The Origin of the Universe According to Kalachakra

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The other day, His Holiness mentioned that from the Big Bang derive the potentials for the elements, and from those potentials come the derivative elements. Although his reference was to the Buddhist abhidharma presentation of cosmology, I thought that this would be a good point to develop further for my brief discussion of Kalachakra cosmology.

The Kalachakra teachings present the topic of cosmology is the context of its three-part structure of parallel outer, inner and alternative Kalachakras, or Cycles of Time. The outer one deals with the cycles that the external world passes through, such as the motion of the planets and the calendar, while inner Kalachakra concerns the cycles that the body undergoes, such as the life cycle and the passage of the breath during each day. These two cycles occur due to karmic forces and describe samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth in the universe of outer Kalachakra with a body of inner Kalachakra. Such rebirth is completely fraught with problems and suffering. Alternative Kalachakra presents the tantric practices that purify us from experiencing these outer and inner cycles and outline the way to attain enlightenment to be best able to benefit all beings.

In order to get rid of being under the influence of the outer and inner cycles, we need to know their structure and their causes. As in Buddha’s teachings of the four noble truths, we need to recognize the true sufferings and their true causes in order to attain a true stopping of them through the true pathway minds that will bring about such a stopping forever. With this purpose in mind, this evening I shall merely discuss the true suffering experienced from uncontrollably taking rebirth over and again in a universe of outer Kalachakra.

The Cycles and Elements of a Universe

As in most traditional Indian presentations of cosmology, including the Buddhist abhidharma ones, there are countless universes, each of which passes through cycles of evolving, enduring, disintegrating and remaining bare. The cycles of each universe are not synchronous with the cycles of the others, so that when one universe is evolving, another will be disintegrating or bare. Because of that, the countless number of limited beings (or sentient beings) always has available to it some universe in which to take rebirth. Although the abhidharma texts provide a great deal of detail concerning how the various realms and the societies in them develop through these cycles, the Kalachakra material does not go into much detail regarding these points.

[See: Buddhist Cosmology in Abhidharma and Kalachakra]

What Kalachakra does explain is that each universe contains countless world systems, each of which is made up of tiny particles or “atoms” (‘rdul-phran) of the elemental sources (khams). These are the sources of the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space. Each of the five types of particles in this list is progressively subtler than the one before it, almost in the manner of sub-particles and sub-sub-particles, and each has one less sensory quality or property than the previous one.

  • Earth particles, reminiscent of an element of solidity, are the grossest. They have five sensory properties: odor, visible form, taste, tangibility and sound. The eight conglomerate particles presented in the abhidharma texts – each having element particles of earth, water, fire, and wind, and derivative element particles of odor, visible form, taste and tangibility – belong to this level of Kalachakra particles.
  • Water particles, reminiscent of an element of liquidity, is subtler than earth particles. They lack an odor, and have only a visible form, a taste, are tangible and, when they flow, have a sound.
  • Fire particles, reminiscent of an element of heat, lack both an odor and a visible form. We cannot see heat. But fire particles have a taste – we can, in a loose sense, “taste” the temperature of food or drink on our tongues. They also can be detected by physical sensation and make a sound.
  • Wind particles, reminiscent of an element of gas or energy, lack not only an odor and a visible form, but also have no taste. However, they are tangible and have sound.
  • Space particles are the subtlest of all particles. They have only one sensory quality or property, namely sound. Space allows for the passage of the vibrations of sound.

When a universe is bare, there are only space particles in it – either only one or many, there are several views on this point. A space particle has within it a trace of the other four grosser elements, and not just the potentials for them. However, these traces are not bound together, but rather they are “fragmented,” as described in the literature. In modern scientific terms, this condition would be equivalent to a state in which the usual laws of physics are not operating. Because of that, space particles in some ways are reminiscent of black holes, though of course they do not have all the properties of black holes.

It is unclear whether the space particle of a bare universe is immeasurably small or immeasurably large. In the case of asserting it as immeasurably large, then the space particle of a bare universe encompasses the entire space of that universe and, in it, there are only fragmented traces of the particles of the other elements. In this description as well, the usual laws of physics are not operating during the bare phase of a universe.

