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Home > Advanced Meditation > Kalachakra > The Jonang Tradition of Kalachakra > The Jonang Tradition of Kalachakra

The Jonang Tradition of Kalachakra

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, September 2010

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:56 hours)

Thank you very much. I’m really very pleased to be here at your Jonang center. This evening I’ve been asked to speak about Kalachakra tantra and specifically about the Jonang tradition of it. First I have to say that I am certainly not an expert in Jonangpa. I know very little about it. But I’ll try to explain a little bit in terms of what I have heard. But Kalachakra itself I’ve studied with other traditions of it.

The Sutra Basis of Tantra Practice

Kalachakra means cycles of time, and it is one of the anuttarayoga tantras; that means the highest class of tantra of the four classes of tantra. As a tantra practice, it is a Mahayana practice, and so it is aimed at helping us to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha in order to be able to be of best help to everyone. And its practice is firmly based on a stable level of sutra practice.


And so one needs to have as the basis for any type of Kalachakra practice, refuge (a safe direction in life). So through this practice we are aiming for getting rid of completely all suffering and the causes of suffering – so removing that completely from the mental continuum – and gaining the deep awareness and all the realizations that will bring about this stopping and are the resultant state of this stopping. So this is the deepest meaning of the Dharma refuge. This is what we’re aiming for. The Buddhas are those who have achieved this in full; the Arya Sangha are those who have achieved this in part.

Ethical Discipline and Renunciation

And on the basis of going in this direction in our life, very important is ethical discipline. One shouldn’t think that tantra practice is something that will allow us to act in any way whatsoever. It’s very important that we refrain always from destructive behavior. And further, what we absolutely need is what’s known as renunciation: We’re determined to be free from suffering and its causes. And that doesn’t mean just on a very superficial level; that’s very important to realize. We want to overcome our uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which is the basis for the suffering – the up and down sufferings – that we have from lifetime to lifetime. And it’s driven by our disturbing emotions – anger, greed, naivety. These disturbing emotions bring on – and also our karmic behavior – and also cause the consequences of it to ripen. So we have to get rid of all of this in order to be of more help to others. Because if we’re constantly having to be reborn and be a baby, and go through school, and get sick and grow old, and so on, and we get angry with people and we don’t have patience, and we get attached to some, it’s very difficult to help others, isn’t it? And so we need methods to overcome this repeated death and rebirth, and that type of practice is very, very central to Kalachakra practice.

So we are determined to be free of that cycle of death and rebirth, and we practice in a manner that is aimed very specifically at getting rid of that ordinary death and rebirth. And as we go through our ordinary death and rebirth in our lives, our minds make all sorts of appearances of things, which are an illusion. These are just generated from our confusion that clouds the true nature of the mind. And so we need to have this determination to be free – this renunciation – to renounce the ordinary appearances of things. Now that is very, very far-reaching. It means everything that appears to us is garbage and we need to be willing to get over that and see things in a pure way, the way they actually are. So that’s renunciation. We develop that in our sutra practice. Without that, tantra practice makes absolutely no sense.


And we need to have a bodhichitta motivation. In others words, we’re aiming for our enlightenment, our own individual enlightenment, and we’re aiming to actualize that in order to be of best help to everyone. Now that actual enlightened state, according to Jonangpa way of explaining, is already there on the basis level – it’s our Buddha-nature – but it’s clouded over, with no beginning, by our confusion, the so-called “obscurations.” So we’re aiming to get rid of all that confusion, those obscurations, so that we actualize what has been there all along, this enlightened state, with its pure form as Kalachakra, the mandala, etc. So if we’re not aiming for that with bodhichitta, what are we doing with Kalachakra practice? It’s just a game. And what’s the whole point of actualizing this or realizing our enlightened state? It’s to be able to be of best help to everyone. So in our practice, Kalachakra type of practice, we’re imagining lights going out [i.e. going forth, radiating] and benefiting others, helping others, and so on. Well, if that’s not based on love and compassion, what are we doing? And if we don’t have patience and generosity and enthusiasm and really, really good concentration – again, the practice is impossible. And so we need to develop all of that in the sutra methods.

Discriminating Awareness of Voidness

And especially we need to have the discriminating awareness to understand reality. Both what we call the self-voidness of the illusory world around us, that it doesn’t have truly established existence; this is rangtong (rang-stong). And then the zhentong (gzhan-stong) view, other-voidness view, that the actual state, the actual deep awareness mind and so on, is something which has qualities and so on, and in this sense it is truly established. And that zhentong view (although it has all these qualities and so on) is beyond all these extremes of what is refuted with self-voidness. All of this is very difficult to understand. But if we don’t understand the difference between this, then there’s the big danger that any type of tantra practice that we do will just be practicing within the sphere of samsara. As one of my teachers said, visualizing yourself as one of these Buddha forms, let’s say Kalachakra, without any understanding of voidness and reality, is just a cause for being reborn as a ghost in the shape of the deity that you’re visualizing.

