On Being the Right Size

With apologies to J. B. S. Haldane


In his instruction text on the extensive generation process of Kālacakra, Tāranātha explains that there are different opinions regarding the relative size of the maṇḍala palace of Kālacakra compared to the world system on which it sits.

That world system consists of the four disks of the elements together with Mt.Meru. At the bottom of the base of the world system is a black disk of wind, 400,000 yojanas in diameter. Above this is a red disk of fire, 300,000 yojanas in diameter; above that a white disk of water, 200,000 yojanas in diameter; and above that a yellow disk of earth, also known as the great golden ground, 100,000 yojanas in diameter. All of these are inside a spherical protective sphere, of diameter 500,000 yojanas, containing a slightly smaller spherical dharmodaya. These are of the element of space, and are therefore green. (See the image at the top of this page.)

All four disks are circular in shape and are all equal in thickness, each 50,000 yojanas. They are stacked one on top of the other, with each one extending 50,000 yojanas in all directions beyond the one above it, and from these extensions material rises up to encircle the disk of the earth and be level with it.

Sitting in the middle of the top surface of the disk of earth is the circular Mt. Meru, 100,000 yojanas in height. From where the lower surface of this is in contact with the earth disk, for a distance upwards of 1,000 yojanas, the diameter is 16,000 yojanas. This diameter of 16,000 yojanas continues up to the summit of Meru and forms the core of the mountain. It is green and composed of emerald.

All around the base of Meru, 1,000 yojanas in both height and width, is the ledge, or step ('gram stegs), of Meru. From the top of this, Meru widens, increasing gently in diameter up to half its height (of 50,000 yojanas), and from there increasing more quickly, until the edge of the top surface is directly over the outer edge of the lower "Cool Mountains" (bsil ri, Sīta).

The outside edge of the base of Mt. Meru is encircled by six continents, six oceans and six mountain ranges, each with a width of about 890 yojanas. As the outer edge of the outermost Sīta mountains is directly below the upper edge of Meru, all these eighteen mountains, continents and oceans are underneath the overhang of Meru. These six continents are the abodes of beings; the oceans surrounding them are like trenches, and the mountains are at the edges of the oceans, circling them like iron-mountains, complete with peaks.

The diameter of the top of Meru is 50,000 yojanas. From halfway up Meru up to the top the thickness is increasing, spreading further out from the core, to the diameter at the top of 50,000 yojanas. Down from the halfway point, Meru becomes thinner, all the way down to the base.

The sections that spread out from above the ledge are not made of emerald as is the core. To the east of the central core it is made out of blue sapphire; to the south, red ruby, to the north white moonstone; and to the west yellow quartz. These spread out, getting thicker, until at top they are in total a diameter of 50,000 yojanas. One refinement here is given by Tāranātha, who states that the core itself thickens towards the top, and has an upper diameter of 25,000 yojanas.

Meru is described as having five peaks (rtse mo/rwa, śṛiṅga). The central emerald core protrudes from the surface as the mountain's central peak or summit. Similarly, from the eastern sapphire surface arises the blue eastern peak or summit, and so forth. These five peaks or summits are 25,000 yojanas in height and they look like five pointed tormas placed on a mirror (maṇḍala offering base).

The surfaces of the three disks of water, fire and wind below the disk of earth, which each protrude beyond the one above by 50,000 yojanas, spread up to become level with the upper earth disk, encircling it. Of these, tongues of fire reach up from the disk of fire, higher than the level of the disk of earth, forming a perimeter. This forms the outer iron mountains, which is also given the name "fire from the mare's mouth" (rta gdong gi me, vāṇavāgni), a powerful fire said to exist in the ocean to the south of Jambudvīpa.

The perimeter of water, material rising up from the lower disk of water, is the salt ocean, and rivers feeding this ocean form from water all over the twelve regions of the surface of the disk of earth. Each of these regions consist of hundreds of countries and islands rising out of the ocean, on which live humans who have the great ability to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime through the practice of the mantra path. As a result of the accumulated power of this ability this Jambudvīpa is known as a land of action.

In the generation process meditation, on top of Meru is imagined a lotus and moon, sun and rāhu disks, on top of these a vajra-ground, and finally on this is the maṇḍala palace. And this is where the problem starts.

Tāranātha tells us that there are three main views on the relative size of the palace, and that these are based on different sections of the Kālacakra Tantra. In the order in which he discusses these, they are chapter 3, verse 52, chapter 5, verses 169 and 170, and, chapter 5, verse 175.

