Kalachakra Tantra Reader's Guide

The Kalachakra, or “Wheel of Time,” tantra and cycles of teachings and practices are, on the surface, well known among practitioners and those interested in Tibetan Buddhism. Yet it is considered one of the highest teachings of tantra—a highly complex one where initiates take many years accomplishing the practice. The visualization for an advanced practitioner involves 722 figures in the mandala.

One of the reasons for its notoriety is that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has bestowed the initiation—which takes several days to complete—dozens of times in over ten countries to literally millions of people. For most in attendance it is considered a great blessing and not a springboard into the practice itself. As the Dalai Lama has said:

"The higher meditations of the Kalachakra tradition can be practiced only by a select few. But because of past and future events, and in order to establish a strong karmic relationship with Kalachakra in the minds of the people, there is now a tradition of giving the initiation to large public gatherings."

However, there are many practitioners in the four main Tibetan schools, as well as in the lesser known Jonang tradition, for whom it is their main practice, not just a source of connection and blessings. The Gelug and Sakya traditions were heavily influenced by Buton Rinchen Drub. Some of this is detailed in Buton's History of Buddhism in India and Its Spread to Tibet. The Kagyu and Nyingma traditions draw heavily from the Jonang. Some of the more contemporary masters include Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (whose biography will be published in early 2017 by Shambhala), Penor Rinpoche, and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Some of the stories about Khyentse Rinpoche's connection with the Kalachakra—in particular, the teaching he gave to a large group including His Holiness the Dalai Lama—form a very moving section of his biography, Brilliant Moon.  Tenga Rinpoche relates the following story of Khyentse Rinpoche, asked to give a formal elaborate teaching at a Long LIfe ceremony for the Dalai Lama attended by the heads of all the schools and many other lamas.

"The next morning when the time came to speak in front of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the whole assembly of lamas from the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, speaking for over an hour in an unimpeded flow like a river, Khyentse Rinpoche gave a most detailed and profound explanation of the universe according to the Kalachakra Tantra, in which he mentioned an immense number of quotes, which he obviously seemed to know by heart. At the end of the discourse, he finally approached the throne of His Holiness and offered the mandala plate into His Holiness’s hands. Then he offered the eight auspicious substances, and when offering the conch, a loud thunder crash resounded. This was considered to be a most auspicious event. Everyone was amazed at Khyentse Rinpoche’s erudition and spoke about his speech for years to come. Afterward I asked him, 'Did you study the Kalachakra a lot in the past?' He answered, 'I didn’t study it much; I read the Kalachakra commentary by Mipham Rinpoche maybe once or twice; that’s all.'”

The practice’s fame in the West, in particular, is also attributable to the Shambhala teachings introduced widely by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The Shambhala teachings have a strong connection with the Kalachakra tantra as many of the works below detail. In Recalling Chogyam Trungpa, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche explains it in this way:

"You find the teachings on Shambhala in the Outer Kalachakra; it is a branch or section of the Outer Kalachakra. The Outer Kalachakra is also concerned with predicting what good things are going to happen and what bad things are going to happen through an examination of the planets, the lunar mansions, and so on. It includes a description of the physical nature of the world and how the world was formed, and also discusses how the dharma will prosper in the future. So the connection between the Shambhala teachings and the Vajrayana teachings is found in the Outer Kalachakra. There, the text describes how there were the seven dharmarajas, the dharma kings.”

Below you will find a guide to the many works related to Kalachakra that Shambhala and Snow Lion publish.

In the New Translation schools, it is classified in the Highest Yoga Tantra section of tantra. A comprehensive look at this classification, and one in which the Kalachakra system is compared to the Guhyasamaja, is Daniel Cozort's Highest Yoga Tantra: An Introduction to the Esoteric Buddhism of Tibet. This is a good starting point because most of the extant literature is from the New Translation tradition, in particular the Gelug, which is logical given His Holiness the Dalai Lama's activity.

Before diving into the works dedicated to this cycle of teachings, there is an excellent overview of the divisions of the tantra in Lama Migmar Tseten's Treasures of the Sakya Lineage, which is helpful when exploring the works below:

"Kalachakra itself is divided into four types of tantra, giving us an elaborate framework to understand its specifics. First, there is the outer Kalachakra. In large part, these sections are concerned with visualizing and meditating on the Buddha in the form of the meditational deity Kalachakra and chanting his mantra. Second comes the inner Kalachakra, which addresses applying the profound internal meditations on the subtle channels, vital winds, elements, and essential drops that make up the subtle (psychic) body. Third, the secret Kalachakra involves meditating on and within the ultimate meaning of the truth of emptiness. Fourth is “other,” or “alternative,” Kalachakra, which relates to the study of and meditation on the outer cosmos of our realm of existence. Alternative Kalachakra teaches us how all the physical appearances of this world are the manifestation of our collective karma; it teaches us the causes that bring about this universe. It describes the outer universe and how it directly corresponds with and reflects the inner propensities and karmic vision of all the beings within this universe. Thus, the Kalachakra tantra contains the deepest meanings of four types of tantras all within a single tradition."