Features of Tantric Practice

So one shouldn’t think that this type of practice, of Kalachakra, is something which is easy. It’s not easy. It’s absolutely not for beginners. It’s very, very advanced. But it’s something that we prepare for, we work up to. If you want to achieve something which is really very difficult but really is something extremely effective and wonderful, you have to follow a process of cause and effect, step by step. What are the things that I need in order to be able to practice this wonderful practice? The full mandala of Kalachakra has 722 figures in it. If we can’t visualize even one figure, how are we going to visualize 722 at the same time, for example? Although of course we have Kalachakra practices where you start with visualizing only one figure or two figures, eventually it’s building up to the whole thing, 722. And in order to be able to overcome (or at least start to overcome or diminish) some of our obstacles and build up some positive force for helping us to do the practice, we have all the preliminaries that also we need to do. So the 100,000 of prostration and Vajrasattva, etc., etc.

So, like this, Kalachakra is a mainstream tantra practice. Everything that I’ve explained is what we need for any tantra practice. And when we do Kalachakra practice, or any tantra practice, what we are trying to do is to put together all these various things that I have mentioned and practice them all simultaneously. In order to do it simultaneously you need to have gotten already a great deal of familiarity with each of them, one by one, before you can possibly do them at the same time. So again, I should say one shouldn’t get discouraged by what I’m explaining. But this is the fact of what we’re dealing with here, and one approaches it step by step by step.

Now as I said, Kalachakra is in the fourth class of tantra, the highest class, and so what is specific to that is, first of all, a type of practice which is going to mimic – be similar to – the process of death and rebirth as a way to overcome ordinary death and rebirth. In the other anuttarayoga tantra practices, we have a practice which is similar to death, bardo, and rebirth. In Kalachakra – this is one of its special features – there isn’t a specific practice for purifying or getting rid of bardo; by working just to get rid of rebirth and death you get rid of bardo automatically.

Now in all tantra practice what we are trying to do is to build up the causes for both a body and a mind of a Buddha. In the Jonang system of analysis we speak of the basis, the path, and the result. So the Jonang point of view, what’s quite special is that the basis and the path [sic! the basis and the result] are the same. So we have this term. In Tibetan it’s chonyi (chos-nyid); it can be translated as actual nature or maybe just easier to say as actual. So we have an actual enlightened body, actual all the various aspects and qualities of a Buddha, as a basis level underlying everything. So that’s the basis level. But it is obscured – in other words, there are clouds over it obscuring it – so we are not aware of it and it’s not functioning. The path – which is referring to the practice – is designed to help us get rid of these clouds, these obscurations. And once we’ve gotten rid of the clouds then the resultant level is, again, the actual body of a Buddha and mind of a Buddha and all the qualities, etc., which were there all along as the basis.

So how do we practice on this path in order to be able to realize a body and a mind and all the qualities – everything – simultaneously, all these things that are actually there? Remember, we are trying to do everything simultaneously in tantra. So initially what we do is we work with the imagination. Initially. And so with our imagination, we imagine that we already have this actual body of a Buddha. These so-called visualizations. So we visualize ourselves as Kalachakra, and not just Kalachakra but all the figures in the mandala. We’re not just the central figure; we’re everybody.

And at the same time at this level [where] we’re working with imagination, we have some conceptual understanding of voidness: the self-voidness of our ordinary appearances with which we clear that out, and the other-voidness of the pure appearance.

And all the arms and things like that stand for all the good qualities that we have, so it helps us to keep mindful of them. And all the other deities around are representing the actual elements of our body and actual various components, and so on. Very, very elaborate. But this is in general tantra, we have this. Maybe not so elaborate as in Kalachakra, but this is in general tantra, we have this.

And with our imagination we imagine that we’re able to help others like a Buddha does. This is done through visualizing lights going out [i.e. going forth] and helping everybody, etc., removing their suffering, all these sort of things. And we don’t just have body and mind; we have speech as well. So simultaneously we are reciting mantras, which again is going to act as a method for being able to actualize or realize the actual enlightened speech that we’ve had all along, of a Buddha.

