Kalachakra: The Four Noble Truths


I’ve been asked to teach about Kalachakra this weekend. There are of course many, many aspects of Kalachakra that we could discuss, but I think that what is most important is to maintain the proper Buddhist context for our Kalachakra study and practice, which is basically the four noble truths. All of the Buddhist teachings can be fit within that context of the four noble truths, which means that they’re all aimed at helping us to overcome suffering and their causes and to attain a true stopping of them through an understanding of reality. And all of that with the proper motivation.

I think this is particularly important in Kalachakra practice because there is a certain danger when we begin our study of Kalachakra. We already have this danger in general anuttarayoga tantra, which is that the system is so complex and so absolutely beautiful in terms of all its symmetry and correlations that we become fascinated by the beauty of it. And in Kalachakra, the system is even more complex, and it is utterly amazing all the different levels of correlation and symmetry that is there. It becomes very seductive, and we just want to go deeper and deeper into learning all the details. We become more and more amazed as we uncover further beauties within the system, and it’s very easy then to lose sight of the fact that this is a Buddhist practice, that it’s based on compassion to attain enlightenment to help all beings. Especially if we are already interested in astrology (all of that is there) and we’re a bit fascinated with Tibetan medicine (and so we learn in Kalachakra different things about the energies), our mind becomes dazzled with the splendor of the beauty of the system, and it no longer becomes a Buddhist practice.

So I speak from experience because I was similarly seduced by this. And although this aspect of Kalachakra is very helpful for developing devotion and enthusiasm, nevertheless it’s very easy for that to remain on a worldly level. This is quite sad because that is not really the intention of the system. So one needs to develop a certain level of detachment, which means to not exaggerate the good qualities of the system, that it is so beautiful in its complexity. We appreciate that beauty and complexity, but we don’t allow that to become an obstacle to working straightforwardly toward enlightenment through the system. In other words, don’t let all the details about Kalachakra become a distraction from the main purpose and the main aim of working with this system. I speak with many years of experience.

The General Presentation of the Four Noble Truths

Let us, then, examine how the Kalachakra system fits in the context of the four noble truths. In general, we have the basic presentation of the four noble truths in sutra and tantra. I’m sure that most of you are familiar with that. I don’t have to go into great detail.

True Suffering

We have three types of true suffering or true problems:

1. We have the so-called suffering of suffering, which is referring to our unhappiness basically, so our unhappiness with difficult situations, or it could be unhappiness that you experience with anything.

2. And then the suffering of change, which is referring to our ordinary type of happiness, which has many problems associated with it. It never satisfies. We never have enough; we always want more. And the more that we have of our regular suffering, it should make us happier, but it doesn’t. If eating ice cream and the happiness we experience were true happiness, then the more ice cream we eat at one time, we should get happier and happier, but we don’t. We eventually become sick.

But these are nothing special, these two types of suffering. Many religions speak about them. But the main emphasis here in Buddhism is the third type of suffering:

3. All-pervasive suffering is referring to our uncontrollably recurring rebirth – that’s the word samsara – in which each moment is made up of our five aggregate factors, or in simple language our body and mind, which form the basis with which we experience unhappiness and our ordinary happiness in the nature of samsara, which is that it goes up and down, up and down, with no security or certainty at all. One moment, we’re happy. The next moment, we’re unhappy doing exactly the same thing. This is really not very nice, is it?

True Causes

The true cause of this, it’s our unawareness, what’s usually called ignorance. We are unaware. Either we just don’t know or we know in an inverted, incorrect way how we exist, how others exist, how all phenomena exist. We think that we and everybody and all things have some sort of what’s called an atman or a soul inside it, which by its own power, in a sense, animates it or makes the thing exist. And this is not corresponding to reality. Things arise from causes and conditions; there is nothing just sitting inside it that makes it exist by itself. But based on that unawareness, we grasp for things to exist in that impossible way, which means that not only does our mind make that confused appearance and we perceive it, but in addition we believe that it corresponds to reality, how things actually exist.

Based on that erroneous belief, we get all sorts of disturbing emotions. Because thinking that there’s some sort of solid “me” sitting inside – which in fact is not there at all (that’s what is void, what is absent, what voidness is referring to) – then we feel very insecure. And so to try to bring security to that imagined me, that false me, we try to get things to it (longing desire), we don’t want to let go (attachment), we push things away (anger) to somehow defend or protect this imagined me, and we’re completely naive about cause and effect and about how we exist. And under the influence of these disturbing emotions, we get karma.

