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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

5 Alternative Kalachakra

Qualifications of a Kalachakra Master

The third through fifth chapters of the Kalachakra Tantra present the alternative cycles of time. The third chapter, which concerns the empowerment, begins with a discussion of the qualifications of a Kalachakra tantric master and the procedures to follow regarding such a teacher before receiving initiation. It is extremely important to examine a tantric master with critical scrutiny before committing ourselves to be a disciple. Success in achieving the goal of enlightenment and the full ability to benefit others depends on the purity and honesty of our relation with our teacher. Only after establishing a close bond and gaining total confidence is it appropriate to request from a master Kalachakra empowerment. As most people do not have the fortune or opportunity to establish a close personal relationship with the great masters who currently confer Kalachakra initiation, the only alternative is to check such teachers from whatever contact is possible or to consider trustworthy firsthand accounts. Even if we cannot personally meet the master before the empowerment, it is far better to come for initiation on the stable foundation of confidence and trust gained through reason, rather than the shaky grounds of blind faith based on the person's name and fame. Since in most cases it is not possible to request empowerment beforehand in a private meeting, the request is made formally as part of the initial steps of the ceremony.

According to the third chapter of the Kalachakra Tantra, authentic tantric masters of this system have unbroken close bonds with their own teachers, the practices, their vows and the true nature of reality. Specifically, they keep the Kalachakra tantric vows purely and have meditated successfully on the Kalachakra generation and complete stages. They are free of attachment to anything, including their families, friends and even their bodies. Likewise they are unstained by greed, anger, foolish and stubborn ignorance, pride, jealousy or miserliness. With great patience, they work for the sake of their disciples with sincere interest in their welfare, and with no concern for personally gaining service, love, respect, fame or wealth. They are solely motivated by bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha to benefit others. Having achieved pathway minds that lead to enlightenment, they are able to guide others in also gaining these minds and thus free them from fears. Having attained unchanging blissful awareness focused on voidness, they remain completely chaste, never losing their blissful state of mind through orgasm's release.

Furthermore, Kalachakra tantric masters are stable, emotionally tamed, full of common-sense intelligence, patient, honest, unpretentious, brimming with loving concern for others, well versed in scripture and commentary, skilled in applying the tantric methods, and totally familiar with all tantric ritual procedures. They have all the qualities and skills necessary to crush the four maras, or demonic interferences. According to the Kalachakra system, the four maras are our physical, verbal and mental obstacles or blocks, and the obstacles caused by belief in incorrect views of reality. The textual example of the latter is believing it is unnecessary to do anything constructive in life because all happiness comes as a gift of the gods.

If there are three qualified tantric masters available – a full monk, a novice and a householder – and, all else being equal, we need to choose from among them, the text says to rely on a fully ordained master. Devotion to a lay teacher in preference to a perfectly qualified monk undermines Buddha's teachings. This is because people seeing such a monk being bypassed gain the impression that the monastic community, representing the Sangha Jewel of Refuge – one of the Three Precious Gems that provide safe direction in life – is unnecessary. This is important to bear in mind in light of the tendency in the West to minimize the role and importance of monks and nuns in Buddhism and place the emphasis on laypersons.

Improper Teachers

The third chapter also explains how to recognize an improper Kalachakra master. Such teachers are proud, filled with prejudice and hatred, have broken their close bonds with their teachers, vows and the practices, show disrespect for holy objects, and have studied little of the vast Kalachakra practices. They are only interested in deceiving their disciples, their minds have fallen from unchanging blissful awareness – if they had ever achieved it – and they teach without proper empowerment or meditation experience. They are attached to desirable objects of the senses, are not conscientious, use harsh language, and desire only the ephemeral bliss of sexual orgasm. The Kalachakra Tantra warns to avoid such teachers like a burning hell. Even if we request and go through the ritual procedures of tantric initiation with such so-called "gurus," we do not actually receive empowerment. This is because their shortcomings disqualify them from being capable of conferring it.

