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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

4 Internal Kalachakra

The second chapter of the Kalachakra Tantra deals with the internal cycles of time. It discusses the animate beings who live in the environments that pass through external cycles. Without some basic knowledge of the topics in this chapter, it is difficult to follow or understand many of the procedures of the empowerment. Although the material is complicated, a rough understanding of it is the key for gaining access to the profound Kalachakra methods for achieving enlightenment.

The Four Manners of Rebirth

The chapter begins with a discussion of the grossest internal cycle, which is the recurrence of death, bardo and rebirth. In general, Buddhism asserts four manners of rebirth: from a womb, from an egg, from heat and moisture, and by transformation. Since the Kalachakra system emphasizes purification of the elements, it classifies rebirths according to the element from which they occur. The birth of birds from an egg is called birth from wind, since most birds fly. The birth of mammals from a womb is called birth from fire, since the womb is warm. The birth of insects from heat and moisture is called birth from water, since so many insects are found around ponds in the summer. The birth of trees from the transformation of a seed in the ground is called birth from earth. Lastly, the birth of miraculous beings by great transformation, without any gestation period, is called birth from space, since they appear out of thin air without any obstruction.

The commentaries take great pains to explain that trees are mentioned only to complete the analogy and their inclusion among the states of rebirth is not to be taken literally. Although plants are a form of biological life, they cannot act with intention, make choices and, because of confusion, build up karmic potentials from willful behavior. This is because they do not have a mind – defined in Buddhism as mere clarity and awareness, the cognitive basis for karmic action. Only animate beings, known as "sentient beings" in Buddhist translations, have a mind. Nevertheless, the inclusion of trees in this list indicates that, like animate beings, they are worthy of respect and protection. Peace entails treating kindly not only people and creatures, but also the forests.

For human beings, birth may also be from either a womb, an egg, heat and moisture, or by transformation. This is not as odd as it might appear at first sight. Ordinary birth is from a womb. Birth from an egg is from a joined sperm and egg, but in a container different from the bare womb itself. Test-tube babies undoubtedly fall in this category. Birth from heat and moisture, in other words not from a sperm and egg, may refer to birth by cloning methods. In the case of birth by transformation, the body is fully formed at the moment life begins. Rebirth as an android in a computerized body seems the closest equivalent. Although the Kalachakra texts do not speak explicitly about these future forms of human life, when we fit the classical Buddhist categories and descriptions with modern scientific advances we gain intellectual and ethical frameworks for integrating such persons into society.

What Continues from One Lifetime to the Next

According to other tantric systems such as Guhyasamaja, the ever-changing stream of continuity of subtlest mind and subtlest energy-wind flows from one life to the next, regardless of the manner of rebirth, and proceeds even into Buddhahood. To return to the analogy of the radio that plays forever, if the subtlest mind is like a radio being on, subtlest energy-wind is like the electricity that powers it. A radio being on and the electricity powering it always come together in one "package." There cannot be one without the other. Likewise, subtlest mind and energy-wind are forever inseparable. In fact, all levels of mind operate on the basis of some form of energy-wind, from which they are indivisible.

Karmic "seeds" or tendencies, as well as karmic potentials, come along with the stream of continuity of our subtlest mind and energy-wind. They are not an integral part of the package, however. Like karma itself, they are subtle forms that merely give a temporary shape to the flow of our subtlest energy-wind. When enlightenment is attained, they are removed, like static disappearing from a perfectly tuned radio.

Vows are also subtle forms that travel with and shape the mind-stream, fashioning our physical, verbal and mental behavior. Although lay and monastic vows for individual liberation (pratimoksha vows) last only one lifetime, bodhisattva and tantric vows remain with the stream of continuity from one life to the next, shaping the mind-stream all the way until enlightenment. Vows are like the frequency of a specific radio wave to which a receiver can be finely tuned. Finally, because everyone's stream of continuity is individual, each can be referred to conventionally with a name, such as "me." This conventional identity marking the individuality of each stream is also part of the package that passes from one lifetime to the next and into enlightenment.