Now, karma is a greatly misunderstood thing in Buddhism. The problem is that the Tibetan word with which they translate karma is the colloquial Tibetan word for actions (las). Because of that, Tibetans translate karma as actions, and Westerners follow that precedent. But if karma actually meant actions, then the absurd conclusion would follow that all we have to do is stop doing anything and we would become liberated and enlightened. That’s absurd. So actions themselves are not something that we have to stop – then you would stop helping anybody, etc.

What karma is talking about is compulsion. So there’s a compulsiveness about our behavior that we have no control over, and this can be compulsively negative – like compulsively stealing, compulsively lying – or compulsively positive, like for instance being a perfectionist. Being a perfectionist – “I have to be good all the time” – although it’s positive, nevertheless it’s very neurotic. So that’s what karma is referring to, this compulsiveness. This is what we want to get rid of. We don’t want to get rid of helping others. And because of our actions being so compulsive, then it leaves various karmic aftermath – tendencies, potentials, and so on – and when these get activated, then we have uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara, and they get activated by more disturbing emotions. All of that’s described with the twelve links of dependent arising.

So that’s the true cause of suffering.

True Stopping

The third noble truth is the true stopping of this, stopping it forever so that it never recurs again. For this we have to overcome and get rid of what’s call the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib). That’s referring to all these true causes that we discussed, so all of those. When we get rid of them, we attain liberation. But if we want to attain enlightenment, we need to overcome as well what’s known as the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib). These are the ones that prevent omniscience. These are the constant habits of grasping for true existence, which causes our mind to project these appearances of truly established existence. This appearance of truly established existence is really very, very deceptive. The problem is our hardware. This body and mind is a hardware problem. Like in a computer, we have hardware and software.

Yesterday, I arrived early here in Paris, and I did a little bit of sightseeing. I went to Notre Dame, and I saw these magnificent carvings of these various figures around the doorways. And to me this was a perfect example of an appearance of truly established existence. There they are, these incredible, complex, beautiful statues, and it looks as though they’re just there by themselves, that they have established themselves just as they appear to me right there. What doesn’t appear to me is all the work that went into carving these things, all the people who spent decades and decades of their lives training, carving the stone, and the living conditions that they had and working conditions. None of that appears. I mean, obviously these statues arose dependently on all that work and all those conditions, not to mention the king who paid for it and where the money came for it that the king had to be able to pay it, and how about the whole Christian religion? But there it is, these statues just sitting there, and it looks as though they’re just there by themselves, independently of all these other factors.

This is deceptive because our minds, our limited minds, make it appear that way, and we believe that it corresponds to reality. But an actual correspondent in reality – that’s totally absent. That’s what voidness is talking about, the absence of what corresponds to the appearance. Nothing corresponds to this impossible appearance, mainly, primarily, because it’s impossible. Nothing could exist like that, just by itself, popping out of nowhere. But because of the habit of believing in this appearance, our mind continues to project it. And of course it makes people, beings, appear that way. And when people appear to us to be truly existent, their problems seem to be truly existent. We don’t see all the causal network of what brought on their current situation and what would be the effect of anything that we teach them, and so we don’t know how best to help them. Those are the cognitive obscurations. We have to get rid of what’s causing our mind to project these appearances of what’s impossible.

The Kalachakra Presentation

Okay, so this is a general presentation of the four noble truths. Kalachakra practice has to fit into that. All Buddhist practice has to fit into this structure. So why would we want to practice Kalachakra? What is helpful with Kalachakra practice is that it can give us a little bit more detail, a little bit more insight into each of these truths.

True Suffering

Kalachakra basically doesn’t present anything concerning true suffering that fits into the context of what we’re going to discuss today. I shouldn’t make the statement that it doesn’t present anything more profound – it does, because it speaks in terms of the external universe and the problems that it goes through and the internal universe, and so on. It does speak in more detail, but I didn’t want to go into that today. Just in a couple sentences, we’re talking about the all-pervasive suffering. That’s true suffering. And that all-pervasive suffering – in general we speak of it in terms of samsaric rebirth for the beings, which is the basis, as I said, for our experiencing the up and downs of life: happy, unhappy. Kalachakra adds into it a lot of detail about the external level of this, that the environment itself has this uncontrollably recurring aspect to it which presents or forms the container within which we experience the up and downs internally. So we have external up and down and internal up and down, and they are parallel to each other. But as I just mentioned, I’d like to focus on the internal level rather than both the internal and the external levels of this uncontrollably recurring kalachakra (cycles of time).

True Causes

Kalachakra presents more detail about the true cause of samsara. Buddhism has a very sophisticated explanation of causality, cause and effect, and there are many different types of causes and many different types of effects. So if we want to understand on a sophisticated level the Buddhist descriptions of what we experience, we need to understand all these different types of causality.

