Kalachakra: A Buddhist Tantra Practice

The Need for a Realistic Approach

Becoming a Buddha, someone who is totally awake, means to overcome all shortcomings and realize all potentials for the sake of helping others. With so much suffering in the world, we urgently need to find the most effective methods to accomplish this goal. The Kalachakra initiation offers an opportunity to meet with such methods. The Tibetan word for initiation, wang, means power, and an initiation is, more accurately, an empowerment. It confers the power and ability to engage in certain meditative practices for achieving enlightenment, and thus becoming a Buddha, in order to benefit others as fully as possible.

Kalachakra is a meditation system from the highest level of Buddhist tantra, anuttarayoga. Some people have odd notions about tantra and imagine, with great anticipation, that an initiation is an entranceway into a magic world of exotic sex and superpowers. When they learn that this is not the case, but rather that tantric practice is complex, advanced and requires serious commitment and the keeping of many vows, they become frightened and are put off. Neither of these reactions, of excitement or fear, is appropriate. We need to approach tantra and the Kalachakra initiation in a sensible manner. As my main teacher, Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, once said, "If you practice fantasized methods, you get fantasized results. If you practice realistic methods, you get realistic results."

What Is Tantra?

The word tantra means an everlasting continuum. Everlasting continuums operate on three levels: as a basis, a pathway and a result. On the basis level, the everlasting continuum is our mind – specifically its subtlest level known as primordial clear light – which provides continuity throughout all our lifetimes. Like a pure laser beam of mere clarity and awareness, unadulterated by the gross oscillations of conceptual thought or disturbing emotions, it underlies each moment of experience, whether we are awake or asleep. If mind is like a radio that plays forever, its subtlest level is similar to the machine simply being on. A radio remains on throughout the process of leaving a station, being between bands and tuning into another frequency. Similarly, our subtlest mind never turns off and so is the basis for our experiences of death, bardo (the state between rebirths) and the conception of a new life. Neither station, volume, nor even temporary static affects the fact that the radio is on. Likewise, neither rebirth status, intensity of experience, nor even the "fleeting stains" of passing thoughts or moods affect our clear light mind. This subtlest mind proceeds even into Buddhahood and provides the basis for attaining enlightenment.

Furthermore, each clear light continuum, whether prior to enlightenment or afterwards, is individual. All radios are not the same radio, although each receiver works the same. Thus, there is no such thing as a universal clear light mind or basis tantra in which each of our minds participates.

The second level of tantra, the everlasting pathway continuum, refers to a specific method for becoming a Buddha, namely meditative practices involving Buddha-figures. This method is sometimes called "deity yoga." The third level, the everlasting resultant continuum, is the endless continuity of Buddha-bodies or Corpuses of a Buddha that we achieve with enlightenment. To fully help others requires bodies or corpuses of knowledge, wisdom, experience and forms to suit every being and occasion. In short, tantra involves an everlasting continuum of practice with Buddha-figures to purify our everlasting mental continuum of its fleeting stains, in order to achieve, on its basis, the everlasting continuum of the Corpuses of a Buddha. The texts that discuss these topics are also called "tantras."


Sometimes people are puzzled by the tantric practice of relying on deities, which some languages translate as "gods." These deities, however, are not omnipotent creators or beings in limited states of rebirth filled with heavenly delights. Rather, they are extraordinary forms, both male and female, in which Buddhas manifest in order to help people with varying inclinations to overcome their shortcomings and realize their potentials. Each of these Buddha-figures represents both the fully enlightened state and one of its specific features, such as compassion or wisdom. Avalokiteshvara, for instance, is a manifestation of compassion, and Manjushri is an embodiment of wisdom. Kalachakra represents the ability to handle all situations at any time. Meditative practice structured around one of these figures and the feature it represents provides a clear focus and framework enabling more rapid progress toward enlightenment than meditation without them.

To alleviate the sufferings of others as quickly as possible requires the most efficient method for gaining the enlightening faculties of a Buddha's body, speech and mind. The basis for achieving them is a strong determination to be free of limitations, unfickle love and compassion, ethical self-discipline, strict concentration, firm understanding of reality and skill in various means to help others. Once we achieve a working level of these, we need to combine and perfect them so that they bear their results. Tantra provides such a method, namely deity yoga. Like performing the dress rehearsal for a drama, we imagine we already possess the entire array of these enlightening faculties as a Buddha-figure, all together at the same time. Doing so acts as an effective cause for integrating these qualities and achieving such a form more quickly.

This is an advanced method. We cannot possibly imagine having all the assets of a Buddha simultaneously unless we have first practiced each individually. We need to learn and rehearse each scene before we can run through an entire play. Therefore, it is both inappropriate and unwise to attempt tantric practice without considerable meditative experience beforehand.

