Why Study and Practice Kalachakra?

An important question to ask ourselves before we receive a Kalachakara empowerment and to continue asking ourselves periodically after we have attained one is why study and practice Kalachakra? Before that, we need to ask ourselves why study and practice anuttarayoga tantra? And before that, why study and practice tantra in general? And before that, why study and practice the sutra methods of Buddhism at all?

Why Practice Sutra?

We practice the Mahayana sutra methods in order to rid ourselves of suffering in future lives, in samsara in general, and to be able to help others to do the same. To attain true stoppings of these sufferings, we need to attain true stoppings of their true cause, grasping for self-established existence.

The habits of grasping for self-established existence have no beginning, and thus everything that is based on this grasping also has no beginning. These include the tendencies of unawareness, the tendencies of the disturbing emotions, both positive and negative karmic force and both positive and negative karmic tendencies.

The evolving Buddha-nature traits that are the obtaining causes for the Buddha-bodies include the networks of positive force and deep awareness. The network of positive force is the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha and the network of deep awareness is the obtaining cause for the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya of a Buddha, i.e. the omniscient, all-loving Enlightening Mind of a Buddha. But each network serves as the simultaneously acting conditions for the other network. So we need to build up both networks in order to reach each of these goals.

These two networks also have no beginning. But, also with no beginning, the network of positive force has been mixed with grasping for self-established existence. Because of that, the network of positive force functions as a network of positive karmic force within the network of karmic force in general (both positive and negative). This positive karmic force just brings about samsaric happiness (the suffering of change) and further samsara (all-pervasive suffering). Also, positive karmic force is weaker than negative karmic force, which we can infer from the different amounts of effort it takes to act out anger, desire and greed versus refraining from acting them out. So, with no beginning, the network of positive force has brought only suffering.

The other aspect of our evolving Buddha-nature, the network of deep awareness likewise has no beginning. It includes awareness of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and the five types of deep awareness – mirror-like, equalizing, individualizing, accomplishing and sphere of reality. But, with no beginning, this network has been mixed with unawareness and distorted views, both of which derive from grasping for self-established existence. Consequently, deep awareness of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths becomes the sixteen distorted views of the four noble truths, or just not knowing anything about the four noble truths. Since the five types of deep awareness are also mixed with grasping for self-established existence, they give rise to the five types of disturbing emotions (for example, individualizing deep awareness becomes the basis for longing desire) and, in a sense, the network of the five types of deep awareness function as a network of the five major disturbing emotions. Thus, as is the case with the network of positive force, the network of deep awareness has also brought only suffering with no beginning.

The root of the problem is beginningless grasping for self-established existence, which entails two aspects: appearance-making of self-established existence and grasping for it to correspond to reality. Both occur in every moment of cognition, other than when nonconceptually cognizing voidness. During those moments, the habits of the grasping are still present imputedly existent on our mental continuums, but not active in giving rise to the appearances and grasping.

Only nonconceptual cognition of voidness has the power to bring about a true stopping of these constant habits. This it does by first causing the habits to stop giving rise to doctrinally-based grasping, then automatically-arising grasping, and then appearance-making. Each of these three phases of true stoppings requires a zillion eons of positive force behind the true pathway minds that bring about their attainment. But this is not positive karmic force: not positive force that just contributes to more samsara. It needs to be a different type of positive force.

To overpower the habits of grasping for self-established existence, the positive force and deep awareness (of the four noble truths and especially of voidness) need to be enlightenment-building. This means that our positive actions need to be preceded by unlabored refuge, unlabored renunciation and unlabored bodhichitta as their intention and followed by dedication of the positive force toward enlightenment. “Unlabored” means that we do not need to build up to these states of mind; we just automatically have them all the time, either consciously or unconsciously. Thus, automatically, sincerely, all the time, we want to be rid of suffering, attain liberation and enlightenment, based on knowing what they are, being convinced that they can be attained, that following the Dharma will bring about that attainment and that we ourselves can attain them. Build-ups of the two networks with this state of mind are the actual enlightenment-building networks. Thus, we do not need nonconceptual cognition of voidness in order to start building them up.

In the case of the enlightenment-building network of positive force, its build-up starts with our attainment of a building-up pathway mind (path of accumulation). Before that, with labored bodhichitta, we build up just a facsimile of this enlightenment-building network of positive force. In the case of the enlightenment-building network of deep awareness, just having unlabored bodhichitta is not enough. The starting point of the actual enlightenment-building network of deep awareness is our attainment of a seeing pathway of mind. Before that, with correct conceptual cognition of voidness, we build up just a facsimile network of deep awareness.