The Kalachakra system accepts and expands upon the Guhyasamaja presentation of these points, but uses its own distinctive terminology, such as winds of karma. It explains that inseparable from the package of subtlest mind and energy-wind, passing with it from one lifetime to the next and into enlightenment, are subtlest speech and a subtlest creative drop. Subtlest speech is the natural vibration or resonance of this subtlest package. The subtlest drop is a trace of earth, water, fire and wind particles, in a dissociated, condensed form. The continuity of this drop is like the stream of electrons – a trace of atoms – which comprises the electricity that keeps a radio on.

Subtlest Creative Drops and Space Particles

Subtlest drops are analogous to space particles. During empty eons between manifest periods of a universe there are no physical atoms, nevertheless a space particle endures as a condensed trace of the dissociated elemental particles of that universe. Like the matter sucked into a black hole, these traces are temporarily free of the physical laws that ordinarily govern universes made of grosser particles and atoms. Likewise, during the period of our death existence, before our next rebirth state manifests with its associated bardo, a subtlest creative drop abides as part of our stream of continuity. It too consists of traces of elemental particles, which are also temporarily free of the laws of karma that ordinarily regulate bodies made of atoms.

When the space particle of a universe is eventually affected by winds of the collective karma of many beings – marking the end of its empty eon – it acts as a kernel giving rise to the physical matter of the next phase of the universe. Likewise, when the subtlest creative drop is eventually affected by the winds of personal karma – marking the end of its period of death – it gives rise to the physical matter of an individual's next rebirth state. In the case of rebirth as a human or animal, this occurs in conjunction with the gross elements of a joined sperm and egg. Like a physical key, but not made of atoms, the subtlest creative drop unlocks the potential of a fertilized egg to grow and develop.

On the subtlest level, the physical processes of a universe and the karmic processes of a rebirth are based on a continuing stream, respectively, of space atoms and subtlest drops in a more evolved form. In the case of a universe, this is as the space between particles and, in the case of a human rebirth, as the subtle creative drops of the energy-system, which we shall discuss shortly.

Devoid Forms

There are several types of phenomena that have a form but are not made of gross particles or atoms. One class of these, discussed only in the Kalachakra system, is "devoid forms." These are forms that are devoid of atoms. They are not mental fabrications like the appearances in visualizations, dreams or the bardo state. Rather, they are the natural reflections of the clear light mind, which occur under specific circumstances, whether or not any of the grosser levels of mind are operating. The texts describe them like images appearing in a magic mirror, but without any mirror.

There are basis, pathway and resultant devoid forms. The colored spot that we see after looking away from a bright light is an example of a basis-level devoid form. It is not made of atoms, does not appear just in the imagination, and is seen nonconceptually with eyes open or shut. On a pathway level, devoid forms occur during the complete stage yogas once the energy-winds have been brought into the central channel. As a consequence of previous visualization practice, the subtlest mind then gives rise, within that channel, to devoid form bodies of the Buddha-figure Kalachakra, which are used to attain enlightenment. As a result of this practice, on a resultant level the omniscient clear light mind gives rise to a body of infinite devoid forms as Kalachakra, which are used to benefit others.

Since the aim of Kalachakra practice is to arise in pathway and resultant forms that are not made of atoms, we need to purify ourselves of our instinctive habit of basing the appearances our mind gives rise to on the atoms and particles of our internal and external elements. This is the reason why the elements are a dominant theme in the Kalachakra system and why they play such a prominent role in the initiation procedure. Several sections in the empowerment purify the elements by cleansing the mind of its habit of basing all appearances on them. In this way, the initiation plants seeds for arising in the enlightening devoid forms of a Buddha.

