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KĀLACAKRA ("Wheel of Time"; Tib., dus kyi 'khor lo ; Mong., čay-un kürdü ) is the Sanskrit name for the principal male deity and personification of the Kālacakra Tantra, an Indian Buddhist esoteric treatise belonging to the class of unexcelled yoga-tantras (anuttarayoga-tantra ). In this Tantric tradition, the deity Kālacakra represents spiritual knowledge (vidyā ) and the state of immutable bliss, which is attainable only through the yogic practices that are specific to the Kālacakra tradition. Kālacakra is a single, unified reality, which is given different names in the Kālacakra tradition: Ādibuddha (Primordial Buddha), sahajakāya (innate body), jñānakāya (gnosis body), viśuddhakāya (pure body), vajrayoga (indestructible union), and the like. This nondual reality has two main aspects: the phenomenal world of multiplicity (sasāra ) and the unitary ultimate reality (nirvāa ).

The Kālacakra tradition is the latest Buddhist tantric system to appear in India. While retaining its distinctive Buddhist tradition, the Kālacakra tradition integrates a variety of non-Buddhist Indian elements. The most prominent of these are Śākhya and Jainism. Likewise, a number of non-Buddhist Indian deities encountered in Hindu tantric systems have a place in the Kālacakra pantheon. Although the Kālacakra Tantra shares some general characteristics with other Unexcelled Yoga Tantras in terms of tantric yogic practice, it differs from others in its goal of the attainment of the empty form (śūnyatā-bimba) that is devoid of matter, and in the path to that goal, namely, the Kālacakra Tantra's six-phased yoga.

Another unique feature of the Kālacakra tradition is its close affiliation with the mythical land of Śambhala and its kings, not only in terms of its history but also in its future role in Buddhism. It prophesizes an apocalyptic battle between Raudra Cakri, the King of Śambhala, and the malevolent King of the barbarians, whom Raudra Cakri will defeat. The calculations pertaining to the time of the battle are contained in Kālacakra's elaborate astrological system.

Regarding the individual, the term kālacakra signifies the circulation of vital energies (prāa ) within the circular passages in the body; in terms of the cosmos, it designates the passing of days, months, and years in the cycle of time. Regarding the ultimate reality, the term kālacakra refers to the nonduality of the two facets of enlightened awareness-emptiness (śūnyatā ) and compassion (karuā ), or wisdom (prajñā ) and method (upāya ). It further denotes the unity of the Buddha's mind, or the supreme, indestructible knowledge, and his body, or a phenomenal world, which is the object of that knowledge. Kālacakra's consort is Viśvamātā (Tib., Sna tshogs yum; Mong., Visiyamada), who is the personified perfection of wisdom.

History of the KĀlacakra Tradition

The early history of the Kālacakra tradition in India is abstruse, since the earliest holders of the tradition remain shrouded by pseudonyms. The most prominent early masters of the Kālacakra tradition in India were Pio, Dīpakaraśrījñāna (also known as Atīśa), Nāro, Śrībhadrabodhi, Somanātha, Anupamarakita, Abhayākāragupta, Raviśrījñāna, Śakyaśrībhadra, and Vibhūticandra. An important reference for establishing the period of the propagation of the Kālacakra tradition in India is found in the Kālacakra Tantra (chap. 1, v. 27) and in the Vimalaprabhā (Stainless light) commentary. These two sources mention the end of the sexagenary cycle that comes 403 years after the Hijirī era of 623 ce as the earliest period in which the Kālacakra Tantra was promulgated in India. Thus, the year 1026 ce, which was the last year of the reign of King Mahīpāla of Bengal, a great supporter of Buddhism in India, is established as the year of the Kālacakra Tantra's composition.

According to the legendary accounts of the Kālacakra tradition, the existing version of the Kālacakra Tantra is said to be an abridged version of a larger original Tantra called the Paramādibuddha Tantra (Tantra of the primordial Buddha), which reportedly consisted of twelve thousand verses. According to the Vimalaprabhā (chap. 1), the extant version of the Kālacakra Tantra was taught by Buddha Śākyamuni to Sucandra, the king of Śambhala, and an emanation of Bodhisattva Vajrapāi in the Dhāyakaaka stupa, situated in the vicinity of the present-day village of Amarāvatī in Andhra Pradesh. Having returned to Śambhala, King Sucandra wrote it down and disseminated it throughout his kingdom.