An excellent starting point for diving in is The Wheel of Time: Kalachakra in Context. Here His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Geshe Sopa, and scholars Roger Jackson and John Newman explore the history, initiation, and practices within this tantric system.

Another overview is The Wheel of Time Sand Mandala: Visual Scripture of Tibetan Buddhism. This volume comes packed with illustrations that give a helpful sense of how the mandala support for this practice is created.

For the initiation of the deity Kalachakra, Alexander Berzin's Introduction to the Kalachakra Initiation is an excellent starting point. Dr. Berzin has researched and written extensively on the subject and this encapsulates his work. It begins with an introduction to tantra generally, the Kalachakra specifically, and then dives deeper and details the initiation itself, what is happening each day. A brief summary of the purpose of the practice is included:

"Properly empowered, we engage in generation and then complete stage meditational practice in the form of the Buddha-figure called Kalachakra. Through these two stages, we access and utilize the subtlest

level of our mind to see reality. Remaining continually focused on reality with it eliminates forever confusion and its instincts, thus bringing liberation from the external and internal cycles of time. This is possible because our basis tantra, our individual clear light mind, underlies each moment of experience and, like time, it has no end. Once our subtlest mind is freed from the deepest cause giving rise to the impulses of energy that perpetuate cycles of time and bondage to them, it gives rise, instead, to the bodies of a Buddha, in the form of Kalachakra."

It includes an explanation of the understandng of the universe and how it differs from the more familiar Buddhist view of the universe.  An excerpt appeared in the Snow Lion newsletter and you can find it here.  This work also includes other aspects of the text such as why it is so closely related with the line of Dalai Lamas, its connection with Shambhala, and more.

Dr. Berzin also published the short Kalachakra and Other Six-Session Yoga Texts, which currently available as an eBook.

Another topical work on the tantra is Glenn Mullin's The Practice of Kalachakra. The first half serves as a comprehensive overview of the tantra and the Kalachakra. The second half includes a set of translations of teachings and practices related to this cycle from the First, Fifth, Thirteenth, and present Fourteenth Dalai Lamas. It also includes works from Buton, the First Panchen Lama, and Lobzang Thubten Chokyi Nyima.

Some of these are also included in From the Heart of Chenrezig: The Dalai Lamas on Tantra.  

A very important work in English on the Kalachakra system is the anthology As Long as Space Endures: Essays on the Kalacakra Tantra in Honor of H. H. the Dalai Lama. With two dozen translations and essays, this contains pieces by Robert Thurman, Thupten Jinpa, Alexander Berzin, Vesna Wallace, and many other scholars and lamas known for their work with these teachings.

There are several other works that include teachings, stories, and other helpful and fascinating information on the Kalachakra and its history and impact in India and Tibet..

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye taught extensively on the subject.  He talks about this repeatedly throughout his autobiography, A Gem of Many Colors.

He also wrote about it extensively in his Treasuries. There will be a Kalachakra volume in the Treasury of Precious Instructions, the massive multivolume work from Shambhala Publications, the first volume of which comes out in 2016.

In his Treasury of Knowledge, published in English in ten volumes, there are two volumes specifically that contain a lot of detail about the Kalachakra system. The first is in the volume Systems of Buddhist Tantra: The Indestructible Way of Secret Mantra (6.4) and the other is in The Elements of Tantric Practice (8.3).

The Kalachakra is very central to the Jonang tradition, and a figure who is obviously very prominent in the teachings and propagation of the Kalachakra system was Dolpopa.

Dolpopa's biography, The Buddha from Dolpo by Cyrus Stearns, contains an immense amount of information on Dolpopa's connection with the Kalachakra practice.

It is also discussed at length in Dolpopa's own Mountain Doctrine: Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha Matrix.

The Kalachakra system also forms a large part of the astrological and divination techniques in Tibet. A few important sources on this include Mipham Rinpoche's Mo: Tibetan Divination System, and Phillipe Cornu's classic Tibetan Astrology.

Finally, The Art of Buddhism contains a short section on the Kalachakra mandala and the image above is from that work.