Human Rebirth

Having presented the process of death, bardo and rebirth, the Kalachakra Tantra now focuses on rebirth from a womb as a human. It delineates ten stages from conception to death, with the first three occurring as a fetus. As with the Guhyasamaja explanation of conception, the "package" of the bardo-being enters the future father's mouth and passes through his organ into the future mother's womb to start a new rebirth. We visualize this process happening to us during the inner empowerments of the Kalachakra initiation procedure when we are born as the spiritual child of our tantric master. It does not follow from this, however, that we need to take this procedure as describing what biologically happens when we take rebirth from a womb. Just as the various Buddhist descriptions of the universe are for specific purposes, likewise the anuttarayoga depiction of conception is for the purpose of showing that the clear light mind is naturally blissful, in harmony with the minds of the parents experiencing the bliss of union. On another level, it is to indicate the close link between the bliss of orgasmic release and the root of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. For deciding delicate ethical issues concerning abortion and contraception, it is therefore more appropriate to use modern scientific criteria for determining the start of a life.

The Kalachakra texts describe the ten stages of a human life by analogy with the Hindu presentation of the ten avatars of Vishnu. This provides an internal parallel for events in Shambhala. As the final avatar, Kalki is symbolic of death. Just as Manjushri-yashas united his people in the Kalachakra mandala, death gathers all the jumbled energy-winds of the subtle body in the heart and dissolves them so as to manifest clear light subtlest mind. Furthermore, just as the twenty-fifth Kalki will defeat the barbarians in a future apocalypse, ushering in a golden age, death temporarily puts an end to all disturbing levels of mind and heralds the beginning of a new rebirth with the possibility for greater spiritual progress.

The Subtle Body

After describing in detail the development of a fetus, the second chapter continues by presenting the anatomy of both the gross and subtle human body. The subtle body, although made of particles, is invisible to the ordinary human eye, even if assisted by a microscope. It consists of energy-channels containing nodes called chakras, energy-winds, subtle vibrations or "speech," and creative drops. Thus, it is analogous to a universe consisting of planetary orbits, centrifugal energy, planetary speed and orbiting planets. These subtle channels, winds, speech and drops play a large role in the Kalachakra system, including the initiation. Let us therefore look at them more closely.

Just as the gross body has the visible channels of the circulatory, digestive and nervous systems, likewise the subtle body has invisible channels through which energy-winds flow. Chinese medicine presents a similar phenomenon in the form of invisible meridians used in acupuncture. Researchers of modern allopathic medicine are also currently investigating the existence of invisible pathways within the body. This is because messages of the immune system to deploy white blood cells do not pass through the nervous system or any other visible channels of communication.

The Tibetan term for subtle energy-channels, tsa, also means roots. If the gross body is like a plant above the surface of the ground, the channels are the invisible roots that connect it to its deepest level and source – the subtlest mind, energy-wind, speech and creative drop. Complete stage practice leads beneath the visible surface of the gross body to the chakras of the central channel and gains access through them to this subtlest, most subterranean level.

On a gross level, the winds of the breath course through the gross channels of the respiratory system, sustaining life in general. Similarly, subtle energy-winds course through the subtle channels providing the energy for motion, digestion and the functioning of the senses. Complete stage practice involves methods that cause these winds to dissolve at the chakras of the central channel, somewhat like water going down a drain and disappearing beneath the ground. Since mind is inseparable from these winds, this dissolution process brings the awareness to the subtle, subterranean level which is clear light mind.

Gross speech is the sound of the vibration of the breath within the respiratory channels of the nose, throat and lungs. Subtle speech is a parallel phenomenon that occurs in the subtle energy-system. Modern medicine seems to confirm the existence of this subtle resonance when it uses equipment to measure phenomena such as brain waves. Complete stage methods generate subtle sounds within the central energy-channel, which help draw the energy-winds there and dissolve. During the initiation and generation stage practice, we build up causes to accomplish this process by visualizing seed-syllables within the chakras of our central channel.

