Kalachakra Initiation: Entering the Mandala

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Preliminary Steps

The actual empowerment begins with the disciples rinsing their mouths and prostrating, as the day before. Whether a participant or an observer, we still imagine ourselves as a simple Kalachakra on the black eastern porch of the mandala palace, and our teacher as a full Kalachakra (See also: What is Mandala?). The teacher, Kalachakra, begins by discussing how to analyze the dreams of the night before. Dreams of spiritual masters, the mandala, washing ourselves, putting on new clothes, walking uphill or entering a temple are auspicious, indicating future success with the practice. Dreams of being beaten, going downhill, walking backwards or of blood-red flowers, signifying injury, are just the opposite. Being proud of favorable signs or depressed at ominous ones causes interference to our practice. Therefore, regardless of our dream, we need to remind ourselves of voidness and dependent arising. Success or failure in spiritual practice do not exist inherently, pre-ordained and totally fixed, but arise dependently on the efforts we make. To dispel interference, our teacher, Kalachakra, offers a torma – a ritual cake. This offering symbolizes the power of the understanding of voidness to dispel superstition and confusion. Whether we are a participant or an observer, we need to flush our mind of foolish thoughts.

If, by chance, we missed the preparation ceremony and begin the empowerment here, we do not face any major problems. We shall be generated once more as a Buddha-figure and repeat many of the procedures. We missed, however, the movie scene of receiving kusha grass and examining our dreams. As these are not essential parts of the empowerment procedure, we need not fret or try to rewind the film by asking for some kusha grass now. And although we lack a red string around our arm, we remain mindful, as best we can, of love for all beings.

The ceremony continues as we offer a mandala and recite mantras, rejoicing at the opportunity to receive empowerment. Again, we request safe direction, the trainings from the pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta, and bodhisattva vows. Karmavajra gives ritual garments to a few of the main disciples, and they put them on as aids for maintaining mindfulness of appearing in the form of a Buddha-figure. Since the main point is visualizing and feeling that we do not appear in our ordinary form, we need not feel disappointed if we do not receive a new set of clothes. Everyone, however, receives a red ribbon and a flower. We drape the ribbon across our forehead as a symbolic blindfold, and keep the flower safely in our lap or pocket for later use in the ritual. As mentioned before, there is no harm if, as an observer, we also take a ribbon and a flower.

The blindfold is worn during the first part of the empowerment ritual, when we are not yet authorized to see the mandala. During the initial steps we remain, in the language of the ritual, outside the curtain over the doorway, which means on the eastern porch outside the walls of the palace. During the rest of this phase, we are inside the curtain, meaning within the building. At the appropriate moment, we remove the blindfold and are able to see all the details of the mandala palace. The visualization task becomes more challenging from this point onwards, as the actual empowerments begin. We need to keep our main emphasis, however, on the feeling of who and where we are and what is happening to us there.

Visualizing Ourselves as a Couple and Taking Vows

After putting on a blindfold, and repeating the procedures of the day before of tossing the twig of a neem tree and receiving purifying water to sip, we imagine ourselves, if we are a participant, transformed from a single Buddha-figure Kalachakra into a Kalachakra embracing a female partner. This partner has one face, two arms, two legs, is standing, and depending on the ritual tradition is either entirely blue or yellow. In general, the female member of the principal couple is Vishvamata, who is normally yellow. Closely associated with the couple are ten female figures, called "powerful ladies" (shakti), who represent the ten far-reaching attitudes, or "perfections." Eight of them encircle the couple in the mandala, while two are merged inseparably with Vishvamata. Although any of the ten may substitute for Vishvamata, the blue figure representing far-reaching discriminating awareness, or the "perfection of wisdom," Prajnaparamita, most frequently does.

Since, as an initiate, we visualize ourselves as one or another couple throughout most of the rest of the empowerment, it is important to know how to perform this type of visualization. It is not the case that male participants imagine they are the male member of the couple while women imagine they are the female, or that we picture ourselves in union with some other person. Each of us are both members of the couple at once, though the visual orientation is from the perspective of the male member. Feelings of masculinity, femininity, or an androgynous union of both, are totally irrelevant.