Although the mental factors of love and compassion also have no beginning and non-Buddhists as well can develop unlabored love and unlabored compassion; nevertheless, the exceptional resolve and bodhichitta have to be developed for the first time and non-Buddhists do not develop them. Non-Buddhists do not aim to attain enlightenment as indicated by the Buddha. Similarly, although the mental factor of discriminating awareness has no beginning and non-Buddhists as well can get it to function at its most accurate level, the discriminating awareness of voidness also needs to be developed for the first time.

Further, to start with, bodhichitta and correct discriminating awareness of voidness occur only intermittently; whereas grasping for self-established existence occurs in every moment. This means that something that has a beginning and is based on something that occurs only occasionally needs to be able to overpower and destroy something that has no beginning and occurs all the time. Because of that, it will take a huge build-up of these enlightenment-building networks to overpower and eliminate the samsara-building networks.

But even cognition of voidness, backed with unlabored bodhichitta, is not enough. That cognition needs to be with a mind that has attained a joined state of shamatha (a stilled and settled state of mind) and vipashyana (an exceptionally perceptive state of mind). And even that is not enough; that joined state needs to apprehend voidness. And even that is not enough, cognition of voidness with that joined state needs to be nonconceptual.

Non-Buddhists can have a correct discriminating awareness of the Prasangika view of voidness and even attain shamatha focused on it. They can also have a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana focused on something other than voidness, and that can even be nonconceptual. However, non-Buddhists cannot attain a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana focused on voidness, let alone nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

To attain joined shamatha and vipashyana focused on voidness requires, in addition to labored bodhichitta also the inspiration (“blessings”) gained from firm conviction in the good qualities of one’s spiritual teacher and of the exceptional deity Buddha-figures associated with developing discriminating awareness of voidness, such as Manjushri. Thus, it requires stable safe direction (refuge) and a healthy relation with a spiritual teacher. In sutra, we see our spiritual teacher as a representative of the Buddha, and through our teacher, focus on the qualities of Buddhahood for inspiration.

Another aspect of our Buddha-nature factors is that our networks of positive force and deep awareness can be stimulated to grow through inspiration. Our attainment of joined shamatha and vipashyana focused on voidness depends on our networks receiving the additional boost from this inspiration from our spiritual teachers and Manjushri. Because non-Buddhists do not view their spiritual teachers as representatives for transmitting the teachings of the Buddha, nor do they regard their teachers as representatives of Manjushri, any inspiration non-Buddhists receive from their teachers boosts, at best, their samsara-building networks. But this boost is still insufficient to bring about the attainment of joint shamatha and vipashyana focused on voidness. The build-up of their networks lack bodhichitta as their motivation and aim.

Why Practice Tantra in General

Still, however, by following only the sutra path, it will take a build-up of three zillion eons of enlightenment-building positive force to attain enlightenment. We would want to practice tantra in general because our love, compassion, exceptional resolve and bodhichitta are so strong, that we want to attain enlightenment much more quickly than the time it will take to build up three zillion eons of enlightenment-building positive force.

The first target once we have developed unlabored bodhichitta and have started building up the two facsimile enlightenment-building networks is to make it take less than a zillion eons of build-up of positive force to attain nonconceptual cognition of voidness with a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana. Of course, before that we need to have worked on enhancing our labored bodhichitta so that it has become unlabored. But during that process and continuing after our bodhichitta has become unlabored, we can do much more to build up enlightenment-building positive force more quickly and efficiently.

In sutra, we build up enlightenment-building positive force when, with conventional bodhichitta, we engage in constructive mental actions, such as meditating on bodhichitta and the far-reaching attitudes, and we engage in constructive physical and verbal actions carried out with the far-reaching attitudes. With conventional bodhichitta, we are aiming to achieve our not-yet-happening Form Bodies that can happen on the basis of our enlightenment-building network of positive force. So, by building up a network of positive force with the attainment of these Form Bodies in mind as our intention, aim, and what we dedicate the positive force toward, we build up an enlightenment-building network of positive force – either a facsimile one or actual one depending on whether our bodhichitta is labored or unlabored.

The speed with which we attain enlightenment is dependent not only on our build-up of the two enlightenment-building networks. It is also proportionate to how similar to the resultant Buddha Bodies the causes are for attaining them. Part of tantra’s increased efficiency over sutra is that with tantra, we visualize that we are already in the form of a Form Body of a Buddha, namely in the shape of a Buddha-figure (a yidam). So the focus of our conventional bodhichitta, is not, as in sutra, our not-yet-happening Form Body occurring on our mental continuum way in the future that we will attain with enlightenment. The focus for our conventional bodhichitta is the not-yet-happening Form Body that is occurring now on our mental continuum while we are imagining ourselves in this form and imputing “me” on the basis of this form.