If we have already committed ourselves to such improper teachers, who lack compassion, are filled with anger, attached to sensory pleasures, arrogant and always praise themselves, the text advises to dissociate from them. Kaydrub Norzang-gyatso, the fifteenth-century tutor of the Second Dalai Lama, was careful to explain that this does not mean to disparage them and be disrespectful. Rather, we have nothing further to do with them. Since it is difficult to find a teacher with full qualifications, the only alternative is to rely on someone who at least has a majority of good qualities, most importantly someone who keeps the vows purely.

Qualifications for Receiving Empowerment

The third chapter next explains the qualifications of disciples for receiving Kalachakra empowerment. We need to examine ourselves honestly to see if we meet the standard. According to the Abbreviated Kalachakra Tantra, proper disciples for full empowerment have deep interest in unchanging blissful awareness of voidness and devoid forms, and delight in restraining from destructive behavior and in strictly maintaining the tantric vows. They have given up distracting themselves with trivial endeavors, have no regard for wealth or possessions, have undying faith in the Triple Gem, and have no interest in worldly attainments from tantric practice, only enlightenment. Furthermore, they fully respect the tantric procedures, do not consider mere visualization or ritual practice to be sufficient, are able to keep the guideline instructions for the complete stage confidential until they have gained realization of them, and do not closely associate with those who might deter them from their practice or goal.

The Stainless Light commentary adds that proper disciples for any level of Kalachakra empowerment have begun their serious spiritual training by receiving and keeping lay vows to avoid killing, stealing, lying, indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior and taking intoxicants. For those who have not had the opportunity to take these vows beforehand, they are included among the twenty-five modes of tamed behavior initiates pledge to uphold as part of the empowerment. We shall examine the meaning and implications of this pledge when we discuss these types of tamed behavior in Chapter Eight.

Furthermore, with a firm foundation of ethical self-discipline, proper disciples have developed a mahayana mind imbued with love, compassion, exceptional resolve and bodhichitta, and have come to hold a madhyamaka view of reality by having studied, in stages, the less sophisticated Buddhist tenet systems. Gradually working up to a madhyamaka view ensures a deeper understanding which is more firmly based.

Since every step of the Kalachakra empowerment and practice is founded on bodhichitta and an understanding of voidness, at least some familiarity with them is necessary beforehand. The text does not state specifically what level of competence this need be. However, following basic Buddhist guidelines is always a safe criterion. An engaged practitioner is more interested in future lives than in this one, more interested in liberation from samsara than in gaining a better future rebirth, more interested in helping others than in satisfying selfish desires, and more interested in seeing the reality of things than in unquestioningly accepting appearances. Even if we have not studied voidness or meditated on it deeply, we need at least to take sincere interest in it and intend to pursue it more seriously as soon as possible.

Finally, the Stainless Light states that before empowerment disciples need to have fervent regard and respect for the methods of anuttarayoga tantra, and specifically those of Kalachakra. To gain this admiration and interest, some level of study and intellectual understanding is indispensable.

Deciding Whether to Attend the Empowerment

Many people would prefer to ask an authority if they are prepared or suited for Kalachakra practice. It is very rare, however, to have such an opportunity, and few have a close enough personal relationship with a spiritual master for consultation to be meaningful. We basically need to decide for ourselves if we are ready for tantra, and specifically for Kalachakra.

Many different motivations bring people to the Kalachakra initiation. Some persons are already deeply involved with another anuttarayoga tantra system and want to study Kalachakra to gain a clearer understanding of their other tantric practices. Some are practitioners who are not certain which Buddha-figure best suits them and wish to widen their options by including Kalachakra. Many do not feel ready for anuttarayoga practice, but attend simply to observe and to establish a karmic connection with the practice to pursue it in the future. However, if we are serious about practicing Kalachakra itself, how do we know it is right for us?

The main factor to consider in choosing an anuttarayoga system is the style of its complete stage practice. We need to identify our dominant subtle energy-system and determine which complete stage methods most effectively and suitably use that system to bring us access to our clear light mind. We can only ascertain this from meditation experience gained through study and experimentation with several systems, under the close supervision of a qualified tantric master. Having established the most appropriate complete stage style, then when we are prepared to devote full time to its practice, we focus intensely on the corresponding generation stage that ripens into success for that effort. The usual custom before reaching this point of certitude is to engage in a certain amount of generation stage practice of several anuttarayoga systems – as many and broad a spectrum as fit our capacity – so as to establish the karmic connections and familiarity necessary to make a final choice of systems.