Special Features of Kalachakra

So that’s general tantra. Anuttarayoga tantra, the class of tantra that Kalachakra belongs to, adds to this working with the subtle energy-systems of the body. So the winds and channels and drops and chakras, and so on. So Kalachakra has that as well. But what is special about Kalachakra is: within that type of practice there are very special, very detailed, complicated processes or methods working with these so-called creative drops, these energy-drops within the central channel.

Also, if we ask what further is special about Kalachakra, is what we would call analogies. And so in terms of analogies, we have cycles of time – right? – this is the name Kalachakra. We have three cycles which are explained, three Kalachakras: we have external or outer Kalachakra, the outer cycles of time; the inner cycles of time, or internal; and the alternative cycles of time, alternative or other, literally. And all of these are parallel to each other, these three cycles.

When we talk about the external, we’re referring to the cycles primarily that the planets and the astrological signs go through – the planets as they move through the astrological signs, I should say. When we speak about planets we’re talking also about all heavenly bodies, so the sun and the moon. So this means the cycles of days and months and years: the calendar. And there are cycles of history as well. Cycles of the universe; the universe goes through various cycles. And parallel to that, we have the internal cycles of time. Here time is measured in terms of the cycles of the breath during the day, the cycles with which the energies move through the body, the subtle body, and the general cycle of life and death and rebirth. The external and the internal cycles are basically covered in the topics of astronomy and astrology and Tibetan medicine, so a great deal of the material that we have in these traditions in Tibet come from Kalachakra.

But the outer and the inner cycles, these are things which are part of what we would call conventional truth; these are the illusory things that we perceive in our samsaric existence. And it’s driven by the forces of karma – our karma, the karma of all the beings in the universe. And that’s driven by disturbing emotions, and those are driven by our ignorance – our unawareness of reality, true reality. So what we want to do is to get rid of that, stop that, in terms of our experience. It’s not that we want to blow up the world; we want to stop our way of experiencing things, the external and internal cycles. Because out of confusion our mind is making everything appear like this, like these external and internal cycles, and our body is going through that and our environment is going through that.

So the alternative to that, what is other than that, is the basis and the result, this actual enlightened state. It’s there on the basis [level], and when we get rid of the external and internal cycles it’s there as the result. Its structure is analogous and parallel to the structures of the external and internal cycles. So the alternative Kalachakra has the same structure as the external and internal Kalachakras. And so when we talk about this alternative Kalachakra, we’re talking about the whole system of the empowerment, the two stages of the practice (what’s called the generation stage and the complete stage), and the result.

Just as we have externally all the days of the year and we have the twelve months and we have all the various constellations in the sky, similarly, parallel to that, we have the chakras in the body with the channels and so on, the same number as days and months, etc. And we have various elements of the body and so on, similar to external elements. And so in the alternative Kalachakra, the alternative cycles, in this mandala – the mandala is the building (the palace and everything around it) of this deity system – we have Buddha-figures or deities that are parallel to all these other things. Analogous. So we have 360 deities for the 360 days of the year. We have groups of deities for the 12 months. We have 88 deities which represent the various constellations and stars in the sky. We have various deities that represent different types of karmic urges to do things or not to do things. And we have various deities that represent or are parallel – I guess is a better way of saying it – to the elements in the body and the various limbs and all the different aspects of the body and the external world.

So this is the actual nature of reality – is this pure system, this alternative Kalachakra, which is there on the basis [level], and it is all the what is called embodied deep awareness (ye-shes sku, Skt. jnanamurti). Deep awareness (that’s the understanding, the omniscient mind) embodied; in embodied form. Not just form but also good qualities, speech, communication, various aspects.

So this is what we are practicing in terms of the Kalachakra practice. What we’re practicing is to purify, get rid of this conventional level of the external and internal cycles. Get rid of that by first imagining these alternative cycles, and then through methods of working with the energy channels, actualizing what was there all along.

So you can see that’s really quite a lot, isn’t it? Not easy. Not at all easy or simple system. And what is very special about the Kalachakra is this very detailed presentation, in parallel, of these external, internal, and alternative cycles. That’s very special to Kalachakra.

Another thing that is special about Kalachakra is that it’s known as the clear tantra (gsal-rgyud); the other tantras are known as the obscure or hidden tantras (sbas-rgyud). This means that in the texts the explanations are much more clear; it’s much more explicit than in the other tantras, in which the meaning is rather hidden. And so although some of the procedures in Kalachakra are slightly different from the other tantras; nevertheless studying Kalachakra is very, very helpful for understanding the other tantras.

So that’s a general introduction of what is tantra, what is Kalachakra, what makes it special.