When we build up positive force by meditating on bodhichitta and the far-reaching attitudes and by helping others, even in our imaginations, while visualizing ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure, our build-up of positive force is much stronger than when we do these without such visualization. This follows from the principle of karma that the strength of karmic force and its ripening is dependent on the status of the person building it up. Someone with lay, monk or nun’s vows and also bodhichitta vows builds up much more karmic force with his or her actions than someone without them. So if our status while meditating, acting and speaking constructively is that of a Buddha, even though we are only imagining that we are already Buddhas, the build-up of karmic force is even stronger.

Further, when we are enlightened, we simultaneously have all four Buddha Bodies. Therefore, if we can practice building up causes for all four simultaneously, that would be even more efficient. With sutra, we can only focus nonconceptually on voidness held by the force of dormant conventional bodhichitta, and we can only focus on our not-yet-happening Form Body with conventional bodhichitta held by the force of dormant discriminating awareness of voidness. We cannot focus manifestly on both simultaneously.

With tantra, as in sutra, while we are focusing on voidness, even conceptually, we are focusing only on a total absence of self-established existence. But in tantra, we imagine that our bodies, while focusing on voidness, are in the form of a Form Body, even though that imagined Form Body is not appearing in our cognition. Moreover, when we focus on voidness, we focus on the voidness of our imagined Form Body, not on the voidness of our ordinary bodies. So, even though our imagined Form Body does not appear while focused on its voidness, still our imagined Form Body is the basis of this voidness. In these ways, we build up, more efficiently and more quickly than in sutra, the causes for manifesting simultaneously the enlightening body and mind of a Buddha.

Further, during a tantric empowerment, we view the tantric master as a Buddha in the form of the Buddha-figure of the empowerment, such as Manjushri. In this way, we receive the inspiration of the spiritual teacher inseparable from the Buddha-figure. Because of this inseparability, the inspiration we receive for boosting our enlightenment-building networks is much stronger than when viewing our teacher as merely a representative of the Buddhas. This also helps to speed up our shamatha focused on voidness becoming a state of joined shamatha and vipashyana focused nonconceptually on voidness.

Why Practice Anuttaryoga Tantra?

By practicing any of the three lower classes of tantra, it will still take a long time to attain enlightenment. So, because of the intensity of our love, compassion, exceptional resolve and bodhichitta, we need an even more efficient way to attain a true stopping of the all-pervasive suffering of samsaric rebirth and an even more efficient way to practice the causes for attaining our not-yet-happening Form Body and Enlightening Mind.

Samsaric rebirth occurs through a three-step process: the withdrawal of the subtlest clear-light mind from the gross and subtle bodies and the dissolution of the gross and subtle levels of mind. At the end of this process, ordinary death occurs. Following this, we arise in a subtle bardo body and then in the gross body of our next rebirth state. We experience a similar threefold process, though not as deep, with falling into deep sleep, dreaming and waking up.

The attainment of enlightenment is parallel to this threefold process. The subtlest clear light mind withdraws from the gross and subtle levels of mind and becomes an omniscient Enlightening Mind – a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya. An Enlightening Mind is greatly blissful and has nonconceptual cognition of voidness and appearance simultaneously; it is omniscient. However, on the basis level, the clear light mind of death, for example, is neither blissful nor has cognition of voidness. It is, however, nonconceptual and the constant habits of grasping for self-established existence imputed on it are dormant at that time and do not give rise to appearances of self-established existence.

The subtlest clear-light mind is supported by the subtlest energy-wind. With the attainment of enlightenment, the continuity ends of the subtlest clear-light mind being supported by the elements of the gross and subtle bodies. Instead, the subtlest energy-winds supporting the clear light mind give rise to the subtle forms of a Sambhogakaya and the grosser forms of a Nirmanakaya.

With anuttarayoga tantra, we mimic this threefold process in order to purify the samsaric, basis level of it and make it give rise instead to its resultant level, namely our not-yet-happening Buddha Bodies. Purify, in this context, means bring about a true stopping of it. Thus in anuttarayoga tantra, the near causes for attaining the Form Bodies and Enlightening Mind of a Buddha are established in terms of the pathway subtlest clear-light mind and subtlest energy-wind. This means that, to harness the abilities of the subtlest clear-light mind and subtlest energy-winds, the anuttarayoga pathway practices mimic both the basis and resultant levels of this threefold process.