We have something known as an obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu). An obtaining cause is that from which one obtains something as its successor and which ceases to exist once the successor arises. So like a seed is the obtaining cause from which you obtain a sprout – when the sprout arises, you no longer have the seed – or the uncooked dough for a loaf of bread. We’re not talking about the ingredients of something; we’re talking about what transforms into something, in a sense. That’s an important distinction to understand. Otherwise when it’s translated as substantial cause, as it often is, we think that it’s referring to the elements that make up something. It’s not.

This underlines a basic principle that I can’t emphasize enough, which is that we need to learn definitions. This is the basis for all Tibetan Buddhist education. The debate tradition is called by the Tibetan word definitions (mtshan-nyid). If we don’t know the definitions of the technical terms that are being used, then we just go by the word in our own language that’s used for translating it and the definition of that word in our own language. And in many cases, the definition of the English or French word and the definition of the Tibetan word do not correspond to each other and they’re talking about two different things. So if we can find out the definitions, wonderful. If you don’t know them and you have confusion, ask your geshe here, your great teacher. He is trained in definitions. He should just be able to recite it from memory like that.

So what is the obtaining cause of samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth? It’s this compulsiveness. There is a compulsion that is based on unawareness, the unawareness of grasping for an impossibly existing soul of persons. Actually they make it the way that it’s defined in the twelve links. So in Kalachakra you would say that individual karma brings about our individual cycles of rebirth and that general, shared karma, universal karma, would bring about the cycles of the universe. As I said, we’ll emphasize the individual level.

Then we have a simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen). These are items that must exist prior to the arising of something and which assist in making the arising happen but do not transform into what arises. The example is water and fertilizer for the arising of a sprout.

So karma, this compulsiveness, compulsive energy – there are many different levels of it – that transforms into this uncontrollable rebirth cycle. And once the karmic tendencies and so on give rise to a rebirth, you no longer have that particular set of karma, karmic energy. So it transforms. Of course we’re constantly building up more karmic potentials, more tendencies, that will give rise to more samsaric rebirth. But there’s something that helps that happen, like the water and fertilizer, which is acting at the same time as the karma. On the internal level, this is referring to the coursing (rgyu-ba) each day – that’s the flowing each day – of 21,600 winds of karma (las-rlung). The 21,600 winds of karma are coursing through or passing through the energy channels of the subtle body, and these correspond to the 21,600 breaths we take each day. (And of course on the external level, there’s something quite similar in terms of the divisions of time. But as I said, we won’t go into that detail.)

So we have to investigate what does that actually mean, the coursing of these winds of karma. Why are these the simultaneously acting conditions? So we look a little bit more deeply. And in the course of each day, the 21,600 winds of karma pass through the main right and left side-channels (ro-ma and rkyang-ma). In doing that, they pass through the two sets of subtle creative-energy drops of the four occasions (gnas-skabs rigs-bzhi skyed-pa’i thig-le) that are in the main chakras (rtsa-’khor, subtle energy nodes).

These drops (thig-le) are in the center of the central channel (dhu-ti) at these chakras. The drops don’t move. And the winds are going through the right and left channels, but the right and left channels loop around the central channel at each of the chakras – like two arms embracing a body, it’s said – and somehow, and I must say it’s not so clear to me, the winds passing through the right and left channel also pass through the drops in the central part of the central channel. And as I said, I’m not very clear on the anatomy here. It’s not very clear in the texts.

Now, there are twelve shifts (’pho-ba) of the breath in each day, switching between going primarily through the right nostril and the left nostril. With each shift, 56 ¼ deep-awareness breaths (ye-shes-kyi rlung) pass through the central channel, making 675 deep-awareness breaths (or winds) in a day. In other words, sometimes the breath is going through one channel primarily, but then as it’s shifting over to go through the other, let’s say from the right to the left channel, there will be some that go through the central channel. Right? But these winds or breaths, they’re passing through, and of course you exhale, so it’s not staying in the right or left channel; it either goes out the right nostril, the left nostril, or if it’s from the central channel, it’s going out both together, evenly.

So each day there are 675 breaths, called deep-awareness breaths, that pass through the central channel and out. Now, there are 72,000 channels, subtle energy channels, in the subtle body. And each day, because of the passage of the 675 breaths through and out the central channel, it destroys a pair of these 72,000 channels – one on the right, one on the left. This is describing, in simple language, the process of aging. So if one pair is being destroyed or wears out each day, at the end of a hundred-year lifespan this cycle of twelve shifts of the breath destroys all 72,000 channels and brings death from old age. So it’s time basically, the passage of time, that is responsible for what we would call the process of aging, and then you die. This passage of time plus throwing karma (’phen-byed-kyi las) activated at the time of death then bring about your next rebirth, so uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

So that throwing karma, this activated karmic bundle coming from the potentials, is a compulsive energy. It’s a karma that will throw us into another rebirth with again a body and mind that’ll be the basis for up-and-down suffering. And what is assisting that, as a simultaneously acting condition, is that the coursing of the breath is bringing about moment-to-moment aging, which brings us closer and closer to that point where the throwing karma will be activated and the next rebirth.

