Kālacakra initiations

Buddhist Vajrayāna initiations, or empowerments, are often quite complex rituals, and amongst these the main Kālacakra empowerments are some of the most complex. For non-Tibetans the experience is not helped by the fact that the ritual is usually conducted for the most part in the Tibetan language.

Most people attending these would agree that the experience is improved by having a reasonable understanding of what is going on in the empowerment and the meaning of its various parts. The purpose of the following notes is therefore to help explain some of the principles involved in Kālacakra empowerments, or initiations, for the benefit of people intending to take such an initiation.

The first point to understand is that although one often hears people talk of receiving "the Kālacakra initiation", as though there were only one, there are in fact many. For a start, the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have their own distinct, although very similar traditions. Also, within each such lineage there are several different types of empowerment.

The simplest of these are generally known as "rituals of permission" (rjes gnang). The phrase "torma empowerment" (gtor dbang) is also often used. These are not full-scale empowerments, but are intended to enable the student to start performing a simple version of the main practice. For example, a ritual of permission for Kālacakra usually prepares the student to perform the practice of the more simple one-faced and two-armed form of Kālacakra, known as Sahaja-Kālacakra. The main empowerments involve the four-faced form of Kālacakra with twenty-four hands.

Rituals of permission will also be given for other deities within the Kālacakra cycle, such as the wrathful form of Kālacakra, Vajravega; the consort of Kālacakra on her own, Viśvamātā; the Kālacakra form of Garuḍa, and so on.

Of the main empowerments of Kālacakra, there are two basic types. These are associated respectively with the generation process (bskyed rim, utpattikrama) and perfection process (rdzogs rim, utpannakrama) meditations of Kālacakra.

In the generation process meditation the practitioner imagines being transformed into Kālacakra, standing in union with the consort, within the full maṇḍala, surrounded by the deities of the Kālacakra retinue. (The full image also includes a "world-system maṇḍala" that supports the palace, including Mt. Meru, continents, etc. See [click here:] this other page for some images depicting this.)

Translation note: Generation process, bskyed rim: one often sees the phrase "generation stage" or "development stage", even "phase", used. These translations miss the crucial point that there are many steps or stages involved, both in the creation of the maṇḍala and the raising of a child. This is implied directly by the original Sanskrit word "krama", which refers not to a single thing, but to a row or series of things. This is easy to understand with the childhood analogy. Conception, birth, starting to talk and puberty – these are all steps or stages along the way, but the raising of a child is not a stage, it is a process, of which all of these are parts.
In this practice the focus of attention is first of all on the process of the creation of this image of the full maṇḍala (it is this that is properly called the "generation process"), followed by the contemplation of this complete image together with the repetition of one or more of the mantras of Kālacakra.

The main type of empowerment that introduces the student to the maṇḍala and to this practice is known as the "Seven Empowerments Raising the Child" (byis pa 'jug pa'i dbang bdun). The generation process meditation – specifically the many steps in the formation of the maṇḍala and the generation of all the deities within it – purifies one's experience and perceptions of the process of life, from conception up to the stage of puberty, and for this reason the introduction to this practice is likened to raising a child.

Empowerments of this type are generally the most complex of all Kālacakra empowerments. They are usually preceeded by several days of ritual, and the empowerment itself usually takes two days. The Seven Empowerments Raising the Child will be explained in more detail later.

The perfection process meditations of Kālacakra are known as the Six Yogas (sbyor drug, ṣaḍaṅgayoga), or Six-limbed Vajrayoga (rdo rje'i rnal 'byor yan lag drug,). These start with the development of non-conceptual meditation, developing a process where the winds that are considered to move in the main right and left channels within the body are drawn into the central channel. This process is continued by methods involving control of the breathing and imagination of the various channels, the seeds (drops, "thig le", bindu) within them and the winds that move within the channels. The intention of these practices is to bind the winds within the central channel and then dissolve those winds back into the seeds from which they originated.