You said that you were interested in lineages. You asked for it! So I have prepared these charts that have been passed out to you – I don’t know if we had enough – and you will see from these charts that it is unbelievably complicated. I think if you’re going to be involved with Tibetan Buddhism you really have to accept the fact that everything is complicated. Nothing is simple. And also that there are many, many lineages and many, many variations of everything, which fits in, of course, with the way that Buddha taught. Buddha himself realized that everybody is an individual and you can’t just teach exactly the same way to each person. Buddha was very skillful in methods, and so he explained things slightly differently to different disciples.

And also, in terms of meditation practice, although various masters following all these different types of traditions and teachings might reach the same goal, their meditative experiences along the way will be slightly different. And as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, all these various masters might have been great meditation masters, but they weren’t all equally skilled in explaining in words, writing down what they experienced. Some of the commentaries, some of the explanations that various masters have given over time, sometimes are a little bit confusing, not so clear. But that’s to be expected. That doesn’t imply that their realization is confusing; it’s just how they actually explain. Because all these various experiences, as it says in the text, are beyond words, beyond concepts. So how do you put it into words? Not so easy.

And various authors will use words with different definitions, meaning something else. So that also can be confusing. One has to understand that when you are going to be studying Buddhism, and particularly this type of material, there’s going to be lots of different explanations and it’s not always so easy to put them together. That’s why you need to have a reliable, qualified spiritual teacher.

Relation with a Spiritual Teacher

When we spoke about the sutra basis for tantra, there are a number of things that I didn’t mention which need to be mentioned, and one is a healthy relation with a qualified spiritual teacher. This is absolutely central. Someone whom you trust. The word that’s used for your relation with the spiritual teacher is the same one that is used for your relation with your doctor, which means that you entrust yourself, you are convinced that this person is qualified and you trust them. This is very important. And your relationship has to be one which is healthy, not a neurotic one filled with all sorts of disturbing emotions toward the teacher, like getting angry with them; that has to be gone. And this healthy relationship doesn’t mean to be a slave of the teacher or a private in the army that just says, “Yes, sir!” Not like that. One is always encouraged to be critical – to distinguish between what’s helpful, what’s harmful, and so on – always to question, but with respect, if there’s something you don’t understand.

The main role of the spiritual teacher is not just to give instruction and answer questions. You can get instructions from a book, but of course you can’t get answers to your questions. But that’s not the main role. The main role is to give inspiration (byin-rlabs, Skt. adhisthana). That’s sometimes translated as blessing, which is a really, really misleading translation. It’s to inspire you, give you the energy, inspiration to start on the path, to continue on the path, and to go all the way to the goal.


And the spiritual teacher is the one with whom we take vows. Vows in terms of our conduct are also absolutely essential in tantra practice. We don’t have to become a monk or a nun, but we need to at least refrain from killing and stealing and lying – these sorts of things, basic lay person’s vows – taking intoxicants and indulging in harmful sexual behavior. And then there’s the bodhisattva vows – absolutely essential for tantra practice – which are to avoid those things which would harm your ability to help others, like big, big ego: “I’m the best and everybody else is no good.”

And then there are – what’s very essential Kalachakra practice is the tantric vows, and Kalachakra has even more tantric vows than the other higher class of tantras. You have tantric vows in the two higher classes of tantra, and so these are things that we refrain from which would be harmful to our progress on the tantra path. And there are lots of what’s called samaya in Sanskrit, damtsig (dam-tshig) in Tibetan. These are practices to make a close bond with the deity, with the practice. So even more things that we have to do, in terms of our conduct.

So all of this is part of the Kalachakra practice.

The Lineage Schemes

And as I said, we have many different lineages. They do not differ in these basic points, but I’ve outlined two basic schemes of lineages. One is the basic lineages, and I must say I am not clear at all what specific things this is referring to and if it’s even more complicated than this. So lineages of what? This is what I’m not so sure of. But we have lineages of the texts and the explanations of the texts, we have lineages of the empowerment (that’s the initiation), we have lineages of the sadhana (this is the generation practices). And they could be different; and I’m not quite sure this information that I gave you, if it covers all of that or part of that, and there could be even more variations in terms of text, empowerment, and sadhana practice.

Then on the other side of this page are the lineages of the complete stage of Kalachakra practice. There’s two stages of the practice: generation stage (bskyed-rim), when you work with the visualizations, imagination; and the complete stage (rdzogs-rim), when you work with the energy system. So there’s special lineages of the complete stage.