Shared Karma and the Evolution of a Universe

As briefly mentioned, the evolution and structure of a universe are intimately connected with the karma of the limited beings that will be reborn into it. These limited beings have what is known as a “shared karma” or “collective karma” to be born in that particular universe. That shared karma will ripen into a shared “dominating result” or “comprehensive result” (bdag-po’i ‘ bras-bu).

  • On a subjective level, it ripens into their experiencing of the type of environment into which they are born and the way it treats their bodies and possessions.
  • On an external level, their shared karma causally contributes to the condition of the environment itself that provides the circumstances for them to experience how it treats them.

[See: Collective Karma and Natural Disasters]

The way this karmic shaping of the environment happens is through the action of the “winds of shared karma” acting on the space particle that is the origin of the universe into which they will eventually be reborn. Through the influence of these winds of karma, the laws of physics begin to operate:

  • First, from the trace of wind in the space particle, grosser wind particles come into existence through a process of fusion. As a result, there arises a huge cosmic wind.
  • Then, because of the trace of fire, fire particles coalesce from the motion of the wind particles. The texts describe this as the occurrence of lightning. This sounds like the development of electrically charged particles from the friction of wind particles moving at high velocity in the cosmic wind.
  • Next, water particles condense from the fire particles adhering together in the cosmic wind. They appear like rain. Consequently, liquid bodies form, as with what happens to a gas with the lowering of its temperature and the slowing of the motion of its molecules.
  • As the water particles coalesce with each other, earth particles condense, described like the appearance of a rainbow in a storm. This process is reminiscent of liquid water freezing into solid ice or molten lava cooling down to form solid rock.

Eventually, through this evolutionary process, a countless number of world systems form in a universe, each with cylindrical wind, fire, water, and earth “mandalas,” and a cylindrical Mount Meru on top of them, surrounded by rings of continents. Space atoms now constitute the space above, below and between each world system, as well as the space between each particle in the system.

The Causes for the Arising of a Universe

If we analyze the causes for the formation and structure of a universe, using the Buddhist presentation of causality, then the origin space particle of a universe is the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) of the universe. An obtaining cause is that from which one obtains a resulting item as its successor and which ceases to exist with the arising of its successor, like a seed and a sprout. A seed and a sprout form a continuum, in which the seed gives rise to the sprout as its successor in this continuum and ceases to exist with the arising of the sprout.

The traces of the elements in the space particle are the simultaneously arising cause (lhan-cig ‘byung-ba’i rgyu) of a universe. They simultaneously arise – in other words, continue to exist with the arising of the universe that contains them, much like the constituent elements of a material object and the material object itself. “Continue to exist” does not mean that the elements are static and never change. The element particles undergo momentary changes, but without losing their conventional identities. They are the material that constitutes a universe.

The shared karma of the beings that will be born in that universe is the ripening cause (rnam-smin-gyi rgyu) for them to experience this environment as part of their aggregates in a future rebirth in this universe. Because their shared karma also acts as the ripening cause for their experiencing a certain type of body when taking rebirth in this universe, Kalachakra presents the structures of the universe and the human body as parallel to each other. From another point of view, we could also say that this shared karma is one of the potent acting causes (byed-rgyu nus-ldan) for their universe, much like a potter is one of the potent acting causes for a clay pot he or she fashions.

[See: Causes, Conditions and Results]

The Enduring and Disintegration of a Universe

During the enduring phase of a universe of world systems, the outer cycles of time that it undergoes bring about the experience of suffering to the limited beings born into it. The cycles of the calendar mark the passage of time, which affects their bodies with gradual aging, alternating sickness and good health, and eventually death. Cycles of astrological configurations affect their personalities and what happens to them in each period of life ruled by a different heavenly body. Cycles of war and peace, drought and plenty, and so on, also cause them innumerable pains.

The disintegration phase of a universe begins with the earth particles no longing coalescing. This is followed in turn by the water, fire, and wind particles no longer adhering to each other, but rather coming apart. We could describe this as a period in which the particles of a universe separate from each other at such a distance that there is no longer any gravitational force binding them together. The situation is once more that of a space particle.