First, on the generation stage, we mimic this threefold practice in our imaginations. This includes imagining our mind is a blissful awareness cognizing voidness and our body is in the form of a Buddha-figure. Then with complete stage practice, we mimic the threefold process by manipulating our subtle energy system. In this way, on the advanced stages of complete-stage practice, we actualize a facsimile of our not-yet-happening Buddha Bodies by (1) activating and manifesting a clear light level of mind that we have generated, as a facsimile of a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, into a greatly blissful awareness with nonconceptual cognition of voidness, and (2) generating from the subtlest energy-wind a facsimile of a Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya Form Body also in the form of a Buddha-figure.

Moreover, on the subtle generation stage, we practice to attain an exceptionally perceptive state of vipashyana by focusing on the emanation and retracting of tiny drops at one of the entry points of the central channel. We do this, as with all tantra practice, in the context of understanding the voidness of ourselves, the drops and the process of emanation and retracting. By practicing like this, we attain a joined state of shamatha and vipashyana, without having to have attained shamatha beforehand. This happens because, by locating this practice at one of the entry points of the central channel, the energy-winds that carry our flighty thoughts of mental wandering and our dull states of mind dissolve into the central channel. This joined state of shamatha and vipashyana can then be applied to voidness directly. Thus, the anuttarayoga tantra method for attaining joined shamatha and vipashyana also is more efficient than in sutra or the lower tantras.

Further, when we nonconceptually cognize voidness with our clear-light mind generated into a blissful awareness, the force of this nonconceptual cognition is much stronger than when we nonconceptually cognize voidness with a grosser level of mind that is not a blissful awareness, as is the case with sutra and the lower classes of tantra. Because of that much greater force, blissful nonconceptual clear light cognition of voidness brings about the attainment of a true stopping of both doctrinally based and automatically arising grasping for self-established existence simultaneously.

As for purifying away our ordinary bodies and arising in the form of a facsimile of our not-yet-happening form Body, anuttarayoga tantra has two methods. On the advanced stages of the complete stage of father tantra, such as Guhyasamaja and Vajrabhairava, we withdraw our consciousness from the gross elements of our gross body and then dissolve the subtle energy-winds into the central channel and then into the heart chakra. In this way, we activate the subtlest energy-wind of the clear light mind and generate it into an illusory body. The illusory body is the precursor and near cause for the Form Body of a Buddha.

On the advanced stages of mother tantra, such as Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini, we repeatedly purify and dissolve the aggregates into clear light with the practice of the four joys to attain what is called a “rainbow body.” More specifically, we generate the four joys by igniting the tummo inner heat and having its inner flame cause bodhichitta energy-drops to fall within the central channel of our ordinary bodies. The blissful awareness that is based on these bodhichitta energy-drops and which is focused on voidness burns the 72,000 impure energy-drops in the 72,000 subtle energy channels, so that the gross and subtle bodies dissolve like a rainbow and we attain a rainbow body. In mother tantra, the rainbow body is the precursor and near cause for the Form Body of a Buddha.

Thus, whether we practice the methods of father or mother anuttarayoga tantra, we either withdraw our subtlest minds from our gross and subtle bodies, or we dissolve our gross and subtle bodies in the process of attaining enlightenment.

Why Practice Kalachakra?

Although the subtlest energy-wind and subtlest clear-light mind are inseparable; nevertheless, they are conceptually distinct causes for the Form Bodies and Enlightening Mind of a Buddha. With Kalachakra practice, the subtlest clear-light mind itself is what is known as the similar family cause (rigs-‘dra’i rgyu) for both of the body and mind or a Buddha. A similar family trait is like a model for something. Thus, the causes for the body and mind of a Buddha are even closer to each other than in other anuttarayoga practices. This is a unique feature of Kalachakra practice.

Mental activity, including the mental activity of the subtlest clear-light mind, is defined as the mere giving rise to appearances of objects and cognitive engagement with objects. The clear light mind giving rise to appearances is responsible for its giving rise to the Form Bodies; and the clear light mind cognitively engaging with objects is responsible for the Enlightening Mind of a Buddha omnisciently cognizing everything. In this way, the clear-light mind itself is taken as the cause for the body and mind of a Buddha.