The Six Branches of Complete Stage Practice

And the structure of the complete stage is made in terms of what’s called the six-branch yoga. That’s just a structure. It’s just names. Six. We find that division into six with these names already in the Yoga Sutras in Indian philosophy, non-Buddhist philosophy. The audience for Kalachakra originally were Indians, obviously, and so a lot of the terminology that’s used in Kalachakra is borrowing or speaking in the vocabulary of one particular school of Indian philosophy called the Samkhyas. Samkhya and the Yoga school are together, connected together. Their assertions are pretty much the same. The main difference is that Yoga school asserts a creator god and the Samkhya doesn’t. So anyway that’s why, since the Samkhya yoga system has this six-branch structure, that terminology is used in Kalachakra – with completely different meaning. And in fact, this six-branch yoga – that terminology, this structure – is found in some of the other anuttarayoga systems with yet another meaning to what they are referring to. So as I said, just because different systems have similar terminology, or the same terminology, doesn’t mean that it means the same in the different systems; it’s defined differently.

The Reason for All These Lineages

Now you might ask, why are there all these lineages? And the reason is that – aside from the fact that different disciples have different needs and different dispositions, leaving that aside – just on a practical level, how do you transmit teachings from one civilization to another? Look what’s happening here in Russia or in other parts of the Western world. Different people go and study with the Tibetans in India, come back; different Tibetan teachers come to different countries and teach. Everybody teaches slightly differently. Everybody understands slightly differently. And different translators translate the same text, but translate it differently. This is not just always in the same period of time, but a hundred years later somebody might say, “Oh, this whole translation is not so accurate,” and they translate it again. So we get many versions of the texts, many translations. And just as this is a phenomenon which is happening nowadays, same thing happened with not only Kalachakra but with everything in the Dharma that came to Tibet. And so we get all these different lineages. And the thing that is interesting is that they don’t remain isolated from each other. Various masters combine several lineages, and then it divides off again, and so on. That’s why you get this complexity.

The Jonang Lineage

If you look carefully at these charts, you’ll be able to trace the Jonang lineage. I don’t want to bore you with all these names – you can read the names – or all these details. It’s too complicated to go through and recite all these names to you. But the translation lineage that is followed is from Dro Lotsawa (‘Bro Lo-tsa-ba dKon-mchog srung), so it’s called the Dro lineage, which comes in very early into the Jonang tradition. In these charts, with these names, I’ve left out many names in between the ones that are written down here; I’ve just put the major names down. And the Jonang line continues down to Pag-wo Yontan-gyatso (‘Phags-‘od Yon-tan rgya-mtsho). From there, it goes… His disciples, one was Dolpopa (Dol-po-pa Shes-rab rgyal-mtshan), so that continues the straight Jonang line. And those Jonang teachings go also to Buton (Bu-ston Rin-chen dpal); and from Buton we get a Gelugpa lineage and we get a Sakya lineage (which also split). But Buton combines some other lineages as well with what he got in the Jonang line, and so what is practiced in Gelug and in the mainstream Sakya is slightly different from what went into just the Jonang line. And the Jonang lineage goes down not just to the Jonang line, but also we find it going into Shangpa Kagyu and into the Ngor lineage within Sakya. And also it goes into the Rimey movement, which is a nonsectarian movement, which then goes off into Karma Kagyu and Nyingma.

So what we find is that basic teachings in terms of Kalachakra that come through the Jonang line, the early Jonang line, spread out and are found in various mixtures in many of the other Tibetan Buddhist traditions of Kalachakra. But the view will be slightly different. Some of these will have zhentong view, like Jonangpa, but maybe slight, slight variation in it. So we find the zhentong view in Shangpa Kagyu and we find it in – I’m not absolutely positive about the Ngor lineage, but we certainly find it in some of the Karma Kagyus and some of the Nyingmas, not all. And although (going through Buton) we have the Gelugpa and Sakya – mainstream Sakya – lineages, although that started in terms of Jonangpa, they retained their own philosophical view, which is not a zhentong view; so their views are slightly different.

But when we hear that all these different schools have slightly different views, it’s very important to understand that basically they’re not really conflicting with each other. Because as I said, in terms of skillful means, different people understand and realize things in a slightly different way. And in addition they explain it differently: Some explain it very well. Some explain it in a more poetic type of way, which is not so easy to understand. And when various contradictions in these views appear, very often the cause for that is that in each of the schools they are defining the terminology differently.