If we are married or living with a partner, we are familiar with the feeling of being a couple. If this is a healthy relation, we do not merge into or lose ourselves in the other person, but maintain our individual perspective. We use a similar type of feeling here, in this context, to imagine we are a Kalachakra couple, while maintaining our perspective as the male member.

The visualization of being a couple forever in union signifies the mind inseparably coupling method and wisdom. On one level, method and wisdom refer to compassion and discriminating awareness of voidness; on another level, they refer to blissful awareness and again discriminating awareness of voidness. On yet another level, they refer to unchanging blissful awareness of voidness and devoid forms. Imagining ourselves a couple, then, means to feel we embody three levels of a perfect blend – of positive feelings toward others and understanding reality, of joy and wisdom, and of mind and body. Furthermore, just as an ordinary self-image of being a couple is psychologically supportive – filling us with feelings of self-confidence, well-being and joy – such an image, when dissociated from confusion, acts as an extremely conducive foundation and container for cultivating blissful awareness of voidness.

Someone once asked Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche how to visualize ourselves as a couple when walking, prostrating or engaging in any routine activity. Doesn't the partner get in the way? Rinpoche replied that, in a certain way, imagining that we are conducting our daily life in union with a partner is like wearing clothes. Whether we are sitting, walking or cleaning house, we have our clothes on. We know and feel we are dressed. Our clothing becomes so much a part of us, accompanying us no matter where we go or what we do, that we do not think about it as something separate. Throughout the day we consider ourselves the whole package of our body and clothes. Likewise, when imagining being a Kalachakra couple, we do not consider the male and female members separately. Nor do we particularly focus on the female member walking to various sections of the mandala and receiving empowerment – except inasmuch as we remain mindful of the wisdom of voidness she represents. When trying to understand how to work with a visualization of being a couple, we need to remember that the practice deals with a self-image, not an actual relationship with another person. The protocol of interpersonal relations does not pertain.

If we are attending the empowerment as an observer and wish to visualize, we remain in single form throughout the rest of the ceremony. This is sufficient to block our ordinary view of ourselves and to keep us mindful of our clear light mind as a container for receiving impressions of the world of Kalachakra. Such visualization helps keep our mind and heart open to derive the most benefit from the experience.

Our teacher, Kalachakra, now asks the disciples their family trait – whether it is Hinayana or Mahayana – and what they seek. As a participant, we answer we are fortunate beings with Mahayana Buddha-nature, seeking the greatly blissful awareness of Buddahood for the sake of all. We then take once more safe direction and the bodhisattva vows. As an observer, we may also take them once more, if we wish. Only full participants, however, take the next step, which is requesting and taking the tantric vows and promising to uphold the twenty-five modes of tamed behavior. Observers just watch and bear witness.

The Yoga Encompassing Everything

The next procedure, the yoga encompassing everything, reconfirms two of the most basic prerequisites for tantric practice – conventional and deepest bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is a heart or mind that is aimed at bodhi, the ultimate state. Holding this mind on the conventional or "relative" level is to aim at enlightenment with the intention to achieve it and to benefit all beings by means of that attainment. Holding it on the deepest or "ultimate" level is to focus on voidness, the nature of enlightenment and of all beings and all phenomena. Enlightenment is devoid of existing in any fantasized, impossible manner. All the abilities we gain with its attainment arise dependently as a result of building up bountiful stores of positive potential and deep awareness through relying on other beings and the various aspects of our Buddha-nature.

In one way, we can think of bodhichitta as an expanding heart and mind. When we cultivate it on a conventional level, we expand our heart to encompass all others and the goal of the state of enlightenment to help them fully. When we develop deepest-level bodhichitta, we expand our mind to encompass the voidness of all phenomena. With the yoga encompassing everything, we expand our heart and mind at this point, just before entering the mandala palace, with these two bodhichittas. We represent them as a white moon disc lying flat at our heart and a white vajra scepter standing upright on it. A replica, from a similar moon and vajra at the heart of our teacher, Kalachakra, dissolves into them, making their realization firm and stable. Together with our visualization, the feeling of being a Kalachakra couple and the sets of vows, these two bodhichittas shape the container of our clear light mind to receive empowerment. As an observer, we also benefit greatly if we generate them at this point. Whether a participant or an observer, we need to maintain the two bodhichittas as an integral part of our attitude throughout the rest of the proceedings. However, we stop visualizing the moon and vajra at our heart when the scene shifts to the next stage of the ritual.