Training the Imagination

Tantric practice harnesses the imagination – a powerful tool we all possess. Thus, to repeatedly imagine achieving a goal is a compelling method for accomplishing it sooner. Suppose, for example, we are unemployed. If, each day, we imagine finding a job, we succeed more quickly than if we dwell, with depression and self-pity, on being out of work. This is because we maintain a positive attitude about our situation. With a negative attitude, we lack self-confidence even to look for a job. Success or failure in life hinges on our self-image and, in tantra, we work on improving ours by means of Buddha-figures. Imagining we are already a Buddha provides an extremely potent self-image to counteract negative habits and feelings of inadequacy.

The tantric method does not involve simply the power of positive thinking. When using imagination, it is essential to be practical and maintain a clear distinction between fantasy and reality. Otherwise, serious psychological trouble may arise. Thus every teacher and text emphasizes that an indispensable prerequisite for tantric practice is some stable level of understanding of voidness – the absence of fantasized and impossible ways of existing – and dependent arising – the coming about of everything by depending on causes and circumstances. Everyone is capable of gaining employment because no one exists as a totally incompetent "loser," and finding a job depends on personal effort and the economic situation.

Some people dismiss tantric deity yoga as a form of self-hypnosis. Imagining we are already a Buddha, however, is not a form of self-deception. We each have the factors allowing us to achieve that goal – we all have "Buddha-nature." In other words, because each of us has a mind, a heart, communicative ability and physical energy, we possess all the raw materials needed to create the enlightening faculties of a Buddha. So long as we realize we are not yet actually at that stage, and do not inflate ourselves with illusions of grandeur, we can work with these Buddha-figures without psychological danger.

In tantra, then, we imagine we already possess the form, surroundings, abilities and enjoyments of a Buddha. The physical body of a Buddha is made of transparent clear light, capable of helping others tirelessly, and is never deficient in any way. Imagining ourselves as a Buddha-figure with boundless energy like this, however, does not render us a "workaholic" or a martyr incapable of saying no. Tantric practitioners of course take a rest when tired. Nevertheless, maintaining this type of self-image helps stretch our self-imposed limits. Everyone has an almost endless store of energy available to tap in emergencies. No one is too exhausted to rush to his or her child who has fallen and is hurt.

In addition, while practicing tantra, we feel that the environment around us is completely pure and conducive for everyone's progress. Imagining this does not mean ignoring ecological or social issues. However, to help others and ourselves overcome depression and feelings of despair, we stop dwelling on negative aspects. Sufficiently strong motivation and effective methods to transform our attitudes bring spiritual progress regardless of location. Rather than incessantly complaining and being a prophet of doom, we try to bring hope to ourselves and the world.

We also imagine we benefit others by acting as a Buddha does. We feel that by our very way of being, we effortlessly exert a positive enlightening influence on everyone around us. We can understand what this means if we have ever been in the presence of a great spiritual being, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa. Most people, even if only slightly receptive, feel inspired and are moved to act in a more noble way. We imagine we have a similar effect on others. Our mere presence, or even mention of our names, calms others down, brings them peace of mind and joy, and stimulates them to achieve new heights.

Finally, we imagine we are able to enjoy things in the pure way a Buddha does. Our usual mode of enjoyment is mixed with confusion, often translated as "contaminated pleasure." We are always critical, never satisfied. We listen to music and cannot fully enjoy it because we keep thinking that the sound reproduction is not as good as it would be on our neighbor's equipment. A Buddha, however, delights in everything without even a trace of confusion. We imagine doing likewise, for example, when enjoying the offerings of light, incense, food and so on in the various rituals.

Using Visualization to Expand Our Capacities

Many Buddha-figures have multiple physical features in an assortment of colors. Kalachakra, for example, has a rainbow of four faces and twenty-four arms. This might seem strange at first, but there are profound reasons for this. All the forms imagined in tantra have several purposes, and each of their parts and colors has many levels of symbolism. Their complexity reflects the nature of the goal of becoming a Buddha. Buddhas need to keep the full array of their realizations and qualities actively in mind, simultaneously, so as to use them effectively in helping others. Moreover, Buddhas need to be mindful of the myriad personal details of those they are helping so as always to do what is appropriate.

This is not an unreachable goal. We already keep many things in mind simultaneously. If we drive a car, for example, we are aware of our speed, the distance we need to stop or pass another vehicle, the speed and position of the cars around us, the rules of driving, the purpose and goal of our journey, the road signs and so on. At the same time, we coordinate our eyes, hands and feet, are alert to strange noises from the engine, and can even listen to music and hold a conversation. Tantric visualizations help to expand this ability.