In terms of the complete stage lineages, we find that we have what’s called the far lineages (ring-lugs), which go all the way back to the Buddha; that’s the one that goes through the Jonang line. And then we have what’s known as near lineages (nye-lugs), which come from two Indian masters having visions from Vajradhara. And the lineage from one of those Indian masters also goes into Jonangpa, and that Jonang lineage passes down from a different teacher to Dolpopa and Buton than the other lineages; but nevertheless go through the same type of lines as we had with the other lineage chart through Jonangpa.

The Philosophical Basis of Kalachakra

As for the philosophical basis of Kalachakra – some other topics that you wanted me to speak about – we’ve covered that a little bit so far, already. The basis there is the same as we find in the whole Jonang system. It’s not that it has a special philosophical basis – Kalachakra – different from the rest of Jonang philosophy, as far as I know. And a great deal of this view derives not just from the texts of Asanga and Maitreya and Nagarjuna, the way that it is explained in other zhentong traditions – not only that, but especially this view is based on what we have in the Kalachakra material. Dolpopa emphasized this. When we look at what Kalachakra material they’re referring to, we’re not only referring to The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra (Tib. bsDus-pa’i rgyud-kyi rgyal-po dus-kyi ’khor-lo, Skt. Laghu Kalacakra Tantra) and its commentary Stainless Light (Tib. Dri-med ’od, Skt. Vimalaprabha), but also to another Kalachakra text known as the Concert of Names of Manjushri (Tib. ’Jam-dpal mtshan-brjod, Skt. Manjushri-namasamgiti; Concert of Names of Manjushri). Sometimes that’s been translated as Praises to the Names of Manjushri.


And there we have the description of Adibuddha (dang-po sangs-rgyas) – I mean mention of Adibuddha, the primordial or first Buddha. That doesn’t mean first in a temporal sense, but referring to this actual Buddha within us all, what is referred to in Jonang as both the basis and the result, the actual Buddha, and referred to as embodied deep awareness. Deep awareness; this is the qualities of this zhentong, of the primordial mind. It’s known as also what is without an aspect but has an aspect (rnam-pa med-pa rnam-pa-can), and so referring to the fact that it is without these illusory aspects of conventional truth, the illusory things that we ordinarily see, but it has the aspect of the actual true body of a Buddha. So this view of having actual enlightened body and actual enlightened mind, and so on, on the basis, and also that is the resultant level as well – this is firmly based on this Kalachakra material. And this Concert of Names of Manjushri came into Tibet before – several centuries before – the actual Abridged Kalachakra Tantra and its commentary.

Actually, this Concert of Names of Manjushri… the earliest commentary was written by Manjushrimitra, who was the disciple of – this is the dzogchen lineage – disciple of Garab Dorje; his disciple was Shri Singha, and his disciple was Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), going way back. So what we find, and you shouldn’t get confused by this, is that a lot of terminology that we have in Kalachakra in Jonangpa etc., we also find in dzogchen, in the Nyingma tradition: Adibuddha, what’s known as devoid forms (stong-gzugs) – all of that terminology we find in dzogchen as well, but with a slightly different interpretation and understanding. In case you come across Nyingma dzogchen material and you see it has the same terms – similar but not exactly the same, and not necessarily in terms of a Kalachakra system.

Self-Voidness and Other-Voidness

The Jonang view based on Kalachakra is known as the Maha-Madhyamaka, the Great Madhyamaka, Maha (Great) Madhyamaka. This is used by Dolpopa to refer to the zhentong view. And so the other divisions of Madhyamaka – Svatantrika, Prasangika – would be rangtong view, self-voidness view. And we find that this term Maha-Madhyamaka is not exclusive to Jonang. We find the term used in several other systems as well, but again with a slightly different meaning. What is quite – not necessarily unique, but special about this theory here is it combines Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, the two Mahayana philosophical points of view, and I won’t go into what that means (either you have already studied it or it’s too complicated to explain now). Although having the combination of Chittamatra and Madhyamaka is not totally unique to Dolpopa. You also had this with the Third Karmapa, whom Dolpopa met and had a great deal of interchange with when he went and studied at Tsurpu Monastery – but again, slightly different interpretations.

When we speak about zhentong (other-voidness), it is devoid of other things. Self-void (rangtong) means it’s a type of negation which is not affirming anything (med-dgag). It’s nonimplicative, I call it. Doesn’t imply anything. What it’s saying is an absence: there’s no such thing as impossible ways of existing. And what’s impossible is that things are… their existence is established by the power of something inside them, or they don’t exist at all, or both, or neither. So nothing is like that. And although things might appear like that, that’s an illusion. So in fact, none of this really exists the way that it appears. So the negation here is no such thing; nothing left over. And what is appearing in terms of this illusion, we call it totally conceptual phenomena (kun-brtags) and dependent (or other-powered) phenomena (gzhan-dbang). Totally conceptual, like categories, what’s involved in conceptual processes. And dependent phenomena, or other-powered; they are arising from the power of other things, meaning our ordinary things that seem to arise from causes and conditions: states of mind, the table, anything. So this is what appears to our ordinary mind, which is confused. And this is what we believe in. This is called conventional truth (kun-rdob bden-pa). And what’s involved with that is all our attachment and greed and anger and naivety, and so on.

