The Wheel of Time Sand Mandala: Visual Scripture of Tibetan Buddhism

The following article is from the Winter, 2003 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


A stunning visual introduction to the artistic and spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism.

According to the monks who create it, the Kalachakra Sand Mandala, also known as the Wheel of Time, imparts peace and healing to all beings and to the planet. Remarkable not only for its stunning beauty but also for the intricate process of its construction—a delicate sifting of colored sands into elaborate patterns and symbols rich in meaning—the mandala serves as a visual scripture and vital key to understanding the essential teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. This lavishly illustrated volume captures each stage of the mandala's construction, the serene joy and painstaking discipline of the monks, and the fascinating history behind its symbolism.

The late Barry Bryant was artistic director of Samaya Foundation in New York City.

"...a self-contained lay-person's introduction to the entire Tibetan Buddhist tradition that takes as its starting point the visual window offered by the Kalachakra mandala"—TRICYCLE MAGAZINE

"This book brings a crystal clarity to one of the most profound rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. Barry Bryant has produced a gorgeous, powerful, and thorough guide to everything about the Kalachakra, from the technical details of the mandala's architecture to the deep spiritual meanings it embodies."—DANIEL GOLEMAN, author of Emotional Intelligence

Three short excerpts from The Wheel of Time Sand Mandala follow.

The External Kalachakra

The Kalachakra system of astrology, sometimes known as the "stellar calculations" or "star studies," and the Greek (or Western) systems share a common pan-Indian source, so there are similarities. As in Western astrology, the Tibetan zodiac is divided into twelve signs and twelve related houses. The signs bear the same names as those in the modern West (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and so on), but they are referred to as houses (khyim).

What we in the West would call the houses—those areas of the sky or horoscope that denote the various "departments" of a person's life (the physical body, personal finances, siblings and relatives, etc.)—are known as periods (dus-sbyor) and carry slightly different, meanings.

As in the modern Western system, ten "planets" are used, but in this system only seven of these are heavenly bodies. (This was true as well in the older Western system, before the age of the telescope.) These are the seven visible bodies of the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The remaining three in the Tibetan system are the comet, and Rahu and Kalagni (known as Ketu in the Hindu system), which are the north node and the south node of the moon. The comet is not used in horoscopes, but the lunar nodes are important for predicting solar and lunar eclipses.

The Internal Kalachakra

In the internal Kalachakra, emphasis is placed on the functioning of the human body and of the coarse and subtle minds. It is very important for the Kalachakra student to know that the internal winds are in motion, just as the planets are. That is why meditators who study the Kalachakra Tantra first learn the external Kalachakra, which details the movements of the sun and the moon.

The importance of these two heavenly bodies in the tantra is underlined by their representation by the principal deities themselves, Kalachakra (the moon) and Vishvamata (the sun). The purpose of the practice of Kalachakra—to achieve the purified mind of the deity—requires harmonizing one's inner being with the structure of the cosmos.


The Kalachakra Tantra makes it clear that attaining enlightenment affects not only our inner being but our bodies, the stars, and ultimately, our entire cosmos as well. We are all an integral part of the interrelated universe, the Mandala of Kalachakra.

In the internal Kalachakra, the sun and the moon correspond to, or "rule," the right and left channels of the body. It is necessary to know the solar and lunar days and how to calculate them to work effectively with the variable sun and moon energies, which affect the passage of the winds through the body.

In Kalachakra, as in other Buddhist tantras and in Tibetan medicine, the subtle energy of the body is pushed by the "winds" through the "channels" of the human anatomy. Although these concepts do not have direct correlations in Western medicine, Tibetan doctors tell us the channels are part of the nervous system.

The channels are divided into left (kyangma) and right (roma), which correspond to the polarities of male and female. The sun is female in the Tibetan astrological system and the moon is male. The pull between these polarities is the reason we experience various inclinations of energy, mood, and mind/body balance. The central channel (ooma) is the pathway of balance and stability.

The deity Kalachakra has three colored necks representing the three wind channels. The right (roma) is red and influenced by the sun, and is the channel through which the sun- wind passes. The white neck is the left channel (kyangma); it is influenced by the moon, being the channel through which the moon-wind passes. The blue neck (ooma) is the neutral and central channel.

The neutral wind corresponds to the lunar nodes, Rahu and Kalagni. This neutral wind (known as "Rahu's wind"), which is not always present, is important for the practitioner of the generation and completion stages of Kalachakra, and generally it is experienced only by accomplished meditators. The Kalachakra Initiation provides the empowerment for binding together the winds of the left and right channels into the central channel.

The practitioner who achieves control of the ever-moving winds inside the body, and especially the subtle winds, can still the ever-changing mind. But until that time, the winds act to agitate consciousness.

The axis and balance of the regenerative fluids are also influenced by the planetary movements. For instance, the red, female regenerative fluid, or blood, is influenced by the sun; the white, regenerative fluid of the male, or semen, is influenced by the moon.

The Alternate Kalachakra

When we speak of the alternate Kalachakra, we are referring to the stages of initiation, generation, and completion. The chapter in this book on the Kalachakra Initiation provides more detail about the first of these three stages.

The alternate Kalachakra is the path of transformation. The initiation forms the basis for developing the actual practice. During the generation stage, the practitioner develops a clear visualization of himself or herself as the deity Kalachakra, including his abode, the Kalachakra Mandala This can only be done sketchily at first, but the meditator continues until he or she is able to maintain a precise visualization of the entire mandala with all its details in a space the size of a pea, for as long as desired.

The generation stage, in turn, provides the basis for the completion stage. Once the meditator can maintain the self-visualization as the deity in the mandala, he or she employs advanced techniques to actualize the visualization. This requires manipulation of the physiological processes, including control of the winds and the endocrine system. The realization of the state of mind produced by this practice is not yet the end of the path; it is but the first of twelve stages leading to the ultimate goal of enlightenment, or Buddhahood.

It is clear why the Kalachakra is among the highest levels of tantra, requiring dedicated practice based on firm motivation. This is why the Dalai Lama says that before we can bring about world peace, we must work to attain our own inner peace, always motivated by the desire to benefit all sentient beings. We must go beyond the illusion that we are each a single entity at the mercy of powerful physical forces. The Kalachakra Tantra makes it clear that attaining enlightenment affects not only our inner being but our bodies, the stars, and ultimately, our entire cosmos as well. We are all an integral part of the interrelated universe, the Mandala of Kalachakra. Our very survival depends on out awakening to this truth.

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