The closeness of these two aspects – giving rise to appearances and cognitively engaging – are represented by Vishvamata, the female partner of Kalachakra, being spoken of as voidness with form and voidness without form. Voidness with form refers to the devoid-body, which is a body devoid of gross particles, and which appears with the subtlest clear-light mind like an image arising in a magic-mirror. This devoid-body, in the form of the Kalachakra main couple, is the near cause for a Form Body of a Buddha.

In general anuttarayoga tantra, the basis for purification is our own internal process of death, bardo and rebirth. In Kalachakra, the basis for purification is not only internal, but both external and internal. Thus the structures of the body, the universe, and the Kalachakra mandala are parallel, and extremely extensive, much more extensive than in other anuttarayoga tantras. The more extensive is the basis for purification, the more complete is the purification.

Moreover, Kalachakra explains samsaric existence and the method to purify ourselves of experiencing it in terms of karma and the 21,600 winds of karma that course through the subtle body each day with the 21,600 breaths we take. These subtle winds in the subtle energy-system are the mount of subtle levels of mind that have imputed on them the constant habits of grasping for self-established existence. As these winds of karma pass through four creative energy-drops in the subtle body, they imbue the drops like water imbuing soft wool and give rise to the samsaric appearances of the states of being awake, dreaming, deep sleep and experiencing bliss. With the complete stage practices of Kalachakra, we purify ourselves of these winds of karma that are responsible for our experiencing samsaric existence in terms of both external appearances and the internal structure of our bodies.

Kalachakra is a mother anuttarayoga practice. Thus it uses tummo and the experience of the four joys to attain the near cause for the Form Body of a Buddha, in this case a devoid-form in the shape of a Kalachakra couple. In Kalachakra, however, the tiny devoid-form is actualized inside the central channel at the navel chakra. Once we have attained this devoid-form body, we continue our practice on the basis of this body. We continue the practices for causing the subtle bodhichitta drops to fall, one at a time. This falling of the subtle bodhichitta drops, however, is now within the central channel of this devoid-form. Moreover, once these subtle bodhichitta drops have fallen in that central channel, they remain there, unmoving, even when we are not meditating, and they stack up one on top of the other.

The blissful awareness of voidness that we experience with the stacking of each bodhichitta drop inside the central channel of this devoid-form is called unchanging blissful awareness. That blissful awareness is generated on the basis of the devoid-form couple being in union. This is in marked contrast with the other anuttarayoga tantra practices, where blissful awareness is generated on the basis of our gross and subtle bodies with the falling of subtle bodhichitta drop exclusively in the central channel as a whole of our subtle body and, once they have fallen, they do not remain there in the central channel.

With each drop of subtle bodhichitta that falls and stacks inside the central channel of our devoid-form, we experience one moment of unchanging blissful awareness of voidness. A “moment,” here, means a period of time, for instance one meditation session. Each moment of unchanging blissful awareness of voidness burns off one of the 21,600 winds of karma, and thus one portion of the constant habits of grasping for self-established existence. At the conclusion of 21,600 moments of unchanging blissful awareness of voidness, all the winds of karma are burned off, our gross and subtle bodies dissolve and we attain the enlightened state of a Buddha.

Recall that the constant habits of grasping for self-established existence give rise to doctrinally-based and automatically-arising grasping for self-established existence, which constitute the emotional obscurations. They also give rise to the appearance of self-established existence, which constitutes the cognitive obscurations. In sutra, general tantra and the other anuttarayoga tantra systems, as practiced on the basis of the Gelug Prasangika assertions, we attain a true stopping of the emotional obscurations first and only then rid ourselves forever of the cognitive obscurations. With Kalachakra practice, however, from the start of attaining true stoppings, we rid ourselves of the constant habits of grasping for truly established existence. Thus we attain true stoppings of the emotional and cognitive obscurations simultaneously in Kalachakra.

Concluding Remarks

One cannot say that one anuttarayoga system is better or more efficient than another. The system that will be most effective for us will depend on our subtle-energy systems and dispositions. Kalachakra is a very appealing system because it has the most extensive presentation of the basis for purification, which includes much information about astronomy, astrology, history, anatomy, medicine, pharmacology, technology and so on. This is all highly interesting. The mandala itself is the most elaborate, with 722 deities, and the empowerment procedure is likewise the most elaborate, especially when conferred by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The danger is that the enormous array of information, detail, and ritual can be so hypnotizing and seductive that we can easily lose sight of the purpose and goal of the practice. And, as is the case with all tantra practices, we rush in to starting a practice without sufficient background in the basis sutra points of safe direction (refuge), renunciation, bodhichitta and voidness. Therefore, it is very important, before receiving the Kalachakra empowerment, to examine sincerely why do I want to receive it?