Now when we talk about other-voidness, it is an implicative negation (ma-yin dgag), is the technical term. Which is that here is the actual nature of things, filled with good qualities and enlightened form, pure form, and so on, but it is without other things. So it’s devoid of other things. So what is it devoid of? It is devoid of totally conceptual and dependent phenomena. And it is truly existent, self-established (rang-bzhin-gyi bden-pa)). It’s the same term – but not the same meaning – as truly established or self-established existence that’s the object refuted in rangtong (self-voidness). It is self-established in the sense that it has innate qualities. So there is something established there in terms of this deepest, ultimate truth, but that doesn’t mean… like what’s refuted, that by the power of this it establishes that it exists. It’s a different meaning; same word.

So these actually true phenomena – actual enlightening body, actual deep awareness mind, and so on, and all these pure forms as we had in the Kalachakra mandala – all of this is what appears to the omniscient mind of a Buddha. So as an enlightened being, this is the appearances that our mind will produce. But that doesn’t mean that we are off in some transcendent realm. How could we possibly help others if we’re really in a totally separate realm? So Buddha knows everybody else, knows all the problems, knows all the illusory garbage that their mind would produce, knows how to help them to realize that it is an illusion. That doesn’t mean that a Buddha’s mind produces this garbage. So this is the understanding here of devoid form.

The Difference between Devoid Form and Illusory Body

I was asked to speak about the difference between devoid form (stong-gzugs) and illusory body (sgyu-lus). Devoid form here in the Jonangpa tradition means these actual forms – not just the form of a body of a Buddha, but the form of everything – which are devoid of totally conceptual and dependent phenomena; it’s devoid of being that. Now you should be aware that, for instance, when we use devoid form in the Gelug tradition, what it’s saying is a form that’s devoid of atoms, devoid of our ordinary matter. So it comes down to quite similar, doesn’t it? And when we find the term in Nyingma dzogchen texts, it’s referring to the pure forms that we have with rigpa (pure awareness), which is devoid of the grosser levels of mind. So that also comes down to the same, because it’s the grosser levels of mind that make the appearances of totally conceptual and dependent phenomena. So devoid form is referring here, then, in our Jonang system – it’s similar in the other systems – to the forms, the pure forms that appear with this actual deep awareness, the actual deep awareness pure mind. And in meditation on the path, these will start to manifest only when we are totally absorbed nonconceptually on deep awareness (so other-voidness).

And illusory body, on the other hand, is a type of body that is produced from the subtle energy-winds. Right?

I mean in dzogchen we would say the devoid form is the natural appearance of rigpa, of the deep awareness. So in Jonang we would say it’s pure appearance, the actual appearance. And that would be in the form of, let’s say, the Kalachakra deity.

The illusory body is made of the winds. The devoid form is the natural appearance of deep awareness. Right? Even before we reach the result level, we can already in our deep awareness have these devoid forms – when we are totally absorbed nonconceptually on other-voidness. While still on the path, we’re not able to sustain that 100% of the time. That’s the difference between that and being a Buddha, whereas illusory body is generated from the subtle winds of the body. So from Jonang point of view, it would be still a type of dependent phenomenon (that’s why it’s called illusory body, because it is an illusion). And it is generated not at the same time as being totally absorbed on voidness, but in the subsequent period when you’re not totally absorbed on voidness, so you’re still sort of dealing with conventional appearances.

So that’s the difference, in a simple form.


Well, I have thrown a tremendous amount of material at you – or to put it politely, I have offered a tremendous amount of material to you – because that’s what you asked for. And obviously it’s too much to absorb just like that in a talk. And maybe you’ve studied all of this before. You have a learned lama here, and you can work through this material further with him if you haven’t already done that. But in the end, don’t get discouraged by Kalachakra being so complex and so complicated and so advanced. It’s something which is certainly a wonderful system of practice, despite it being so difficult. But almost everything is difficult in Tibetan Buddhism.