We are reminded here of the current scientific theory of how our universe will end by ever-expanding. Eventually, the stars and all the constituents elements of the universe will separate from each other at such a distance that gravity will no longer operate. Because of that, the stars will burn out, followed by proton decay and the so-called “Big Freeze,” leaving behind only black holes. But unlike the Western model in which the black holes also eventually evaporate, an evolution phase will follow this bare period once more, to start another “cycle of time.”

The Kalachakra description of the evolution and disintegration of a universe is also like one of the lines in the Uttaratantra (The Furthest Everlasting Continuum). There, Maitreya says that all elements develop out of and dissolve back into space, but space itself does not take its stand on anything – meaning it has voidness as its nature.

Voidness of Cause and Effect

It is important here to apply the understanding of the voidness of cause and effect to this Kalachakra presentation of the four phases of a universe. In Kalachakra, we meditate on voidness according to the “four gateways to liberation” (rnam-par thar-pa’i sgo-bzhi).

  • The lack of a sign (mtshan-ma med-pa) – there is no sign of an impossibly existing cause. This refers to the fact that the result, namely a universe, does not exist already in its cause – in the traces of the elements in its space particle – fully determined and waiting to “pop out” when acted upon by the winds of collective karma. On the other hand, a universe does not arise from something totally separate from these traces of the elements, nor does it arise from nothing at all.
  • The lack of a hope (smon-pa med-pa) – there is no hope for an impossibly existing result. The universe that will arise does not already truly exist, nor does it totally non-exist. Something that already truly exists cannot arise, while something that does not exist at all also cannot arise. In other words, a “something” does not need to become a “something” again, and a “nothing” cannot become a “something.”
  • Voidness itself (stong-pa-nyid) refers to the voidness of voidness itself. Voidness is not some truly existent basis on which space “takes its stand,” to use Maitreya’s words; nor is voidness an absolute nothing. “Voidness itself” can also refer to the lack of independently, truly established existence of the three spheres involved in the evolution of a universe – (1) the limited beings that will be born in a universe and the winds of their shared karma, (2) the space atom and the traces of elements in them, and (3) the evolution itself.
  • The lack of an affecting action (mngon-par ‘du mi-byed-pa) – the stages through which a universe evolves do not exist as independently existing phases established by their own powers.

In short, the four phases of a universe dependently arise from each other and from a myriad of other causal factors; and everything involved lacks truly established existence.

[See: Emptiness Meditation in Kalachakra Practice]

Different Appearances of a Universe

The question often arises concerning how is it that a universe can appear in different ways to different people? Buddha himself gave two descriptions: one in abhidharma and one in Kalachakra; while science gives us another picture. Is only one of these valid and, if all three are valid, how can we understand this?

The answer to this question is found in the explanation that the same focal object of cognition can validly appear and be seen as pus by clutching ghosts, as water by humans, and as nectar by the gods. Tsongkhapa and his disciple Kaydrubjey explain that it is not the case that the focal object actually and truly exists as water, and is only appearing as pus or nectar. Nor is there a truly existent focal object that exists like a blank canvas – or even as a generic liquid – that can appear in these three different ways in accordance with how the mind that perceives it “paints” it with a projected appearance and labels it. Rather, the focal object of cognition has conventional features (cha, facets, parts) allowing for these three different valid perceptions in connection with the conceptual framework of its perceiver. However, these features are not findable, either ultimately or conventionally, in the focal object. Moreover, these features do not have the power by themselves, even in coordination with mental labeling, to give rise to these different valid perceptions.