This is very sophisticated, and it’s very easy to be a little bit overwhelmed by all the numbers. So what we need to do is then understand what this is describing in very practical terms. So what is it describing? It’s saying that because of our confusion about reality and so on, we’re building up compulsive behavior, all these compulsive energies that are driving rebirth. We are always getting a new vehicle, as it were, a limited body and mind, or hardware, the next model of the computer. With no beginning and no end, we’re always getting the next model, and then the next model, and then the next model in which we’re going to experience up and down – happy, unhappy, happy, unhappy – no control, no security. And assisting all of this is that each computer, each body and mind, is aging. It’s aging. This is subtle impermanence. The reason for something breaking and ending is because it was made in the first place. So as soon as we have this body and mind and we start breathing, it’s starting to fall apart. So karma and the process of aging – karma that makes more and more rebirths, and the process of aging in each rebirth – that’s the true cause of samsara. But all of that’s included in the general presentation of the emotional obscurations.

So let’s take a few moments to digest what I just said. The numbers are not the important thing; it’s the principle here. What we are talking about is karma for more and more rebirths. And it’s assisted by the fact that there’s aging in every rebirth, so the rebirth can’t possibly last; it’s falling apart from the moment that it starts. It’s all a great cosmic joke, you would say. It’s like the manufacture of automobiles, that they are built in such a way that they’re going to break every seven years and you’re going to have to buy a new one. It’s just like that. No matter what samsaric rebirth we have, that body and mind is going to age, fall apart, and you’ll have to have another one and another one and another one. And thinking about that, we get renunciation, which is basically “Boring! This is really, really boring.” We’re determined to be free of it because it is so boring – over and over and over again. And then we think about everybody else in the same predicament, and we develop compassion and love, etc. Now we’ve got to help everybody else out of this.

I always like to use this word boring with renunciation. It’s not that we’re angry with it: “Oh, I’m so stupid, and this is so terrible.” That’s still a disturbing emotion. Right? If we’re angry with samsara because it’s so horrible, that’s a disturbing emotion, isn’t it? But being bored, it’s more of an equanimity. You’re just bored: “Enough already. This is boring.” You no longer are interested in it. That’s the real factor. It’s not interesting anymore. There’s nothing interesting about it. “Same, same” always.

Karma and the whole process of aging – that is a deeper level, more complex level, of the true cause of samsara. Okay, so for those of us who are older, I think we can all appreciate the sufferings of aging. The memory isn’t so good. Your senses aren’t so good. Your energy isn’t so strong. And we’ll have to do it over and over and over and over. That really is boring, isn’t it? And if we look at everybody else, whether it’s your parents… I mean, obviously if everybody’s been your mother, then you can look at everybody as your parents, but it’s not nice to see it in our parents or grandparents either, is it?

True Stopping

So a true stopping of this. First we have to have a true stopping of the karma so that it never arises again, which means that we have to get rid of what activates the karmic potentials and tendencies. In other words, there’s the compulsion that drives us to act, so that’s karma. Or the compulsive form that our acting, our behavior, takes. Or the compulsive sound of our speech – is it very harsh, is it very angry, and so on. The compulsive sound. And then there’s those actual actions, the behavior. And then there are karmic potentials and tendencies left over from that, and they are activated at the time of death. If you want to get rid of the whole karmic cycle, what you have to eliminate is that which activates the karmic potentials and tendencies. What activates it? That’s the eighth and ninth links of dependent arising. If you get rid of what will activate the cause for rebirth, there’s no rebirth.

You have to understand the principle. A cause is only a cause in relation to an effect. Its existence as a cause is only established dependent on there being an effect of it. Do you follow that? That’s very important. His Holiness always uses the example of your fingers: the fourth finger is short compared to the middle finger but long compared to the fifth finger. Long is only established in relation to short. Nothing can be short or long just by itself. So similarly something is established as a cause only if there’s a result, and something is established as a result only if there’s a cause.