But one word of warning. There’s a danger with Kalachakra, which is that it is so intricate and so beautiful in terms of its description of the outer and inner cycles, in terms of all the astrological and calendar things, and all the stuff about the chakras and how the winds work, and so on – and how amazing and beautiful it is that the alternative Kalachakra parallels this, in terms of proportions and numbers, and things like that – this is so beautiful that you could get obsessed with that, and just stay on that level, and not really get into the practice. The main point is the practice. And if in addition to the practice, you have the capacity to study this incredible encyclopedic amount of material that’s there in the Kalachakra texts, wonderful.

So thank you.

I’m a little bit afraid to open it up to questions: we have only five minutes left. Maybe one or two questions, but let’s try to keep to our schedule.

Questions on the Four Drops and what Passes from Lifetime to Lifetime

Question: From the point of view of Kalachakra, is there any subtle substance that represents our individual karma? And how does this substance go from one life to another?

Alex: That’s a little bit complicated, and I must say I could give an answer but I’m not sure that this is what the Jonangpas say. This is the problem. This is my hesitation. So I’m trying to think of an explanation that is not a Gelugpa explanation.

There are many different sets of these subtle energy-drops, and there are four of them. I mean there’s a set of four that we all have. And these are responsible for the appearances of when we are awake, when we’re dreaming, when we’re in deep sleep without any dreams, and when we are having a blissful experience. When we say responsible for the appearances, it means everything that we experience, not just visual: the appearance of the emotions, the appearance of happiness, unhappiness, appearance of anything.

And we have the winds of karma (las-kyi rlung), the subtle energy-winds of karma. And during the day, at different periods and different cycles, they will pass through one or another of these four drops, depending on are we awake, are we dreaming, etc. So the way that I explain it in a simple way is like there are four buckets of paint in our body, these four chakras, and the winds are like a paintbrush. So either it goes into one bucket and then paints an appearance or it goes into another bucket and paints the appearance. And it’s said that the stains of karmic imprints are on these drops, which then, together with the karmic winds, make the specific type of appearances that we have, that we experience.

Now what passes from lifetime to lifetime, according to the Kalachakra system, is a package of subtlest mind, subtlest wind, subtlest speech (which is like a vibration), and the subtlest energy-drop (which has the subtlest form of elements). So passing from lifetime to lifetime, what is physical is the subtlest wind and the subtlest drop and, by extension, the vibration of subtlest speech. And the tendencies of karma (the karmic tendencies and potentials) could be imputed on not just the subtlest mind, but I would tend to think – I mean, Gelugpa has another way of explaining it – but I would tend to think that it is also associated with these forms in some way. So that these tendencies are… technically they’re imputed on the subtlest mind, but since these other three come together with it, I could imagine an explanation that says that this is a physical basis for the imputation. This is not Gelug. Gelugpa has something else.

You asked a very difficult, complicated question, so I’m sorry if this is a complicated answer.

Last question.

Question: Are these four drops connected with sun, moon, Rahu and Ketu?

Alex: Well, no, they’re not. They are the inner Kalachakra analogy to the external phenomena of the sun, moon, Rahu, and Kalagni. But these four drops are part of the internal cycle. They’re samsaric, the four drops. They’re conventional truth. As a Buddha, you don’t have them. On the outer level, we have these four heavenly bodies involved with an eclipse; so sun, moon, Rahu, and Kalagni. On an internal level, parallel to that, we have these four drops. The drops of the four occasions (skabs-bzhi’i thig-le), they’re called. That’s part of inner Kalachakra, so it’s still samsaric. And they’re located at the forehead, throat, heart, and navel chakras. And on the path, we visualize discs – a moon, a sun, Rahu, and Kalagni – at these chakras. And as a Buddha… I don’t know what you have, actually, in terms of these four. I mean, maybe in the body of the Kalachakra as a Buddha you still have these discs. I don’t know.

Question: And what is actually going from one life to another? These samsaric drops or not?

Alex: No. What’s going from lifetime to lifetime is this pure basis, which is the package of the subtlest mind, subtlest wind, subtlest sound, and subtlest drop. However, imputed on it are all the tendencies, potentials, and habits, and so on, of our samsaric existence. So that’s what you want to purify from it. It’s not that when you are dead and you only have this package that you’re enlightened; you’re not. That you are free from obscuration; you’re not. That’s not the resultant level.

In the other anuttarayoga systems, what goes from lifetime to lifetime is just the package of the subtlest mind and the subtlest wind, with of course, imputed on it, all the karmic tendencies and potentials and habits. So what is unique in Kalachakra is adding to that the subtlest speech and subtlest drop.

So let’s end here with a dedication. Whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.