Without some method, it is very difficult to train ourselves to keep in mind simultaneously twenty-four insights and qualities such as impermanence, compassion, patience and so forth. A verbal mnemonic device, such as a phrase made up of the initial letters of each item in the list, is helpful for remembering them in sequence. However, representing each insight and quality in a graphic form, such as the twenty-four arms of a Buddha-figure, makes it much easier to remain mindful of all of them at once. Consider the case of a teacher of a class of twenty-four children. For most people, it is quite difficult to keep the personalities and special needs of each child in mind when planning a lesson at home. Reviewing a list of their names may be somewhat helpful, but actually being in front of the class and seeing the pupils immediately and vividly brings to mind all the factors needed to modify the day's lesson.

A mandala, literally a symbolic universe, is a further aid in this process of expanding our mindfulness and seeing everything in a pure way. In this context, a mandala refers to the palace and its surrounding grounds in which a Buddha-figure lives. Like the parts of our body, each architectural feature corresponds to a realization or positive quality we need to keep actively in mind. As a palace, a mandala is actually a three-dimensional structure. A mandala made of colored powders or drawn on cloth is like an architect's blueprint of that building. During empowerments and subsequent meditation practice, no one visualizes the two-dimensional drawing, only the structure it represents.

Generation and Complete Stage Practice

Anuttarayoga tantra has two phases of practice. The first, the generation stage, involves complex visualizations. During daily meditation, we imagine a sequence of happenings which includes generating ourselves as one or more Buddha-figures inside the symbolic world of a mandala and bringing to mind an understanding or feeling of various points such as voidness and compassion. To help maintain the sequence, we usually read – or recite from memory – a sadhana, which is somewhat like a script for this daily opera of visualization.

The second phase of practice is the complete stage, sometimes translated as the "completion stage." As a result of efforts made during the previous step, everything is now complete for following the procedures that actually bring about the goal of becoming a Buddha. Having trained the power of imagination, we use it as the key to unlock our subtle energy system – the invisible channels and forces within our body that affect our moods and state of mind. Without practice of the previous generation stage, this system remains unavailable for meditative use. Once accessed, however, consciously moving subtle energies through its channels brings our clear light subtlest mind to the surface. Meditative work with this level of mind then creates the immediate causes for actually achieving the physical bodies and mind of a Buddha. The process is no longer one of imagination.

Success in tantra, as in everything in life, follows from the laws of cause and effect. Our ultimate goal is the fullest ability to benefit everyone. To accomplish this goal of a resultant tantra – an everlasting continuum of Corpuses of a Buddha – we need to transform our basis tantra, the everlasting continuum of our primordial clear light mind. We need to make it function as a body of wisdom giving rise to a vast Corpus of Enlightening Forms. This requires a pathway tantra, an everlasting continuum of complete and generation stage practices. With the former, we access clear light mind through work with our subtle energy system, while with the latter we gain the tools for accomplishing that task by training our powers of concentration and imagination. Thus, each stage of tantric practice acts as the cause for attainment of its subsequent phase.

The Role of Receiving Empowerment and Taking Vows

As part of our basis tantra, we each have the working materials from which to fashion the Corpuses of a Buddha. All the potentials we need are contained in our clear light mind – the principal aspect of our Buddha-nature, the main factor allowing each of us to become a Buddha. Before we can bring these potentials to fruition, however, we must activate them. This is the function and necessity of receiving empowerment. An initiation conferred by a fully qualified master first removes the initial obstacles that prevent access and use of these Buddha-potentials. It then awakens these abilities and reinforces them. This twofold procedure is called "receiving purification and planting seeds." The process only works, however, if we imagine or feel it is happening. Empowerment requires active participation by both the teacher and the disciple.

A spiritual master is vital to this process. Reading a ritual in a book or watching a video of it being performed is not powerful enough to activate Buddha-potentials. We need personally to participate in a live experience. This is not difficult to appreciate. We all know the difference between listening to a recording in our home and attending a live concert. Through personal exposure to a fully qualified master conferring empowerment, we gain inspiration, confidence, trust and a source of guidance to sustain all subsequent practice of tantra. Also, we establish a strong link not only with the teacher imparting the initiation, but with the entire lineage of masters through which the practice derives, tracing back to Buddha himself. Knowing that people have repeatedly achieved spiritual success through these methods is very important psychologically and provides a great sense of confidence in the practice. Receiving empowerment, we are not embarking on some trivial undertaking. We are not fantasizing ourselves to be Mickey Mouse in Disneyland. We are joining a long line of serious practitioners who have validated the tantric methods over centuries.