Sucandra's six successors continued to maintain the Kālacakra tradition, and the eighth king of Śambhala, Mañjuśrī Yaśas, composed the abridged version, known as the Laghukālacakratantrarāja (Sovereign abridged Kālacakra Tantra ). Existent Sanskrit variants of the abridged version are written in the śradgharā meter (four lines of twenty-one syllables each) and contain between 1,030 and 1,037 verses. The tradition holds that Mañjuśrī Yaśas's successor Puarīka, an emanation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, composed the Vimalaprabhā, an extensive 12,000-line commentary on the Kālacakra Tantra.

Tibetan sources on the history of the Kālacakra Tantra differ in their accounts of the Kālacakra Tantra's history in India. According to the Tibetan Rwa tradition, Indian Buddhist master Cilupā of Orissa, after studying the Kālacakra Tantra in Ratnagiri in the second half of the tenth century, set out on a journey to Śambhala to receive further teachings on the text. Having returned to India in 966 ce, Cilupā taught the Kālacakra Tantra to his three disciples and wrote a commentary on it. His most important disciple, Pio Ācārya, later taught the Tantra to Kālacakrapāda the Senior, from Bengal, who in turn passed on the tradition to his disciples, among whom the most important is Kālacakrapāda the Junior. To facilitate the propagation of the Kālacakra tradition in all of the regions of India, Kālacakrapāda the Junior built a Kālacakra temple at Nālandā in the present-day state of Bihar, where he taught the Kālacakra Tantra and wherefrom the Kālacakra tradition widely spread. A disciple of Kālacakrapāda the Junior by the name of Mañjukīrti passed on the tradition to the Newari paita Samantaśribhadra, who in the later part of the eleventh century assisted the Tibetan translator Rwa lo tsa ba rdo rje grags pa (Ra lotsawa dorje drak pa) in translating the Kālacakra Tantra and Vimalaprabhā into Tibetan. This translation marked the beginning of the Kālacakra Rwa lineage in Tibet, which became influential in the Sa skya (Śākya) school of Tibetan Buddhism.

According to the Tibetan 'Bro tradition, the Kālacakra Tantra was brought to India during the reign of Kalkī Śrīpāla in Śambhala. He gave a transmission to Kālacakrapāda the Senior, from whom the Kālacakra tradition was successively transmitted through Kālacakrapāda the Junior to the Kāśmiri paita Somānātha. In the early eleventh century, Somānātha assisted Tibetan translator 'Bro shes rab grags (Dro sherap drak) in translating the Kālacakra literature into Tibetan. This initiated the Kālacakra 'Bro lineage in Tibet, which was passed on to Bsgom pa dkon mchog gsum (Gompa Könchok sum) of the Bka' gdams (Kadam) pa school, subsequently to the eighth Karma pa, Mi bskyod rdo rje (Mikyo Dorje, 15071554), and then to Dol bu pa shes rab rgyal mtshan (Dölbupa sherap gyaltsan; 12921361) of the Jonang school. It was later transmitted by Tārānātha (15751643), through whom it reached the Zhang pa Bka' brgyud (Zhangpa Kagyu) school.

An important figure in bringing together the Rwa and 'Bro lineages was Bu ston rin chen grub (Butön rinchendrub, 12901364). His disciple transmitted both traditions to Rje Tsong kha pa (13571419), the founder of the Dge lugs (Geluk) pa school, who in turn transmitted it to his disciple Mkhas grub Dge legs dpal bzang (13851438).

A later tradition called Tsami was established by Tsa mi sangs rgyas grags pa (Tsami sangye drakpa) and Siddha Orgyen pa, who passed it on to the third Karma pa Rang byung rdo rje (Rangjung Dorje, 12841339). Gyi jo zla ba'i 'od zer (Gyijo dawei özer), who was the first to translate Kālacakra texts into Tibetan under the guidance of Indian paita Śrībhadrabodhi in 1026 ce, established the earliest Kālacakra lineage in Tibet. His lineage was passed on to 'Brom lo tsa ba padma 'od zer (Drom lotsawa padma özer), and it reached the Jonang pa school through Jonang Kun spang thugs brtson 'grus (Jonang Künpang tuk tsöndrü) (12431313), the founder of Jonang monastery.