Before and after entering the mandala, we make a pledge of confidentiality. This completes the process of molding our clear light mind into the most fitting container for empowerment. If a container is leak-proof, it holds whatever is put inside without losing a drop. Likewise, by keeping private the empowerment procedures and our subsequent practice of tantra, we maintain their effectiveness. Secrecy is emphasized in tantra not in order to hide something dirty or bad, but because visualizations and other procedures for innermost spiritual transformation, when publicized, lose their potency. It is totally devastating to our meditation practice if we tell people we are visualizing ourselves as a deity with four faces and twenty-four arms, and they make fun of us or accuse us of being crazy. We become defensive or start doubting ourselves, and our meditation falls flat on its face.

For this reason, we need to keep to ourselves whatever tantric methods and practices we follow. If people inquire about our meditation, it is best to reply in general terms, explaining, for example, that we are working on our self-image, trying to develop a more positive attitude and training our imagination. It is best to keep our answer simple. Nobody needs to know the specifics of the method we are following or what we are visualizing. One of the secondary tantric vows, in fact, is not to make a show of confidential matters. For this reason, it is improper to display paintings or statues of tantric figures with fearsome faces and in sexual embrace in prominent places in our home where anybody can see them and ask embarrassing questions or make lewd remarks. The more private our practice, the more precious it becomes. Also, if we explain what we are doing to people who are not sufficiently broad-minded to understand, we may cause them to develop strange ideas. Silence is often the best way to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. As an observer, it is also important to keep our experiences at the empowerment private and not to discuss them with people who would misconstrue them.

Entering the Mandala Blindfolded

With the container of our clear light mind now fully prepared, we enter the mandala palace through the black eastern doorway. Blindfolded and led by Kalachakra's assistant, we circumambulate clockwise three times to show respect. We do this along a corridor on the ground floor, between the wall and a high, broad platform on which many figures sit or stand. We then offer six sets of three prostrations, one round each to the male heads of the five Buddha-families – sometimes called the five "Dhyani Buddhas" – and then one round to our teacher, Kalachakra himself. The five male Buddhas sit on the fourth floor of the mandala. The color of the side where each sits corresponds to the color of his body and the element associated with his family trait. Akshobhya, however, is merged with the main central figure. We prostrate to the five male Buddhas in the wide entrance hall in the middle of the side of the mandala corresponding to each. The prostrations to Akshobhya and to our teacher, Kalachakra, are offered in the black eastern entrance hall. For each round, we transform, as a participant, into a simple form of the male Buddha to whom we are prostrating. After each round, we imagine that a replica of the appropriate Buddha comes from the fourth floor and dissolves into us.

The order, colors and directional locations of the male Buddhas in Kalachakra are different from those in other anuttarayoga tantra systems. Symmetry is stupid. Kalachakra assigns the Dhyani Buddhas the color and direction of their associated element, and prostrations to them are offered in the order of increasing grossness of their elements. This is why the Kalachakra ritual always lists directions in the order of center, east, south, north and west. If we keep the map of North America in mind, we do not get lost. Prostrating in black New York first to green Akshobhya associated with space and then black Amoghasiddhi corresponding to wind, we pass clockwise along the corridor to red Mexico and prostrate to red Ratnasambhava connected with fire. Always circling clockwise and remaining on the ground floor, we proceed to white Canada to pay our respects to white Amitabha associated with water, and then all the way round to yellow California for yellow Vairochana corresponding to earth. Remaining as a yellow Vairochana, we circle back to black New York and offer prostration to our teacher, Kalachakra.