Once this has been perfected, the interplay of these seeds and winds is then allowed to develop fully in a purified form by means of Tummo (gtum mo, caṇḍālī) and related practices. The Six Yogas can be considered to purify one's experience after puberty. Once sexual maturity has been reached, so has the full potential of the main seeds within the central channel, and they need to be controlled and purified. These practices can also be considered as purifying the general process of perception.

There are two sets of empowerments specifically to grant the ability to perform the Six Yogas, known as the Higher Empowerments (dbang gong ma) and Ultimate Special Empowerments (mchog dbang khyad par can). The structure of these is essentially the same, with each of them consisting of four parts: flask empowerment, secret empowerment, understanding-awareness empowerment, and, the fourth empowerment.

No physical maṇḍala is required for these higher empowerments. Rather, the maṇḍala is considered to be the body of an imagined consort, as this aspect of practice is intended to purify the stage of life after sexual maturity. The higher empowerments are much shorter than the seven empowerments. No long ritual over several days is needed, and the whole process can take just a couple of hours. Sometimes a short version of the seven empowerments can be included in the beginning of a set of higher empowerments. (For example, the empowerment text by "tshe dbang kun khyab".) I should point out that some consider that only the Ultimate Special Empowerment really empowers one to practise the Six Yogas.

In another variation, particularly for more public initiations when it is not suitable to give all of the more advanced empowerments, a subset of the Higher Empowerments can be given. These are called the three abbreviated Ultimate Empowerments (mchog dbang dkyus 'gre gsum). These consist of the first three of the Higher Empowerments which are known as worldly empowerments. The fourth, or transwordly, empowerment is not then given, although a more simple, worldly equivalent of the fourth empowerment is usually given.

The Seven Empowerments Raising the Child

The teacher who is to give an initiation always needs first to perform a ritual known literally as an "empowerment accomplishment" (dbang sgrub). This is a preparation for the initiation. Typically, the teacher performs a self-generation meditation for the deity, in which he imagines himself becoming that deity – this is essentially the same as in the normal practice. In addition, he will perform a front-generation, typically imagining a drawn maṇḍala transforming into the maṇḍala of the deity concerned. This is a very similar method to that used in pūjas – offering rituals to a deity. In addition, there are other objects that need to be prepared, or imagined as transformed into some purified form.

A modern computer generated image of the 3D Kālacakra maṇḍala palace, according to the description by Banda Gelek. The lower two stories with yellow external walls are the body and speech palaces. The upper storey with white external walls is the mind palace. Click on the image for a higher resolution version.

With the full Kālacakra empowerment this is an elaborate process, for two principle reasons. The first is that the self- and front-generation practices for the full maṇḍala (the triple body, speech and mind maṇḍala) of Kālacakra are themselves very complex and take each day several hours. Also, it is traditional to use a powder maṇḍala for the Kālacakra initiation, and the drawing of this can easily take three or four days.

The main traditions actually insist that a powder maṇḍala is used, and that it is wrong to use a painted maṇḍala (prepared in advance and that can be used many times). However, there is one notable empowerment that comes from the tradition of the Vajrāvali (rdo rje'i phreng ba) by the late 11th century Indian master Abhayākaragupta. The Vajrāvali is a set of maṇḍala descriptions and initiations for the main Tantric cycles, and it specifically allows the use of painted maṇḍalas. All the main Tibetan traditions preserve a lineage of the Vajrāvali, but there are those that consider its use for Kālacakra to be somewhat improper.

The normal use of a powder maṇḍala adds significantly to the time taken for the preparations. Once these are over, there are two parts to the main initiation. The first is a preparation (lhag gnas) for the students and the second is the actual seven empowerments. These usually take place on two successive days.

The preparatory initiation.

In the following I shall mainly rely on the description given by Jamgon Kongtrul, but the essentials should be the same in other traditions. Kongtrul describes the preparation as consisting of fourteen parts:

1. Development of the correct motivation for taking the empowerment (bsam pa bcos pa).

2. Inner empowerment (nang dbang bskur ba). The students imagine that they dissolve into the mouth of the teacher imagined as Kālacakra, and are then reborn from the womb of his consort as single two-armed Kālacakra.

3. Request for the empowerment (gsol btab bsngags). This is followed by the teacher's confirmation that it will be given.

