kaliyuga. At that point, the teachings of the present Buddha will disappear from our continent world. The Kalachakra teachings will then come to the next of the twelve continent worlds and the cycles will repeat. Thus ends the first chapter of the Kalachakra Tantra. As we have seen, it offers considerable advice for world peace, making it extremely worthwhile to study even if we attend the empowerment as an observer and never involve ourselves with its meditation practice.