Making Sense of Tantra
Part II: Why Tantra Is More Efficient Than Sutra
The Kalachakra Tantra has many unique features not shared in common with the other anuttarayoga Buddha-figure systems. The upward and downward analogies of general anuttarayoga still pertain to its practice, except that Kalachakra does not entail practice analogous to bardo and sambhogakaya. It has practices analogous only to death and dharmakaya, and to rebirth and nirmanakaya. This is for reasons explained below. Nevertheless, Kalachakra practice involves additional downward and upward analogies.
Kalachakra (Dus-'khor) means cycles of time and there are three such cycles, each of which is analogous to the other two:
- external cycles of time, through which the universe passes,
- internal cycles, through which the body passes,
- alternative cycles, referring to the Kalachakra empowerment and practice, and to enlightenment.
The external and internal cycles describe samsara. They repeat uncontrollably because of the winds of karma (las-kyi rlung) and the unawareness of reality that drives these winds. The alternative cycles of time purify us of the true causes for experiencing the true problems of the external and internal cycles.
For example, the external cycles entail, for a universe:
- eons of formation,
- eons of endurance,
- eons of disintegration,
- empty eons.
For a year:
- spring, when foliage grows,
- summer, when it endures,
- autumn, when foliage falls apart,
- winter, when the trees are empty.
Analogous to the external cycles, the internal cycles include the karmic winds passing through four subtle creative energy-drops (thig-le bzhi) in the subtle body, producing the appearances of the four occasions (gnas-skabs bzhi). Appearances may be of sights, sounds, odors, tastes, physical sensations, or ways of being aware of something, such as bliss.
- The body creative-drop produces the appearances experienced while awake, which grow through sensory experience.
- The speech creative-drop produces the appearances experienced while dreaming, which are enduring images that do not organically grow or age.
- The mind creative-drop produces the appearances experienced in deep dreamless sleep, when external sensory experience falls away.
- The deep-awareness creative-drop produces the appearances experienced during orgasmic release, which are the gateways to the subtlest level of experience, empty of all grosser levels.
Through practices that parallel the four occasions, we achieve a Buddha's
- nirmanakaya, with enlightening appearances that arise and appear to grow,
- sambhogakaya, with enlightening appearances that endure until the end of everyone's samsara,
- jnana-dharmakaya (ye-shes chos-sku, corpus of deep awareness encompassing everything), in which all conceptual cognition and limitations have fallen away,
- svabhavakaya (ngo-bo-nyid sku, nature corpus), which, uniquely in Kalachakra, is the blissful awareness of omniscient awareness.
The external, internal, and alternative cycles share many other analogous features, such as:
- externally, the six months each of the northern and southern declinations of the sun, and the six types of subatomic particles;
- internally, the six aggregate factors of experience, the six bodily elements, the six types of primary consciousness, the six cognitive sensors, and so forth;
- alternatively, the six Buddha-families of the Kalachakra mandala, and the five types of deep awareness (five Buddha-wisdoms) plus clear-light awareness itself as their basis.
In addition, the physical proportions of the universe, the human body, the Kalachakra mandala, and its principal figure parallel each other.
In Kalachakra, wisdom refers to the nonconceptual clear-light cognition of voidness without aspect (rnam-med) and with aspect (rnam-can). Voidness without aspect is voidness itself – either as self-voidness, other-voidness, or both, depending on the Tibetan tradition. Voidness with aspect is the devoid-form (stong-gzugs) of a Buddha-figure.
Devoid forms are devoid of the gross particles of the elements, and are the reflexive appearances (rang-snang) of the clear-light mind that arise when the energy-winds enter the central energy-channel. They resemble appearances that arise on a magic-mirror (phra-phab) and may be in any form, not only that of a Buddha-figure.
The fourteenth-century Gelug master Gyaltsab Jey (rGyal-tshab rJe Dar-ma Rin-chen) explains that devoid forms are devoid of the gross particles of the elements in both senses of the superficial truth of gross particles – what they are and how they appear to exist. On the one hand, devoid-forms are not made of gross particles and are therefore a form of physical phenomenon that is subtler than they are. On the other hand, they do not appear to exist with true existence. The gross particles of the elements always appear to be truly existent.