4. Taking of the ordinary vows (thun mong gi sdom bzung). This consists of the commitment to refuge and the development of the enlightened attitude.

5. Taking of the special mantra vows (thun mong ma yin pa sngags kyi sdom pa bzung ba). This consists of three vows of discipline, vows associated with each of the five types, and the fourteen basic vows.

6. Protection (srung ba). Here the students imagine at their six places the seed syllables of the six types of buddha:

forehead ū on a disk of the moon (white)
heart ū on a disk of Rahu (black)
crown ā on a disk of space (green)
navel ḷī on a disk of Kālagni (yellow)
throat ṛī on a disk of the sun (red)
genitals aḥ on a disk of awareness (blue)

The order above is the order in which they are described.

7. Empowerment of the three places (gnas gsum byin rlabs mchod). The students imagine the syllables "hūṃ", "āḥ" and "oṃ" at their heart, throat and crown, in order to empower their mind, speech and body as the three vajras.

8. Casting of the toothpick (so shing dor ba). Twelve finger-widths in length, the rather large ritual toothpick is made from a milky wood, and is cast by the student into a maṇḍala in order to determine the type of realization (particularly the activity) for which the student is best suited. This is indicated by the direction within the maṇḍala in which the head of the pick falls. The directions are given as:

North-east: pacification
North: increasing
South-east: killing
East: expulsion
South-West: controlling
South: coercion
North-west: dumfounding
West: petrifying
Up or down: All activities

9. Giving of palm-water (khyor chu sbyin pa). This is to purify the three doors of body, speech and mind so as to clarify dreams (dreams that might occur before the main empowerment, giving indications regarding one's future practice).

10. Giving of kuśa grass (ku sha sbyin pa). This grass is placed under one's bed at night in order to avoid disturbed or confusing dreams.

11. Giving a protective cord (srung skud sbyin pa). This is to protect from obstacles in the dreams.

12. Entreating Vajrasattva (rdor sems bskul ba). This is to purify the awareness of the students.

13. Explanation of profound dharma (zab mo'i chos bshad). This is to ensure that the students do not stray from the correct path.

14. Examination of dreams (rmi lam brtag pa). This is an instruction on what to do with the kuśa grass and when to observe dreams. The text gives some details as to the nature of auspicious signs, and what to do if signs arise which are inauspicious.

This completes the first day's activities.

The seven empowerments.

The seven empowerments raising the child are:

Silk scarf
Vajra and bell

One of the main aspects of Kālacakra theory is the discussion of the four seeds or potentials (drops, thig le, bindu) in one's experience. In the impure form these are associated with the four states (waking, dream, deep sleep and "the fourth"), and in the impure state with the four vajras. There are also many other associations with these four potentials, and the seven empowerments are associated with them in the following way:

The first two of the seven empowerments purify the body and enable the realisation of the body-vajra. The second pair purify the speech, enabling the realisation of speech-vajra. The third pair purify the mind, enabling the realisation of mind-vajra. The final empowerment purifies obscurations of awareness, enabling the realisation of the awareness-vajra.

Similarly, this purification of body, speech, mind and awareness can be associated with the destruction of the four māras:

Body – The skandha māra (phung po'i bdud, skandhamāra).
Speech – The māra of emotionality (nyon mongs pa'i bdud, kleśamāra).
Mind – The māra of the lord of death ('chi bdag gi bdud, mṛityupatimāra).
Awareness – The māra of the divine child (lha'i bu'i bdud, devaputramāra).

As far as the association with the raising of a child is concerned, this is nicely explained by Drukpa Pema Karpo ('brug pa padma dkar po):

Water: Just as a child is washed by its mother as soon as it is born, so there is the water empowerment of the five "mothers" – the consorts of the five buddhas.

Crown: Just as a barber cuts the hair of the child, so there is the crown empowerment of the five buddhas.

Silk scarf: Just as the child's ears are pierced, so there is the silken scarf empowerment of the ten Śaktīs (these are the eight goddesses surrounding Kālacakra, plus two others considered to be aspects of his own consort, Viśvamātā).