Without a trellis to grow on, a vine never rises from the ground. Similarly, a definite structure is essential for developing Buddha-potentials once they are activated. This is the purpose of the vows we make and the commitments we take at an anuttarayoga empowerment – they provide the necessary supporting structure for all subsequent progress. Tantric practice is not a casual hobby, nor is it limited to a meditation seat. The personal transformation we undertake with tantra encompasses every aspect of life. How can we proceed without clear guidelines? These guidelines are provided by the refuge commitments and the bodhisattva and tantric vows.

Taking refuge gives a safe and positive direction to life. We strive to remove our shortcomings and realize our potentials, as the Buddhas have done and highly realized practitioners are doing. With bodhisattva vows, we restrain ourselves from negative behavior contrary to that goal. We promise to refrain from acting in ways that damage our ability to help others. Keeping tantric vows ensures that we do not wander astray during the complexities of tantric practice. In short, it is a wondrous gift, not a constricting burden, that Buddha has imparted the guidelines of these vows and trainings. We do not have to learn by mistake which behavior to adopt or avoid in order to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Receiving empowerment through an elegant ceremony provides a point of reference which we can look back upon as the beginning of our formal commitment to the tantric path. When we mark major transitions in life with age-old ritual, we take them far more seriously than we would if we just let them casually pass. Boarding the tantric vehicle and embarking on a more advanced phase of Buddhist practice is one such major transition. An empowerment, with its procedures for bonding with a tantric master and taking vows, marks this event in a memorable way.


Many people are frightened of making a commitment to anything – whether to a partner, a career or a spiritual path. Fearing that they will lose their freedom, they approach any commitment with indecision and hesitancy. Others feel that a commitment is a moral obligation, and if they break it, they are bad persons. Not wanting to make a wrong decision and risk being bad, they have difficulty taking any major step in life. Still others regard commitments as temporary and enter into them only if there is a clause for escape, such as obtaining a divorce. They make commitments lightly and break them easily as soon as they experience inconvenience.

Such attitudes, especially when applied toward committing ourselves to tantric practice, a spiritual master or keeping vows, are an obstacle to spiritual progress. A middle path is required. On the one hand, it is unwise to rush into anything before examining the consequences seriously. On the other hand, we need to take decisions in life, otherwise we never get anywhere. The way to overcome indecision is to evaluate honestly our capacity and readiness for making a commitment, to know clearly what we are committing ourselves to, and to understand deeply the relation between commitment and freedom. We need time and wisdom.

Corresponding to different levels of commitment, there are two ways of attending an initiation. We can come as either an active participant or an interested observer. Active participants take all the vows associated with the practice, try their best to do the visualizations and thus actually receive the empowerment. They subsequently model their lives in accordance with the guidelines of their vows and engage in at least the initial levels of tantric meditation. If we receive an anuttarayoga empowerment from the Gelug tradition, for example, we begin a daily meditative practice known as six-session yoga. Those who do not feel ready to take such a step attend as observers and do not actually receive the empowerment.

There is no shame or guilt involved with being an observer. It is far wiser to attend in this manner than to make a premature commitment we later regret. Interested observers, however, need not merely sit back and watch the ceremony as an entertaining anthropological spectacle. There is a great opportunity to gain much from the experience. Both participants and observers, then, find the initiation more meaningful when they understand beforehand the basic facts about tantra.

Choosing a Tantra System

Suppose we have a basic Buddhist outlook, a working foundation of insight, and a confident belief in the effectiveness and necessity for the anuttarayoga tantra methods. If we feel we are ready to receive empowerment, or that we would like to attend one as an interested observer in order to make a strong connection for future involvement, the next question is which anuttarayoga system to choose? The menu is huge, in a foreign language, and most of us lack a close relationship with a spiritual teacher whom we could ask for advice. Sometimes, however, we do not have much choice since qualified masters seldom come to our local area and even more rarely confer an empowerment of this highest class.

The most important points to consider before taking an initiation are the qualifications of the teacher. Even if an unqualified person gives initiation into a tantra system we have strong interest to receive, it is of no use to attend. Anyone trained in ritual can recite and go through the motions of an initiation ceremony, but, lacking proper qualifications, a pretender confers nothing upon us. Even if the teacher is right, our choice of tantra systems is sometimes dictated by what others have requested and organized. Availability, however, is not the optimum criterion for choosing a tantra system of meditation. Sometimes our priority is to establish a close bond with the teacher, not necessarily the Buddha-figure for which he or she is conferring empowerment. Best, however, is to meet with both the right teacher and the right tantra system. To determine whether that system is Kalachakra, we need to know something about it.