So if you get rid of what activates the cause of rebirth, then there can be no result. And if it’s impossible for there to be a result, there’s no longer a cause. So you get rid of the karmic potentials and tendencies by getting rid of what will activate them. Then they can no longer function as a cause, because it’s impossible for them to have a result. So they’re no longer a cause. That’s very important to understand. That is how you actually purify karma. You get rid of what will activate the karmic potentials and tendencies. The twelve links of dependent arising explain that, the eighth and ninth links.

The eighth link is translated as craving (sred-pa, Skt. trshna). It’s literally the word thirst. It is directed at our feelings of happy, unhappy, or neutral, primarily happy and unhappy. Remember that was characterizing samsara, the up and down – sometimes happy (which is our ordinary happiness), sometimes unhappy – up and down, up and down. And now we have this desperate thirst. (It’s good to use the exact word in Sanskrit and Tibetan. It’s the word for thirst. Well, the Sanskrit word is the word for thirst; the Tibetan isn’t.) When you are suffering from thirst, you have this desperate thirst to get rid of that unhappiness of being thirsty, don’t you? And if we are really, really thirsty and we have just a sip of water, because you’re so thirsty, you don’t want that bottle of water to be taken away from you; you want more and more and more. So that starts to activate. (The main explanation of this concerns the time of death, but this works all the time.)

So that’s why it’s very important to try to develop what is the young Serkong Rinpoche’s favorite phrase, the understanding of “nothing special.” Nothing special. “Now I’m happy. Now I’m unhappy. So what? Nothing special.” Lama Yeshe put it very nicely. He said, “What do you expect from samsara?” Of course sometimes you’re going to be unhappy, sometimes you’re going to be happy. Nothing special. Don’t approach it like a thirsty person: “Ah, I’ve got to get rid of this unhappiness. And I don’t want to let go of this happiness that I have; I want more because I’m so thirsty.” That you have to get rid of. There’s nothing special.

I think in order to deal with old age, one has to learn this insight. Your bones ache, this hurts, that hurts – nothing special; you just go on. If you spend all your time complaining about it, you’re miserable.

So that’s the eighth link.

The ninth link is literally an obtainer (nyer-len, Skt. upadana), either an obtainer emotion or attitude. It’s that from which we will obtain the activation. An obtainer emotion is a desire directed at a sense object (“I’ve got to have it”).

I won’t go into too much detail here, but then there are five obtainer attitudes. And the main one here, technically it’s called a deluded outlook toward a transitory network (’jig-lta). It’s a terribly technical term, isn’t it? The transitory network is referring to our aggregates – body, mind, feelings, etc. It’s a very important disturbing attitude to understand. I’ll describe it in very colloquial terms. It’s like throwing out this net of “me” and “mine” toward anything – our body, what we perceive, our mind, our feelings. It’s that attitude of throwing it out.

It’s very interesting. If we look at little babies when they start with this whole thing of “mine,” there’s this almost instinctive type of attitude. It doesn’t matter what it is, what the object is, but there is this tendency to want to cast out, project onto various things the whole concept of “mine” and eventually “me” as well – and that’s accompanied by grasping for the truly existent “me” – that I’m identical with them (“me”) or I’m the possessor of it (“mine”). All of that of course is based on unawareness or ignorance of how we exist, how everything exists.

This is what activates these karmic potentials and tendencies. You have to get rid of that. But this is not a course on the twelve links, so I won’t go into further detail about it. But this is standard in sutra and tantra.

So basically to get rid of karma, to have a true stopping of karma – like in all the Buddhist teachings – you have to get the understanding of voidness, which is going to be the underlying insight that will rid us of those disturbing emotions and attitudes that activate karmic tendencies and potentials, which then make more rebirth. And to achieve a true stopping of the aging process, what you have to do is stop the winds, these karmic winds, from flowing in the right and left channels. That’s where Kalachakra adds a lot of detail.

True Pathway Minds

And then the true path. This is referring to an understanding that will act as a path to bring you to liberation and enlightenment. What I just tried to explain is the word path (lam, Skt. marga). Path doesn’t mean something that you walk on; path is referring to an understanding that will act as a path to bring you to the goal.

So in Kalachakra, we need to experience 21,600 moments of unchanging bliss (mi-gyur-ba’i bde-ba), and we need to experience that with a clear-light mind that has a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. That gets rid of the karma. This is based on stacking 21,600 drops of white and red bodhichittas (byang-sems dkar-po and byang-sems dmar-po), and you stack them in the central channel of a devoid form (stong-gzugs) generated at the navel chakra – it’s in the central channel of that devoid form, not in the central channel of your gross body – and that will stop the coursing of these winds of karma through the right and left channels and therefore stop the aging process.

But I’m not going to speak in any detail at all about this process. What I want to explain in much more detail now is how samsara works.