Vajra and bell: Just as the child develops the ability and starts to talk, so there is the vajra and bell empowerment of the chief deities, Father and Mother.

Conduct: Just as the child experiences the objects of the five senses, so there is the conduct empowerment of the Bodhisattvas and Sattvās.

Name: Just as the child is given a name, so there is the name empowerment of the male and female wrathfuls.

Permission: Just as the child is introduced to reading and so on, by its father, so there is the permission empowerment of Vajrasattva.

For these reasons, these empowerments are called the "seven empowerments raising the child". These seven introduce one to the Vajrayāna, the recitation of the mantra and the contemplation of the maṇḍala.

A key factor within the empowerment is that the student is introduced to some major elements of the symbolism of the maṇḍala, specifically of some of the main deities within the maṇḍala. All these deities are in a part of the maṇḍala known as the mind palace.

The full maṇḍala palace of Kālacakra consists of three main sections, known as the body, speech and mind palaces. The body palace is the largest and is at the bottom of the three dimensional structure. Inside it is a foundation for the speech palace. The roof structure of the body palace only runs around the edge by the walls, and has a large square space in the centre. The foundation for the speech palace is the same height as the roof of the body palace, and as the speech palace sits on top of this foundation, the bottom of the speech palace is level with the top of the roof of the body palace.

Similarly, the speech palace contains within it a foundation for the mind palace, which sits on top of that foundation. The dimensions of the walls, doors, and so forth of the speech palace are all half those of the body palace, and those of the mind palace, half again.

Finally, the mind palace contains a foundation for the "Circle of Great Bliss", the structure in the middle of which Kālacakra stands. This does not have walls, but consists of pillars holding up a roof structure. There is an extra set of pillars holding up the very topmost roof which is directly above the central lotus on which Kālacakra stands.

Above: diagram of the triple body, speech and mind maṇḍala
of Kālacakra. The mind palace is coloured red.
Below: a colour representation of the maṇḍala, painted under the
supervision of Ven. Tenga Rinpoche, Benchen monastery, Kathmandu.

In the drawn two-dimensional maṇḍala, the speech palace is drawn within the body palace, half its size, the mind palace within that, and the Circle of Great Bliss in the centre of the mind palace. In the diagram above, the walls and all they contain of the mind palace are highlighted in red.

3D Kālacakra maṇḍala – computer image of the mind palace of the triple body, speech and mind maṇḍala of Kālacakra. At the lower right can be seen, coloured in blue, the upper surface of the roof of the speech palace.

The two 3D images show a close-up of the mind palace, together with a "cut-away" version of the same with some walls and other structures removed to reveal the lotuses on which the various deities are imagined. In the initiation the students are introduced to the fact that the various deities in the mind palace are considered to be purified forms of certain aspects of one's experience.

In the 3D images the deities are represented by syllables. Kālacakra's monogram, the "one with ten powers", can just be seen right in the centre of the top of the foundation of the Circle of Great Bliss. This is above the centre of the image, a little to the right, behind one of the white flasks. Kālacakra is in union with his consort, Viśvamātā. The two of them stand on the centre of an eight-petalled green lotus, surrounded by the eight Śaktīs (standing on the petals).

Cut-away image of the mind palace, revealing the internal structure and lotuses of the deities. Just right of centre can clearly be seen the steep stairs leading up the foundation to the Circle of Great Bliss.

In the Circle of Great Bliss, which surrounds this central lotus, between two lines of pillars, are eight lotuses with eight flasks between them. On four of these lotuses sit four buddhas facing Kālacakra together with their consorts, and on the other four sit those same consorts facing Kālacakra, together with their buddhas. A fifth buddha (Akṣobhya) and consort pair is mentioned in the empowerment, but these are not represented separately in the palace. Akṣobhya and Vajrasattva (also involved in the empowerment) are both considered to be aspects of Kālacakra.

Lower down, surrounding the base of the foundation for the Circle of Great Bliss, and within the walls of the mind palace, is a white deity-podium supporting twelve lotuses. On these these sit similar symmetric pairs of bodhisattvas together with their consorts.