The question still remains how to decide whether to include Kalachakra within the sphere of our anuttarayoga practice. We gauge our affinity by simply examining our natural interests. Although the texts do not elaborate this point, those who are intrigued with astronomy, astrology, nuclear physics, mathematics, technology, history or conflict resolution, and who feel drawn toward the external and internal Kalachakra discussions of these points, most likely have some connection with Kalachakra. We can conclude the same if our life is very complex, we need to juggle many things each day, and we are naturally attracted to the positive self-image Kalachakra represents – the ability to handle all situations no matter what the time or how many there might be.

Holding a Kalachakra self-image at moments of need and reciting appropriate mantras to maintain mindfulness of it are of great benefit even for people who never engage in a more serious level of Kalachakra meditation. In modern societies, many people lead fragmented lives, feeling alienated from vital components such as their body, feelings, creativity or parents. It is difficult to balance and integrate everything. It is as if we lead many lives at once – a public life and a private one, an office life, a family life, and social, professional, intellectual, spiritual, sports, club, holiday, leisure and political lives as well. The situation becomes even more complicated when there are divorces and remarriages. Kalachakra represents the ability to be a whole person, to fit all these elements together harmoniously.

The Kalachakra self-image derives from visualizing and identifying with all 722 figures of a complex mandala at the same time. When we are overwhelmed with work at the office and our supervisor places yet another project on our desk, if we remember the Kalachakra self-image, we do not become upset. It is like adding another group of figures in one of the corners of our huge mandala world. We can handle it easily. Thus even if we do not choose Kalachakra as our main practice, or even consider it as an option for future focus, we may elect to receive the Kalachakra empowerment in order to develop and work with its conventional self-image.

The Mandala Used for Conferring Empowerment

Having discussed the qualifications of the tantric master and disciples for the empowerment, the Kalachakra Tantra next discusses the type of mandala from which the ceremony is given. During the empowerment, we are led into the three-dimensional mandala world of Kalachakra and actually conferred empowerment in this mandala. This mandala is made of transparent clear light and is an emanation of the enlightening mind of the tantric master as the Buddha-figure. Those without an extremely advanced realization cannot actually see that mandala. During the initiation, most people merely imagine it to be present. There needs to be a basis, however, for this visualization to be a valid cognition.

We can understand the necessity for this from the example of mental labeling. Consider the example of building a new house. A house cannot be built without a mental scheme or an architect's blueprint or model, but the house itself is not any of these representations. No one is going to live in the tiny model. We can only speak of the specific house on the basis, for example, of a drawing. If there is no scheme, we can only speak of a new house in general, not the specific one we intend to build. The house is not the word "house," but is what that word refers to on the basis of the drawing. In Buddhist terminology, the drawing or model is the basis for mentally labeling the house. We cannot deal with a house except in terms of a basis for labeling one. When the house is actually built, the basis for labeling it is its rooms.

To deal with the Kalachakra mandala during initiation, there must also be a basis for labeling it. According to Naropa's eleventh-century Indian commentary to the third chapter, for Kalachakra empowerment that basis must be a mandala made of colored powders. If there are no resources available for constructing such a mandala, and the disciples are extremely well qualified, tantric masters may confer empowerment on the basis of a mandala emanated from their clear light mind and maintained by the power of their stable concentration. This is the only exception aside from the special occasion when King Manjushri-yashas used the full-scale three-dimensional replica of the mandala built in the royal park of Shambhala to unite his people. Nowadays, however, when resources are not available, many masters confer the empowerment on the basis of a mandala drawn on cloth.