Just as winds of karma cause visible creative drops of sperm, semen, ovum and vaginal secretion to pass through gross channels of the visible body, likewise a wide assortment of subtle creative drops passes through the invisible channels of the subtle body. Perhaps the closest equivalent in Western medical science is the flow of hormones. Complete stage practice brings the ability to move these subtle drops at will and to position them in such a way that they support the clear light mind's blissful awareness of voidness.

The Four Subtle Creative Drops

In addition to the drops that move through the channels of the subtle energy-system, there are four subtle creative drops that remain stationary throughout our life. These are the body, speech, mind and deep awareness drops located, respectively, at the center of the mid-brow, throat, heart and navel chakras. These are more gross than the subtlest drop inseparable from clear light mind and, like the gross body and the rest of the subtle energy-system, do not continue into death or Buddhahood.

When we are awake, dreaming, in dreamless sleep or in peak moments of orgasmic bliss, energy-winds of karma associated with each of these experiences gather, respectively, in the vicinity of the body, speech, mind or deep awareness creative drops, but not within the central channel. Our mind then projects the appearances it perceives during these states onto the basis of external or internal particles or atoms. The process is like one of artistic creation. Mind dips the energy-winds, like a brush, into one of four subtle drops, and paints appearances on the canvas of the atoms of our external or internal elements.

The winds of karma that are drawn to these drops, like iron filings to a magnet, carry the karmic potentials that obscure our experience of these four occasions so that they are associated with confusion. Thus we experience appearances of solid existence on the basis of our awake drop, confused speech on the basis of our dream drop, a blank unknowing mind on the basis of our deep sleep drop, and the bliss of orgasmic release on the basis of our deep awareness drop. These build up more winds of karma to perpetuate our continuing rebirth in forms that experience problems and suffering.

The appearances that mind gives rise to during these four occasions are deceptive because they arise under the influence of the karma and confusion that are carried by the winds of karma. It is as if the artist mind is using a dirty brush to paint. Appearances, in this context, are not merely visual forms, but also sounds, smells, tastes, and physical or tactile sensations. The mind makes all these forms appear to be solidly existent, whereas in reality nothing exists in this fantasized and impossible manner. After all, material phenomena are made of atoms. The mind simply connects the dots and makes them appear to be concrete and solid.

Eliminating the winds of karma through generating our clear light mind as an unchanging blissful awareness of voidness also removes the obscuration that these energy-winds carry. As a result, appearances of solid existence, confused speech and so on no longer arise. This is how the four subtle drops are purified. They are cleansed of their association with confused states of mind – a process which begins with the Kalachakra initiation.

Correlation with Descriptions of Subtle Body in Other Systems

The discussion of the four subtle drops, which is exclusive to Kalachakra literature, helps to explain many of the obscure points in other systems. For example, it is a common practice to focus on the mid-brow to awake from dullness or sleepiness during meditation. Only by reading the Kalachakra Tantra does it become clear that this is because the mid-brow is the location of the body drop, which is associated with being awake. Similarly, because the speech drop, associated with dreams, is located at the throat, focusing on the throat before going to sleep harnesses the dream state for practicing dream yoga. Because the mind drop associated with the nonconceptual state of deep dreamless sleep is located at the heart, concentrating on the heart chakra in clear light practices manifests subtlest mind. And it is because the deep awareness drop associated with peak blissful moments is located at the navel that the practice of tummo, or the inner flame, uses the navel chakra to generate blissful deep awareness to be used for understanding voidness.

The description of the energy-channels and chakras in the Kalachakra system diverges slightly from that found in the other anuttarayoga tantras, as represented by Guhyasamaja. On one level, just as the abhidharma and Kalachakra depictions of the universe differ due to their separate purposes, the same is true with the presentations of the channels and chakras in the two tantra systems. The Kalachakra teachings structure everything in terms of parallels between the external and internal worlds so as to model meditations analogous to both. Just as there are six elements in the world, in anatomy there are six main chakras along the central channel – at the crown of the head, forehead, throat, heart, navel and pubic region. During the Kalachakra empowerment, visualizations of different syllables and colored discs at these spots purify both the chakras and their associated elements.