The final group of deities concerns five wrathful deities together with their consorts. Their arrangement is not so straightforward, as in the full triple maṇḍala some of them are outside of the mind palace. However, four of the main wrathful deities are within the palace, on lotuses within the doorways of the palace – a couple of these can be seen in the cut-away image, just outside of the deity-podium.

With more pillars and roofing removed from the 3D maṇḍala, a view down onto the Circle of Great Bliss. The deities are represented by their seed syllables. For example, at the bottom of the image, just right of centre, the white syllable over a red lotus and white moon disk is a long "ū", representing the white goddess Māmakī, in union with her buddha, Ratnasambhava.

In the order in which they are introduced in the empowerment, these groups of deities represent the purified form of the following aspects of experience:

Water five buddha consorts five elements (wind, water...)
Crown five buddhas five skandhas (form, sensation...)
Silk scarf ten Śaktīs ten winds
Vajra & bell Kālacakra and Viśvamātā the right and left channels
Conduct 12 bodhisattvas and consorts the six senses and their objects
Name Ten male and female wrathfuls the ten organs and activities
Permission Vajrasattva and consort the element and skandha of awareness

Structure of the seven empowerments.

The first six empowerments are taken in pairs, as they were described above. However, there are many steps before the seven empowerments themselves begin, and only a few of these can be described here. The focus of the activity at the beginning is on the request for the empowerments (including a maṇḍala offering to request the empowerment as a whole) and the commitments that the students make in response to the empowerment. Water from a conch shell is drunk by the students as a sign of making these commitments. The strength of the commitment is indicated by the idea that if the vows are broken then the water will turn to poison, but if they are preserved then it will become nectar. This is repeated many times during the following empowerments, basically at all the key points.

Another important factor in the preliminary part of the ritual is that the students are introduced to the maṇḍala. Indicating the fact that due to obscurations the minds of the students are unable to perceive the pure maṇḍala, they all wear red ribbons across the forehead as symbolic blindfolds. These are later removed when the maṇḍala is revealed to the students.

The main seven empowerments start with the students imagining that they are transformed into the form of the white Body vajra, the buddha Amitābha, and are guided by the vajra held in the right hand of the teacher to the ground outside the northern door of the maṇḍala palace, facing towards the palace. They then offer a maṇḍala to request the first two empowerments, Water and Crown.

Water empowerment. All the empowerment deities, the buddhas, their consorts, the bodhisattvas, and so forth, together with their ḍākinī retinues, are imagined as being attracted into the sky by the chief deity of the maṇḍala. Flasks of water are then empowered as the essence of the five consorts of the buddhas. Water from these flasks is given to the students, and five parts of their bodies are anointed with this water – the head, two shoulders and two hips. The students imagine that their five elements are purified into the following five consorts of the buddhas:

Space – Vajradhātvīśvarī
Wind – Tārā
Fire – Pāṇḍarā
Water – Māmakī
Earth – Locanā

Crown empowerment. For this empowerment, different coloured head-ornaments are empowered as the essence of the five buddhas. As with many other empowerment materials (dbang rdzas), either actual head-ornaments may be used, or more likely, small pictures, called tsakali, of head-ornaments are used instead. These are then touched on the five places of the students, and the student imagines the crown being fixed to the head. The students imagine that their five skandhas are purified into the following five buddhas:

Consciousness – Akṣobhya
Response – Amoghasiddhi
Sensations – Ratnasambhava
Interpretation – Amitābha
Form – Vairocana

The students imagine at the conclusion of these first two empowerments that they have properly realised the nature of the Body vajra, free from defilements. The students are then transformed into the red Speech vajra, the buddha Ratnasambhava, and are guided by the vajra held in the right hand of the teacher to the ground outside the southern door of the maṇḍala palace, facing towards the palace. They then offer a maṇḍala to request the next two empowerments, Silk scarf and Vajra and bell.