Among the Tibetan scholars who produced an extensive amount of commentarial literature on the Kālacakra Tantra, Rgyal tshab dar ma rin chen (Gyaltsap darma rinchen; 13641432), Stag tshang lo tsa ba (Taktsang lot sawa), and 'Ju Mi pham rgya mtsho (Ju mipan gyatso; 18461912) are also worthy of mention.

Content of the KĀlacakra Tantra

The Kālacakra Tantra is divided into five chapters, which are categorized by the Tibetan tradition into three main divisionsthe Outer, Inner, and Alternative Kālacakra.

1. The Inner Kālacakra (chap. 1: "The Cosmos") deals with cosmology, astrology, chronology, and eschatology. It describes in detail the nature of time and the elementary particles of the cosmos, along with the origination, configuration, measurements, and dissolution of the cosmos and its constituents. It interprets the cosmos as a four-tiered maala and as the cosmic body of the Buddha.

2. The Outer Kālacakra (chap. 2: "The Individual") deals with human embryology and subtle psychophysiology, astro-medicine, medical botany, yogic and ritual therapies, and alchemy. It discusses the formation, functions, and disintegration of the human body, speech, and mind. It interprets the individual as a microcosmic representation of the cosmic maala, as a cycle of time, and as an abode of the four bodies of the Buddha (sahajakāya, dharmakāya, sabhogakāya, and nirmāakāya ).

3. The Alternative Kālacakra (chaps. 35: "Initiation," "Sādhana," and "Gnosis") deals with the practice of Kālacakra, which is generally divided into three main stagesinitiation (abhieka ), the stage of generation (utpattikrama ), and the stage of completion (sapannakrama ).

Kālacakra initiation involves the initiate's entrance into the Kālacakra maala, purification and empowerment by the deities in the maala, a series of meditations and recitations of mantras, and the taking of Tantric vows and pledges. The stage of initiation consists of eleven successive initiations. The first seven initiations are the water, crown, crown pendant, vajra and bell, conduct, name, and permission initiations; the four higher initiations are the vase, secret, wisdom, and gnosis. The successive initiations are analogous to the individual's progression on the Buddhist path from a layperson to a buddha.

The stage of generation involves the practice of conceptual meditation in which one mentally creates the Kālacakra maala with its various deities and imagines oneself as the Kālacakra deity standing in the center of the maala, holding the vajra and bell, and embracing Viśvamātā. The maala represents a sublimated cosmos and a mother's body insofar as the mental creation of the maala and its deities is analogous to the individual's conception, development in the mother's womb, and birth. The deities in the maala represent the purified aspects of the Buddha's four bodies, or the sublimated aspects of the individual's gnosis, mind, speech, and body. The maala embodies the Kālacakra mantra: o ha ka ma la ca ra ya svāhā. The stage of generation also involves certain sexual yogic practices with either an actual consort or an imagined consort. The goal of this stage of practice is the accumulation of merit and further purification through the transformation of the individual's conception of the world.

The stage of completion involves meditation on the form of emptiness (śūnyatā-bimba ) by means of the practice of the six-phased yoga (a-agayoga ). This six-phased yoga of Kālacakra consists of the following phases: retraction (pratyāhāra ), meditative stabilization (dhyāna ), breath control (prāāyāma), retention (dhāraā ), recollection (anusmti ), and samādhi. The samādhi phase is characterized by the generation of 21,600 moments of the immutable bliss, which, coursing through the six bodily chakras, eliminate the material aspects of the four drops in the individual's body and facilitate their manifestation as the four bodies of the Buddha. Thus, 21,600 moments of bliss transform the material and perishable nature of the individual's body and mind into the empty form and the gnosis of imperishable bliss, called Kālacakra.