We can also understand the different presentations of the body's subtle energy system as particularly suited to specific types of practitioners. We do not have just one type of subtle system, like a blood type, which can be determined in consultation with a tantric meditation master. Rather, each of us possesses the entire range of energy systems, somewhat like quantum levels. Work with a meditation master helps ascertain which of these systems is most prominent and easiest for us to access in order to reach the subtlest level of our mind so as to gain with it the most effective understanding of voidness.

Kalachakra and Tibetan-Mongolian Medicine

The presentation of the channels and chakras in Tibetan medicine is slightly different from that of both the Kalachakra and Guhyasamaja systems. In his medical commentaries, Desi Sanggyay-gyatso, the seventeenth-century minister of the Fifth Dalai Lama, has pointed out that this discrepancy is helpful. Otherwise people might simply read a medical text on anatomy and think that they could practice advanced tantric meditations involving the subtle energy-system without the close supervision and guidance of a qualified master. Approaching such meditations in a do-it-yourself manner is actually quite dangerous.

Although most of the Tibetan-Mongolian medical system derives from other Indian Buddhist sources, it does borrow a number of anatomical terms from the Kalachakra system. The sections of the central channel above and below the navel chakra, for example, are called Rahu and Kalagni, while the major right and left channels that intertwine around this chakra are called the sun and the moon. Thus the meeting of these four channels at the navel chakra parallels the structure of solar and lunar eclipses, when these four heavenly bodies likewise conjoin. This symbolism of an eclipse also occurs during the practices of the alternative cycles of time, including the empowerment, when we generate ourselves as the Buddha-figure Kalachakra standing on moon, sun, Rahu and Kalagni discs that are stacked like cushions on top of each other. This visualization contributes to the ability, in the complete stage practice, to gather the energy-winds at the navel chakra so that they eclipse, enter the central channel and dissolve.

On another level, the white, red, black and yellow discs of these heavenly bodies symbolize, respectively, the body, speech, mind and deep awareness subtle drops that are purified and used for achieving the enlightening body, speech, mind and blissful deep awareness of a Buddha. The yellow disc is on top of the stack to indicate that the devoid form which is the immediate cause for achieving an enlightening Kalachakra body is generated first at the navel chakra, the location of the deep awareness drop.

The Correlation of Internal and External Cycles

The second chapter continues the discussion of the human body by presenting the daily cycles through which it passes, all of which are analogous to external cycles of the universe. The most important internal cycle is that of the breath, since there is an intimate connection between breath and the energy-winds. The names for both are in fact the same.

On an external level, if the period of a day and night is divided into sixty Kalachakra hours – there is no rule that it can only be divided into twenty-four – then in a 360-day lunar year, there are 21,600 hours. Similarly, if our energies are balanced, we breathe 21,600 times during the course of a day and night. This works out to one breath about every four modern seconds, which is accurate when we time our own respiration. Just as the sun travels half the year through the northern sector of the sky and half through the southern one – known astronomically as the sun's northern and southern declinations – likewise we breathe half the time predominantly through the right nostril and the other half through the left. If we put our hand beneath our nose, we can verify that we breathe mainly through one nostril at any time. Except for a few breaths during the shift from one nostril to the other, the breath normally does not pass evenly through both.

Furthermore, just as the sun travels through the twelve zodiac signs during a year, likewise the breath shifts from one nostril to the other twelve times during a day and night. All these parallels have counterparts in the alternative Kalachakra system of practice.