The Three Levels of Empowerment

The Kalachakra initiation consists of many different individual empowerments and, depending on how many are included, a Kalachakra master can confer the overall initiation on three levels of extensiveness. All levels of the initiation contain a set of seven empowerments known as the "seven of entering like a child." Each of these seven is analogous to a stage in human development from birth to youth. Beyond the seven of entering like a child, there are higher and highest sets of vase, secret, wisdom and fourth, or word empowerments, as well as the great vajra master empowerment.

On the first level of extensiveness, the master only imparts the seven of entering like a child. Receiving them empowers us to engage in the generation stage practices. On the second level, eleven empowerments are conferred: the seven of entering like a child, the higher vase, secret and wisdom empowerments, and then both the higher and highest fourth empowerments, which are counted as one. This second level empowers us to meditate on both the generation and complete stages of Kalachakra practice. The fullest level of initiation has the seven empowerments of entering like a child, the four higher and four highest empowerments, and the great vajra master initiation. It empowers those who gain actual attainments through generation and complete stage practice to confer Kalachakra initiation to others. Since most of us do not have a pressing need at the moment for this final empowerment, we need not pout if the level of initiation we receive is not the fullest. We are not missing anything we need right now, even if we receive only the first-level Kalachakra empowerment.

In addition to these three levels of empowerment, there is also a Kalachakra subsequent permission ceremony. Westerners often do not differentiate between an empowerment and a subsequent permission – a wang and a jenang – and use the term "initiation" for both. This causes confusion. Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche often used the analogy that receiving an empowerment is like being given a sword, while receiving subsequent permission is like having that sword sharpened for more effective use. The Kalachakra subsequent permission adds further inspiration for using body, speech and mind in an enlightening manner along the spiritual path to benefit others. The subsequent permission ceremony may be added after any of the three levels of empowerment. Even if it is not included, the initiation is still complete. We have the sword. Once we gain some experience using it, we can have it sharpened.

The third chapter next presents the preparations a master needs to make before conferring empowerment, including how to consecrate the ground and establish a protected space to ward off interference during the ceremony. Finally, it details the procedures for each empowerment. We shall look at some of these points in subsequent chapters.

Approaching the Complexity of Kalachakra Practice

The fourth and fifth chapters present the generation and complete stage practices and describe the attainment of enlightenment through this path. These can be studied after receiving empowerment. Many people worry, however, that since the Kalachakra mandala contains 722 figures that are supposed to be visualized all at the same time in full detail, Kalachakra practice is too difficult. There is no need, however, to feel intimidated. Although Kalachakra practice is not simple, we do not begin meditation on its generation stage by attempting to visualize the entire thing. We usually start with a simplified sadhana scheme involving either one or two figures, with just one face and two arms. As our ability increases, we expand our visualization in specific increments until we are able to imagine the full mandala. Although study and practice of another anuttarayoga tantra, particularly Guhyasamaja, may be helpful before attempting Kalachakra, it is not a prerequisite.

Kalachakra does not hold the record for having the most figures in its mandala, but there are certainly enough. The mandala contains figures representing the 360 days of the year, the signs of the zodiac, the major constellations and planets, as well as most of the components of the human body, such as the bones, sensory apparatus, and the winds, channels and chakras of the subtle energy-system. Since our body and mind, and life itself, are so complex, with such numerous components, it takes an intricate scheme to symbolize, integrate and work with them all. Thus, all phases of Kalachakra practice, including the empowerment, are more elaborate than in most other tantras. The theory behind this is that because the mandala symbolizes the basis to be purified, a more extensive mandala results in a more thorough purification. This does not mean, however, that after receiving the Kalachakra initiation we must embark on a detailed study of Tibetan-Mongolian astrology and medicine to gain the widest possible knowledge of the basis to be purified. Acquaintance with their general principles is quite sufficient. Our main focus is on the alternative Kalachakra system.

Kalachakra complete stage practice brings the attainment of unique immediately preceding causes for an enlightening body and mind of a Buddha – namely, a devoid form and an unchanging blissful awareness of voidness. The enlightenment achieved by means of them, however, is the same as that attained through any other Buddhist method. When some classical Tibetan texts state that Kalachakra is the pinnacle of all tantras, their praise is due to the extensiveness and clarity of the Kalachakra material, not the resultant stage achieved through its practice.