Iconography of KĀlacakra

In Buddhist iconography, Kālacakra is depicted as standing on a lotus, which is on the disks of the sun, moon, and Rāhu, with the right knee advanced and the left leg retracted (the ālīha posture), crushing Kāmadeva and Rudra with his two feet. He has a dark blue body, symbolizing day and night; three throats, each of which represent four zodiac signs; four faces, each of which represent three zodiac signs; twelve shoulders, representing the twelve months of the year; twenty-four arms holding various weapons; and 360 joints of the hands, symbolizing 360 days of the year. He is embraced by a yellow, twelve-eyed Viśvamātā, standing with the left foot advanced and the right leg retracted (the pratyāliha posture).

Since the 1980s, the Kālacakra tantric system has been gaining popularity in Europe and the United States, in part because the Dalai Lama has offered initiations each year in Western countries in the belief that the time of Śambhala is approaching and in order to generate a karmic connection for Buddhist practitioners to Śambhala.


Broido, Michael M. "Killing, Lying, Stealing, and Adultery: A Problem of Interpretation in the Tantras." In Buddhist Hermeneutics, edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., pp. 71118. Honolulu, 1988. Addresses a hermeneutical problem in Buddhist Tantric literature by concentrating on specific passages from the Kālacakra literature and on the variety of interpretations given to them in different sources.

Gen Lamrimpa. Transcending Time: An Explanation of the Kālacakra Six-Session Guru Yoga. Translated by B. Alan Wallace. Boston, 1999. Discusses in detail the three areas of the Kālacakra practicepreliminary practices, six-session guru yoga, and the stage of completionas they are interpreted by the Tibetan Dge lugs pa tradition.

Geshe Lhundup Sopa, Roger Jackson, and John Newman, eds. The Wheel of Time: The Kalachakra in Context. Madison, Wis., 1985. Contains five articles by different authors giving a brief summary of the broader context of the Kālacakra Tantra and its history and practice.

Gyatso, Tenzin (Dalai Lama XIV), and Jeffrey Hopkins. Kalachakra Tantra: Rite and Initiation. London, 1989. This volume consists of the three main parts: (1) a general introduction to the Kālacakra rite of initiation and its preliminary practices; (2) an English translation of Kay drup ge lek bel sang bo's text, Kālacakra Initiation Rite: Stage of Generation, with the Dalai Lama's commentary; and (3) a translation of the Dalai Lama's composition on the three versions of the six-session yoga.

Harrington, Laura, ed. Kalachakra. 2d ed. Rome, 1999. A pictorial guide with explanatory notes to the Kālacakra maala and its deities.

Newman, John. "The Outer Wheel of Time: Vajrayāna Buddhist Cosmology in the Kālacakra Tantra. " Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1987. This dissertation concentrates primarily on the analysis of the first chapter of the Kālackra Tantra. It contains a translation of several cosmological and eschatological passages of the Kālacakra Tantra and the Vimalaprabhā; in footnotes, it gives useful interpretations from several Tibetan commentaries on those passages.

Newman, John. "The Paramādibuddha (The Kālacakra-mūla-tantra ) and Its Relation to the Early Kālacakra Literature." Indo-Iranian Journal 30 (1987): 93102.

Newman, John. "Buddhist Siddhānta in the Kālacakra Tantra. " Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 36 (1992): 227234. Analyzes philosophical statements found in the second chapter of the Kālacakra Tantra from historical and philological perspectives.

Newman, John. "Eschatology in the Wheel of Time Tantra." In Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., Princeton, 1995. Includes brief introductory notes and a translation of a short, eschatological passage from the first chapter of the Kālacakrata Tantra.

Steams, Cyrus. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Albany, N.Y., 1999. Offers an insight into the Tibetan zhan stong view based on teachings in the Kālacakra Tantra and unique teachings of Dolpopa, a great Kālacakra master from the Tibetan Jonang tradition.

Wallace, Vesna A. "The Buddhist Tantric Medicine in the Kālacakratantra. " Pacific Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, n.s. 1011 (1995): 155174. Discusses the concept of science in the Kālacakra Tantra, the Kālacakra Tantra 's medical theories and practices, and their soteriological significance.

Wallace, Vesna A. The Inner Kālacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual. New York, 2001. Analyses the Kālacakra tradition's various interpretations of the individual and the individual's place in the universe. It discusses the individual in terms of the Kālacakra deity's cosmic, social, gnostic, and transformative bodies.

Vesna A. Wallace (2005)