The energy-winds do not need to be dissolved in the central channel and, consequently, clear-light mental activity does not need to be manifest for devoid-forms to appear. Moreover, even if clear-light mental activity is manifest, it does not need to cognize voidness in order for devoid-forms to arise.
Method in Kalachakra is unchanging blissful awareness (mi-'gyur-ba'i bde-ba). This is a blissful clear-light nonconceptual awareness of voidness; but unlike in general anuttarayoga tantra, it is based on two sets of 21,600 subtle creative energy-drops stacked one by one in the central channel. The two sets are different from the four subtle creative-drops of the four occasions.
Although unchanging blissful awareness is intermittent – it occurs only during total absorption on voidness – the stacked drops remain fixed until the attainment of enlightenment. Because of that, the blissful awareness is "unchanging." With the attainment of enlightenment, we no longer have gross or subtle bodies. Our former samsaric bodies, the stacked drops, and the four drops of the four occasions all disappear like a rainbow.
In general anuttarayoga,
- blissful awareness and illusory body are on the side of method;
- clear-light cognition of voidness is on the side of wisdom.
Thus, the obtaining causes for the enlightening bodies and mind of a Buddha are on the sides of method and wisdom respectively.
- unchanging blissful awareness is on the method side;
- devoid-forms and clear-light cognition of voidness are on the wisdom side.
Thus, the obtaining causes for enlightening bodies and mind are both on the wisdom side. They share the same similar-family cause (rigs-'dra'i rgyu).
A similar-family cause is one that is in the same family of phenomena as its result and, in a sense, serves as the model for its result. For example, the model of a vase is the similar-family cause for both a clay vase and a visualized vase. The model of a vase, a clay vase, and a visualized vase are all in the same family of phenomena – vases.
In Kalachakra, sharing the same similar-family cause are
- unchanging blissful clear-light cognition of voidness, and
- the devoid-forms that both give rise to this cognition and are the reflexive appearance of this cognition.
The similar-family cause that they share is the total absorption of clear-light cognition of voidness. In this respect, Kalachakra has a closer union of method and wisdom than does general anuttarayoga.
[For a more advanced discussion, see: Relationships between Two Objects in Anuttarayoga Tantra.]
In general anuttarayoga, only a purified illusory body as a basis for voidness can appear during total absorption on voidness with actual clear-light cognition. This is because only purified illusory bodies are made solely from the subtlest energy-wind, which is only accessible when the actual subtlest clear-light level is reached. Further, because appearances made solely from the subtlest energy-wind do not appear to be truly existent, they can appear simultaneously with their absolute absence of impossible ways of existing.
Before achieving actual clear-light cognition of voidness, we practice with an unpurified illusory body or with the imagined bodies of Buddha-figures, both of which are made from grosser levels of energy-wind. According to Gelug, grosser levels of energy-wind make only appearances of true existence. Because of that, such bases for voidness can only appear during the subsequent realization period when the level of mental activity and thus the energy-winds are grosser. Even when total absorption on voidness is conceptual, such bodies – appearing to be truly existent - cannot appear simultaneously with an appearance of empty space representing an absolute absence of the appearance of true existence.
Devoid-forms, as bases for voidness, on the other hand, are reflections of clear-light mental activity and thus do not appear to be truly existent. They appear once the energy-winds have been made to enter the central channel, whether or not clear-light mental activity is manifest, and whether or not cognition is nonconceptual. Because they do not appear as truly existent, they cannot arise while the mind is simultaneously giving rise to appearances of true existence. They can arise only while the mind is giving rise to an appearance of an absolute absence of the appearance of true existence. In other words, they can appear only during total absorption on voidness, either conceptual or nonconceptual, so long as the energy-winds have been made to enter the central channel. Thus, devoid-forms are extremely special bases for voidness since they can appear simultaneously with cognition of their voidness.