Maṇḍala equal to the world system

The first of these is described in the Vimalaprabhā commentary as explaining the purity of the powder maṇḍala through the purity of the world system. In other words, it concerns symbolism. This section starts with a famous quotation: "As with the outside, so with the body; as with the body, so with the other; so it is in the coloured powder maṇḍala." (ji ltar phyi rol du de bzhin lus // ji ltar lus la de bzhin gzhan // rdul tshon gyi ni dkyil 'khor la'o //) The point here is that contemplation of the maṇḍala in the generation process meditations purifies the practitioner's experience of the outer and inner worlds – the physical world system and the human body.

Maṇḍala equal to the world system
The Vimalaprabhā continues by stating that "The size of the physical world of 400,000 yojanas is in the body four cubits, and also similarly in the maṇḍala. Whatever the size of the (powder) maṇḍala, from one cubit up to a thousand, measured in its own (units of) cubits, its size is four cubits". The size intended here is the internal width of the body palace. "All maṇḍalas are of four cubits." This could hardly be clearer – the sizes being mentioned here are symbolic. Certainly, the disk of the water element has half the diameter of the disk of wind, and the speech palace is half the width of the body palace, but apart from these relative measurements there is nothing absolute about these dimensions.

We are told that the four cubits of the width of the body palace is equal to 192 half-fingers (half-finger-widths – this unit of measurement is equal to the more commonly used minor units which are perhaps the most usual unit used to describe the dimensions of the maṇḍala; these are one sixth of the width of the doorway in the mind palace.)

The Vimalaprabhā then tells us that the diameter of the lotus of the chief deity is 12 half-fingers and that this equates to, or is equivalent to, 25,000 yojana in the physical world, the diameter of the core of Meru. Next, the tathāgata-dais in the mind palace is 24 half-fingers and this equates to the size of the top of Meru and the lower extent of the six continents, six oceans and six chains of mountains, 50,000 yojana.

Then the extent of the disk of the element of earth, 100,000 yojanas, is equated to the position of the first doorways, ie. those of the mind palace, a width of 48 half-fingers. These are the first doorways encountered moving out from the centre. Next, the internal width of the speech palace, 96 half-fingers, is equated to the diameter of the disk of the water element, and the extent of the speech palace, from parapet to parapet, is equated with the diameter of the disk of fire – 300,000 yojanas or 144 half-fingers. This latter measurement would simply be wrong for a three-dimensional palace, as in a 3D maṇḍala; the parapet is on top of the walls, not laid out around them as in the drawn maṇḍala;. This is clearly continuing to refer to the drawn powder maṇḍala;.

Next, the internal width of the body palace, 192 half-fingers, is associated with the diameter of the disk of wind, 400,000 yojanas. Finally, this section describes the widths of the perimeters that surround the drawn maṇḍala;, but these are not associated with particular sizes in the world system. Tāranātha tells us that these descriptions are taken as describing the width of the palace as being equal to the diameter of the wind disk, and calls this the "maṇḍala equal to the world system" – see the image.

One point that at first sight supports this relative sizing of the palace comes in chapter 4 of the Vimalaprabhā, at the beginning of the description of the generation process. The internal size of the body palace is given as 400,000 yojanas, and this is associated with the disk of wind, and so forth. But then, we are told that similarly, internally the maṇḍala is associated with the extent of the body above and below the heart, from the genitals to the crown. This is clearly not a literal association of size; the key point seems to be the symbolism of outer, inner and other – the symbolic correspondence between the outer physical world, the inner world of the body and the maṇḍala, both drawn with coloured powders or imagined in the meditation.

Maṇḍala equal to the top of Meru

Maṇḍala equal to the top of Meru
The second section referred to by Tāranātha is described in the Vimalaprabhā as explaining the characteristics of Mt. Meru. It starts by associating the four sides and the central core of Mt. Meru with the elements and certain characters:

East – blue sapphire – wind – ya
South – red ruby – fire – ra
West – yellow quartz – earth – la
North – white moonstone – water – va
Central core – green – space – ha

No material is given in the Vimalaprabhā for the central core, and the name given to the element is "empty". These four elements are also associated with the four continents underneath the slopes of Meru.

The text continues by telling us that at the place of the navel of Meru is the awareness circle (this is the Circle of Great Bliss in the palace, the site of the chief deities, including the buddhas and their consorts), at the heart (of Meru) is the mind palace, at the throat the speech palace and at the forehead the body palace.

(See this page for some further description of the head and so forth of Meru.)

The Vimalaprabhā then states that the top surface of Meru has a size (diameter) of 50,000 yojanas and that this "is the maṇḍala of body, speech and mind." It is this comment that gives the relative size here known as "maṇḍala equal to the top of Meru", in which the inner width of the body palace is taken as literally 50,000 yojanas, and therefore equal to the diameter of the top surface of Meru.