If it is all too fast and we cannot follow, there is no need to panic. The main feeling to generate and focus upon is that we are greeting, with a show of deep respect, the heads of the families who live in the palace. When a replica of each of these figures dissolves into us, we feel welcomed and inspired to stay. If we wish to be polite as an observer, we also imagine offering prostration or any other appropriate sign of respect, while remaining as a simple Kalachakra.

Before proceeding, our teacher, Kalachakra, once more reminds us of our pledge to keep confidentiality and especially to follow the most important rule of the house, never to disparage him. This is the first root tantric vow. It is extremely important, because if, as disciples, we think that our spiritual master does not know what he is talking about, we cannot possibly have any confidence in what he teaches. The time to examine the suitability of a tantric master is before receiving empowerment, not afterwards. As Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche used to say, do not act like a madman who runs out on the ice of a frozen lake and then turns around and taps with a stick to see if it will hold him. Our teacher, Kalachakra, confirms that we have examined him thoroughly beforehand and that we are entering the empowerment fully aware of what we are doing. As a full participant, we need to take seriously the steps we are about to take. As an observer, we also need a sober attitude. We are not attending in order to judge or criticize the teacher, but to gain an impression of tantra and, specifically, of Kalachakra because of our sincere interest.

Making Our Visualization More Firm

In general, we set the stage for receiving empowerment by first visualizing ourselves in the form of what is usually translated as a "commitment being." This is a form which bonds us closely with a Buddha-figure. It acts as a container for receiving the empowerment. The tantric master then calls forth deep awareness beings – usually translated as "wisdom beings" – and we imagine they merge with our visualization to make it more firm. The Kalachakra system provides a clear explanation of the mechanism involved.

As we discussed in relation to internal Kalachakra, the breath passes predominantly through one nostril or the other during the course of a day. During the shift from one nostril to the other, however, a certain number of breaths pass evenly through both. These are known as deep awareness breaths and they enter the central energy-channel. Normally, no other breaths pass through this channel. Complete stage practice transforms all breaths and energy-winds into deep awareness ones through using special yogic methods to draw them into the central channel. By dissolving them there at the center of the six main chakras, we manifest clear light mind, which we then use for generating deep awareness of voidness.

The breaths and energy-winds that enter the central channel are called deep awareness breaths because they lead to this deep awareness of voidness. They are represented by Vajravega, the forceful form of Kalachakra. The visualization of drawing in and merging deep awareness beings with closely bonding visualized ones symbolizes bringing the deep awareness breaths and energies into the central channel and dissolving them there for gaining deep awareness of voidness. Clear light deep awareness of voidness gives rise to devoid form Kalachakras. Since devoid forms, compared to mere visualizations, are far more stable containers for receiving empowerment and attaining enlightenment, the imaginative merging of wisdom beings with commitment ones reinforces and strengthens our capacity to contain the initiations that will follow.

Invoking Deep Awareness Beings

The next procedure, invoking deep awareness beings, appropriately begins by transforming ourselves, via meditation on voidness, into the visualized form of a blue Vajravega. We only make this transformation if we are a participant. Vajravega looks like the full form of Kalachakra, except that his front face is ferocious and he has two extra arms, making a total of twenty-six. We imagine appropriate element and planet discs at our navel, heart, throat and forehead in the color of the subtle drop found at each spot – yellow, black, red and white. Lights shine forth from the seed-syllables marking our four planet discs and radiate as well from the heart of our teacher, Kalachakra. They return, bringing back yellow, black, red and white Buddha-figures – called Vajra Deep Awareness, Vajra Mind, Vajra Speech and Vajra Body. These figures dissolve into the syllables at the location of their corresponding drops in our body, symbolizing the drawing in of deep awareness breaths and winds into our central channel and dissolving them at the chakras associated with the four subtle drops.

This is the first place at which any noticeable variations occur in the different Kalachakra initiation rites. Buton makes no mention of lights shining forth from the four spots on our body, and describes them only coming from the heart of the teacher, Kalachakra. Kongtrul follows Buton on this point and, in addition, makes no mention of any visualizations at the navel for Vajra Deep Awareness. We can see from this example that the differences among the initiation traditions are indeed very slight. Most of the differences are simply condensations of the procedures elaborated in the Seventh Dalai Lama's text. Tantric masters conferring Kalachakra initiation according to such abbreviated texts may or may not add the fuller detail, depending on circumstances.