The fact that we meditate with devoid-forms, as the cause for achieving the enlightening body of a Buddha, only during total absorption on voidness explains why Kalachakra does not entail practices analogous to bardo. We achieve bardo only when the grosser energy-winds that make appearances of true existence arise again after the experience of the clear-light awareness of death. The bardo-body we then manifest is made of those grosser energy-winds. Since devoid-forms are not made of the grosser energy-winds that make appearances of true existence, practice with them does not resemble the experience of bardo.
In contrast, before manifesting an actual clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness, we can meditate with illusory bodies, as the cause for achieving an enlightening body, only during subsequent realization of voidness. This is because such bodies are made from the grosser energy-winds that make appearances of true existence, and such appearances arise during subsequent realization of voidness, as they do while experiencing bardo. Therefore, general anuttarayoga has practices that are analogous with bardo.
In general anuttarayoga, when clear-light mental activity is made inseparable from a blissful nonconceptual cognition of voidness, the physical basis that allows this attainment is the grosser energy-winds being made to enter, abide, and completely dissolve in the central channel. This remains the case only during total absorption on voidness. Until the attainment of enlightenment, the grosser energy-winds manifest once more during subsequent realization of voidness or during meditation on something else. At such times, we no longer experience blissful clear-light awareness of voidness. Because the physical basis for the blissful clear-light awareness of voidness is only present intermittently, this blissful awareness is called "changing blissful awareness" (' gyur-ba'i bde-ba).
In Kalachakra, the physical basis that allows clear-light mental activity to be inseparable from an unchanging blissful nonconceptual cognition of voidness is the subtle creative energy-drops stacked in the central channel. As is the case with changing blissful clear-light awareness of voidness, unchanging blissful clear-light awareness of voidness also
- ceases during subsequent attainment cognition of voidness and during meditation on something else, and
- functions as a nonstatic phenomenon, undergoing moment-to-moment change for the duration of its existence and producing effects.
Nevertheless, here, the physical bases for the unchanging awareness remain stacked in the central channel "unchangingly," until the total dissolution, forever, of all grosser levels of body. This final dissolution occurs with the attainment of the enlightening body of a Buddha.
The level of mental activity used in Kalachakra and in general anuttarayoga tantra is the same, namely clear-light awareness. Nevertheless, because Kalachakra practice makes that level an unchanging blissful awareness of voidness, rather than a changing blissful awareness of voidness, clear-light awareness of voidness in Kalachakra is more stable than that achieved in general anuttarayoga.
The non-Gelug traditions explain the closer analogies, closer union of method and wisdom, and special level of mental activity in Kalachakra much as Gelug does. Some slight differences appear, however, in their explanation of devoid-forms as the special bases for voidness. The source of the discrepancy lies in different assertions concerning the subtle energy-winds that make appearances.
Gelug asserts that the subtle appearance-making energy-winds make appearances only of true existence, both in conceptual and nonconceptual cognition. Non-Gelug asserts that they make appearances of truly existent "this"s and "that"s during conceptual cognition only. In sensory and mental nonconceptual cognitions, they make appearances of not truly existent "this"s and "that"s. Both types, however, are unpurified appearances. Devoid forms, as purified appearances, are beyond them both. They are the voidness with aspect that appears inseparably with voidness without aspect during deep awareness of nondenumerable deepest truth.
The rest of the explanation of this point – for instance, concerning unpurified illusory bodies appearing only during the subsequent attainment phase of conceptual cognition of voidness – is the same as Gelug.
We may practice tantra successfully without understanding how it works and why it brings enlightenment more quickly than does sutra. Nevertheless, a clear understanding of general tantra, general anuttarayoga, and Kalachakra theory helps us to develop unshakable confidence and sincere respect for their special methods. Coupled with the confidence, respect, and inspiration we gain from healthy relationships with our tantric masters, our tantra practices becomes even more stable for bringing their intended results – our abilities to be of best help to all others, with our attainments of enlightenment.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (35%)