The Life-Spirit Cycle and Good Health

The second chapter also discusses a special type of subtle creative drop that acts like a magnet attracting our life-spirit energy (Skt. bodhichitta; Tib. bla). This energy helps to keep our mind balanced. Losing it results in dysfunctional states such as nervous breakdown or shell shock. The life-spirit drop is the point of strongest potency of this energy, and it circulates around the body in a thirty-day cycle correlated to the phases of the moon. At each full moon, it is located at the crown of the head. During the waning moon it passes down one side of the body and during the waxing moon back up the other.

This phenomenon has medical application. Tibetan-Mongolian doctors, when time and circumstances permit, consult this cycle to choose the optimum day for performing, for example, moxibustion heat treatment for an arthritic joint. When an operation is performed on a certain spot in the body on the date of the lunar month when the life-spirit energy is most potent there, the body recovers more quickly. Perhaps this fact is related to cycles in the immune system. If the phases of the moon exert an influence on the strength of the tides, it is not unreasonable that they also affect the strength of the body's subtle energies.

The life-spirit cycle also helps us to understand certain enigmatic Buddhist teachings, for instance that it is best not to engage in sex on the full moon. When the subtle life-spirit drop is at the crown of the head, the life-spirit energies gather there. This provides the most conducive circumstance for bringing these and other energy-winds into the central channel through that juncture. Since orgasm releases subtle creative drops, including this life-spirit one, experiencing orgasm that day wastes the best opportunity in the month for dissolving the energy-winds and accessing clear light mind. The fact that on full moon days the life-spirit energy is most potent at the crown of the head – the most crucial point in the subtle body – may also account for particularly sensitive people noticing that their energies are affected by the full moon.

The internal cycles of time affect our health in general. In his fourteenth-century commentary on the second chapter of the Kalachakra Tantra, the Third Karmapa has explained how our confusion about reality causes cycles of the poisonous attitudes of attachment, anger and stubborn foolishness periodically to arise. These unbalanced attitudes bring on disease by precipitating an imbalance in the body's three corresponding physiological systems, known respectively as the humors of wind, bile and phlegm. Because Kalachakra practice eliminates confusion and ignorance, which are the roots of mental problems as well as physical disease, as the emotions become more balanced through meditative practice, the body naturally follows suit. Just as the external Kalachakra teachings provide guidelines for achieving world peace, the correlation in internal Kalachakra between emotional and physical health is one of the best guidelines for inner peace.

Alchemy

The last major topic of the second chapter is alchemy, the transformation of base substances into something useful and beneficial. First the text presents the formulas for making incense, for the purposes of disinfecting, healing and offering. It then explains how to transmute base metals, not into gold, but into medicine. The principal topic is how to detoxify mercury to render it usable as the main ingredient in preparing "precious pills."

As part of the internal cycles of time, new diseases periodically spread. Many of those prophesied in the text are related to pollution, which we can identify now as coming from chemicals, radiation and so on. The descriptions of the diseases seem also to include cancer and AIDS. Purified mercury detoxifies the body of pollutants and helps revitalize all of its systems. Tibetan doctors have used precious pills made from the Kalachakra formulas to successfully treat victims of the Bhopal chemical spill in India and the Chernobyl radiation disaster in the former Soviet Union, and are having modest success in at least prolonging the lives of some cancer and AIDS patients.

Parallel to the alchemical process, the alternative cycles present anuttarayoga tantra methods for transmuting the energy-winds that underlie disturbing emotions, such as longing desire, so as to make them useful along the spiritual path. Harnessing the energies of these emotions allows for an easier dissolution of other energy-winds in the body which are especially difficult to bring into the central channel. In this and other ways, the transmuted energy of desire acts like a precious medicine that helps access clear light mind and use its blissful deep awareness for focusing on voidness. The generation and use of blissful awareness for understanding voidness are major themes that repeat throughout the Kalachakra empowerment and meditation practices. Some knowledge of the internal cycles of time helps us to understand the physiology involved.