To understand this, let us use the example of twelve eggs. There are features of twelve eggs that allow them to be divided into six groups of two, four groups of three, three groups of four, and two groups of six. These features are not findable in any one egg individually or in the group of eggs itself. If we add one more egg to the group, the system they form no longer has these three features. Yet, depending on the conceptual framework of the number system and the intention and potential actions and so forth of an agent perceiving the twelve eggs – like wanting to make two-egg, three-egg, four-egg or six-egg omelets out of them – the perceiver can perceive and mentally label them in six, four, three, or two equal groups. Each of these perceptions and mental labels is valid and arises dependently on these features of the twelve eggs and on mental labeling. In more technical terms, the existence of these groups can only be established as what the labels “six groups of two” and so on refer to, on the basis of these features of the twelve eggs that allow them to be validly labeled as “six groups of two” and so forth. And all these groups conventionally exist, despite the fact that we cannot pinpoint any of these features on the side of the twelve eggs.

The same analysis applies to the origin space particle of a universe and the traces of elements within it. They have unfindable features that will allow limited beings with the appropriate karma to perceive what evolves from them in a Kalachakra, abhidharma, or Western scientific way, and all of their perceptions will be valid cognitions. For those having prominent karmic connections and potentials to attain enlightenment through the Kalachakra methods, the features in the universe and in their subtle bodies that allow for the valid perception of them in forms that parallel both each other and the Kalachakra practice will be dominant. Because of that, the winds of their karma will make the universe and their subtle bodies validly appear to them in that Kalachakra way.

Parallels with Inner and Alternative Kalachakras

This presentation of space particles with merely the quality of sound and containing traces of the other elements in outer Kalachakra has parallels in both the inner and alternative Kalachakra systems. According to the presentation of inner Kalachakra, during our death existence our clear light subtlest consciousness is conjoined with not only our subtlest energy-wind, but also with our subtlest seminal drop (khu-ba phra-mo). Like a space particle, this subtlest seminal drop contains within it traces of the four grosser elements and has the quality of subtlest sound. In each lifetime, due to the winds of our individual unshared karma, we arise with a body, mind and vocal faculties (speech) that evolve from this combination of subtlest mind, energy-wind, seminal drop and sound. The evolutionary process entails our mental continuum taking, in steps, as its physical basis the progressively grosser elements of the joined sperm and egg of our parents. When we die, the grosser levels of our body, mind, and speech fall apart, and our mental continuum withdraws, in stages, from the grosser elements of our body. The only thing that maintains our continuity through death and into our next rebirth is, once more, this subtlest mind, energy-wind, seminal drop and sound, with our conventional “me” labeled on them.

To overcome being under the influence of our collective and individual karmic winds that contribute to our experience of these parallel outer and inner Kalachakra cycles of time, we have the practices of alternative Kalachakra. These too have a structure that parallels the processes we have been describing. In meditation, first merely in our imaginations and then utilizing various features of our subtle body, we withdraw our consciousness from its grosser levels and from making appearances based on the gross elements of our environment and body. At the end of a ten-step dissolution process, we are left with only a blue dot, parallel to a space particle and a subtlest seminal drop. Within this blue drop, having the quality of subtlest sound, there is a black hairline and the appearance of devoid forms (stong-gzugs). Like the traces of elements in a space particle and in a subtlest seminal drop, devoid forms in the hairline of a blue dot are forms that are devoid of condensed grosser particles. I am not sure what the black hairline refers to, but it reminds me somewhat of string theory with vibrating strings on the subtlest level responsible for the grosser levels of matter and the forces of the universe. However, inner and alternative Kalachakras are extensive topics that lie beyond the scope of my present talk.


In short, with the practice of alternative Kalachakra we are aiming to stop forever the winds of our karma from acting externally on the space particles of the universe and internally on our subtlest seminal drop so that they stop producing forever our experiencing of the samsaric outer and inner Kalachakra cycles of time. We do this by working in meditation to reach the blue dot at the end of the ten-step dissolution process. Together with this blue dot experience, our subtlest clear light mind is focused non-conceptually on voidness with unchanging blissful awareness (‘gyur-med bde-ba) and has as its appearance aspect a devoid form body that is a reflection of the clear light mind itself. Such a mind and body, when fully attained, are the direct causes (dngos-rgyu) that give rise in the next moment of their continuum to the enlightening body and mind of a Buddha. Such a meditative procedure is effective because the structures of the space particle, the subtlest seminal drop and the blue dot are all parallel in accord with the scheme of outer, inner and alternative Kalachakras.