In all versions of the ritual we continue this step of invoking deep awareness beings by visualizing wind and fire discs beneath our feet. The ritual uses these in a sequence of events designed to simulate the process of lighting tummo – the inner flame at the navel chakra which, when lit, causes the energy-winds to pour into the central-channel. A rain of deep awareness beings in the form of Kalachakras and Vajravegas then descends and melts into our body as our teacher, Kalachakra, rings his bell. To confirm the dissolution of deep awareness winds into our six chakras, we imagine each chakra marked with a seed-syllable of the appropriate color.

The sequence of visualizations for this step is quite difficult to execute unless we have considerable meditation experience. If we cannot keep up, the main feeling to focus on is of a rain of figures and energy descending upon and dissolving into our very core. With this rain, we feel that all of our energies collect and absorb as well. As a result, our form as a Buddha-figure becomes fortified and more capable of containing the empowerments that follow. We discard any feelings we might have had of our form being merely a convenient pretense. Instead, we feel strong, vital and, in a sense, more authentic, like soil that has become moist and fertile after a spring shower. As an observer, we appreciate and bask in the vibrancy of this process, but without participating in it, like someone sitting on a covered porch and smelling the freshness that follows a rain.

Final Procedures before Receiving the Main Empowerments

After lifting our blindfold for a moment to note what color we see first, indicative of specific future attainments, we circumambulate the mandala three times clockwise once more, through the same corridor as before. Our teacher, Kalachakra, then assumes the form of his assistant and comes from the fourth floor down to where we are standing, as a participant, in the form of Vajravega in the black eastern entrance hall on the ground floor. To symbolize this, the master conferring the empowerment descends from the throne and stands in front of the powdered sand mandala. There he recites verses, known as words of truth, so that the disciples receive a clear indication of the Buddha-family trait with which they have the strongest affinity. As an observer, we stand watching this at the rear of the same hall, in the form of a simple Kalachakra.

The main disciples and a representative of the others then come forward and with both hands hold the flower they were given at the beginning of the day above a drawing of a simplified mandala placed on a tray. They let the flower drop, while reciting a mantra, and then return to their seats. The section of the mandala in which it lands indicates their closest Buddha-family trait. In the future, from among the nineteen closely bonding practices maintained through daily six-session yoga, we especially emphasize, as a practitioner, those practices that bond us closely with this trait. For example, if the flower falls in the southern quarter, we put special effort into the four types of generosity that create close bonds with the deep awareness of the equality of everyone. We make the smoothest progress to enlightenment through that path. We also receive, as a disciple, a confidential name, which is a variation of the name of the principal male figure of this Buddha-family. In our example, from Ratnasambhava we would obtain the name Ratnavajra.

This confidential name is used only when we need to repeat it when taking or reaffirming our vows during our next Kalachakra empowerment and in our sadhana practice up to that time. It is not used in any other context. Since most tantric practitioners receive empowerment many times, they discover new affiliations and receive new names on each occasion. Therefore the ones obtained at any specific empowerment are not regarded permanent, but just indicative of our present needs. With each new Kalachakra initiation, we change our name and emphasize other closely bonding practices if the flower falls in a different quadrant from before.

Our teacher, Kalachakra, then returns our flower and we place it on the top of our head. From the circumstance of the sensation of the flower touching our head, we experience blissful awareness of voidness. In the next chapter, we shall discuss how to generate this awareness and what, as an observer, we can best feel at this and similar points during the rest of the empowerment. Our teacher, Kalachakra, now returns to the fourth floor of the mandala palace and sits once more on his throne. We remove our blindfold and imagine seeing clearly all the details of the mandala world. Our teacher, Kalachakra, introduces and describes all the figures and we recite certain words to bond closely with them all. The first day of the actual empowerment usually ends here.