Silk scarf empowerment. Different coloured silk scarves, or tsakali of scarves, are empowered as the essence of the ten Śaktīs. These are similarly touched on the five places of the students, and imagined as bound to the head. The students imagine that their 10 main winds are purified into the following 10 śaktis:

Samāna (mnyam gnas) – Kṛiṣṇadīptā
Nāga (klu) – Pītadīptā
Vyāna (khyab byed) – Śvetadīptā
Udāna (gyen rgyu) – Raktadīptā
Kūrma (rus sbal) – Dhūmā
Dhanañjaya (nor las rgyal) – Pradīpā
Devadatta (lhas byin) – Khadyotā
Kṛikara (rtsangs pa) – Marīcī
Prāṇa (srog 'dzin) – Paramakalā
Apāna (thur sel) – Bindurūpiṇī

Vajra and bell empowerment. A vajra and bell (in this case a tsakali representation is often not used) are empowered respectively as Kālacakra and his consort Viśvamātā. The vajra and bell are touched on the heads of the students, and then placed into their hands. The students imagine that their left and right, lalanā and rasanā channels are purified into Kālacakra and Viśvamātā:

Lalanā – Kālacakra
Rasanā – Viśvamātā

The students imagine at the conclusion of these two empowerments that they have properly realised the nature of the Speech vajra, free from defilements. The students are then transformed into the black Mind vajra, the buddha Amoghasiddhi, and are guided by the vajra held in the right hand of the teacher to the ground outside the eastern door of the maṇḍala palace, facing towards the palace. They then offer a maṇḍala to request the next two empowerments, Conduct and Name.

One pair of bodhisattva and consort: white Rūpavajrā in union with her consort, red Kṣitigarbha.
Conduct empowerment. Different coloured flower petals are empowered as the essence of the six bodhisattvas and their consorts. These are then touched on the sense organs of the students, although in normal practice they are touched on the head and then possibly offered to the hands. The students imagine that their sense organs and their objects are purified into the six bodhisattvas and their six consorts:

Ears – Vajrapāṇi
Concepts – Dharmadhātuvajrā
Nose – Khagarbha
Tangibles – Sparśavajrā
Eyes – Kṣitigarbha
Tastes – Rasavajrā
Tounge – Lokeśvara
Forms – Rūpavajrā
Body – Nīvaraṇaviṣkambhin
Smells – Gandhavajrā
Heart, the organ of the mind – Samantabhadra
Sounds – Śabdavajrā

Name empowerment. Different coloured bracelets or garlands of flowers are empowered as the essence of the ten male and female wrathfuls. These are touched on the limbs of the students. The students are also at this point given a name and instructed to remember it! The students imagine that their action organs and their activities are purified into the five wrathfuls and their five consorts:

Urinary and sexual organs – Uṣṇīṣacakrin
Emission of urine and semen – Raudrākṣī
Organ of speech – Vighnāntaka
Speech – Ativīryā
Hands – Prajñāntaka
Grasping – Jambhakī
Legs – Padmāntaka
Walking – Mānakī
Rectum – Yamāntaka
Defecation – Stambhakī

The students imagine at the conclusion of these two empowerments that they have properly realised the nature of the Mind vajra, free from defilements. The students are then transformed into the yellow Awareness vajra, the buddha Vairocana, and are guided by the vajra held in the right hand of the teacher to the ground outside the western door of the maṇḍala palace, facing towards the palace. They then offer a maṇḍala to request the final empowerment, Permission.

Permission empowerment. Hand emblems such as a wheel are empowered as the essence of Vajrasattva and his consort. The wheel represents the Dharma, and this is offered to the hands of the students who promise to teach the Dharma, "turn the wheel of the Dharma", for the benefit of all beings. Other hand emblems can also be involved here, for the others of the main five classes: lotus, jewel, sword and vajra. The students imagine that their awareness skandha and element are purified into Vajrasattva and his consort:

Awareness skandha – Vajrasattva
Awareness element – Prajñapāramitā

The students imagine that having received the Permission empowerment they have properly realised the nature of the Awareness vajra, free from defilements.

There are some further ritual activities and repetitions of some aspects of the vows and commitments, but this basically concludes the seven empowerments.

    E. Henning.
    Last updated 3 December 2014.
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