Maṇḍala equal to half of Meru

The last verse quoted by Tāranātha is part of a section entitled "The purity of the maṇḍala regarding the body." Again, this clearly concerns symbolism. The Vimalaprabhā states that the heart is mid-way between the genitals and the mid-point of the eyebrows. This is the mind maṇḍala, in the middle of the section from the navel to the middle of the throat, in size, 12 1/2 fingers. The area between the navel and the throat is 25 fingers, and this is the speech maṇḍala. From the secret lotus (genitals) to the mid-point of the eyebrows is 50 fingers, and this is the body palace, the vajra-ground. The text also refers to half the mind, and this is the awareness maṇḍala, or Circle of Great Bliss, 6 1/4 fingers.

Maṇḍala equal to half of Meru
Of these three maṇḍalas, the doorways of the mind palace are the (purity of the) four states of waking and so forth, the doorways of the speech palace are the mouth, the anus and two nostrils, and those of the body palace are the eyes and the two ears. The body from the crown to the feet is associated with the full extent of the (drawn) maṇḍala, out to the edge of the fire garland.

Then the crucial point for this passage: bodhicitta travels between the genitals and the point between the (level of the) eyebrows, going back and forth across the distance of 50 fingers of the triple maṇḍala, travelling a total distance that is double this, a distance of 100 fingers.

We then come to the actual quote cited by Tāranātha: this tells us, rather obscurely (and for this reason I am also following Mipham's analysis), that, in a similar manner, one half-finger (of the chief deity) becomes two thousand yojanas in the human world. Therefore, regarding the size of the wind disk, one cubit of the chief deity, which is 50 half-fingers (these are approximate figures, the usual number is 48). This becomes 100,000 yojanas (50 pairs of thousands of yojana). Therefore, in the same manner as with the square components – i.e. the palaces – the extent of the wind disk is 4 cubits, equivalent to 400,000 yojanas.

Similarly, regarding the height of Meru, the one cubit size of the spine in the body becomes 100,000 yojana (which is the stated height of Meru). The size of the top of Meru is half this, 50,000 yojanas, as was explained in the first chapter, and on top of this is the triple palace (rdo rje'i rnam pa brtsegs pa cha gsum pa), and half of this size, 25,000 yojanas, is the width of the palace. The point here seems to be that just as we doubled mapping out from the maṇḍala to the physical world, so in the reverse direction, we halve the dimensions. This is rather an obscure passage, but even so, the point is made that the width of the palace is half that of the diameter of the top of Meru, and it is this that leads to the relative sizing known as "maṇḍala equal to half of Meru".


Are any conclusions possible here? Can we decide the size of the maṇḍala palace relative to the world system? Tāranātha tells us that there were some even more bizarre explanations given. For example, because the sizes given for the maṇḍala palace are the same as those of the world system, some thought that the lotus of the chief deity is identical with the one on top of Meru; that the Circle of Great Bliss is on top of Meru; that the mind palace is on the surface of the disk of the element of earth; that the speech palace sits on the disk of water; and that the body palace is on the disk of wind. This would completely mess up the vertical dimensions of the palaces, and Tāranātha explains politely that this is not how it is done in his tradition.

In the Jonang tradition the accepted relative sizing of the palace is the last of these three, the "maṇḍala equal to half of Meru". The reasoning is not based on scriptual authority as there is no definitive description given in the original literature, but on logic.

The most compelling logic seems to be this. The maṇḍala includes both the physical world of the disks of the elements and the triple palace sitting on its offering ground. In the drawn maṇḍala, the elements appear as perimeters surrounding the offering ground, and of course, the drawn maṇḍala is effectively a floor-plan – a view of the whole structure from above. Only in the last of these three systems, with the offering ground the same size as the top of Meru, and the internal width of the body palace being half this, would you get any kind of reasonable match to the drawn maṇḍala. Viewed from above, Meru would be completely obscured – it does not feature in the drawn maṇḍala – and surrounding the offering ground would appear the disk of earth as a perimeter, around that the perimeter of water, and so forth.

Also, there are deities outside – beyond – the palace that are situated above the junction of the perimeters of wind and fire. In the first of these relative sizings, with the palace equal in size to the disk of wind, these deities would be hidden well below the palace; this would not seem right at all.

Mind you, although Tāranātha prefers the third relative sizing, he defends the first sizing, "maṇḍala equal to the world system", at least from objections that it just looks wrong or impossible. He writes that if we state that it is wrong to have such a large structure supported by a relatively small Meru, then we also should have a problem with buddhas and deities sitting on lotuses supported by small stalks – very common in Buddhist meditations. He clearly prefers proper logic to an emotional reaction.

A final point worth mentioning is this. The world system is said to be imagined inside the protective sphere, of diameter 500,000 yojanas. If you take these dimensions literally, the only systems that will actually fit inside the protective sphere are the "maṇḍala equal to half of Meru" and the "maṇḍala equal to the top of Meru" – the latter is illustrated in the image at the top of this page.

    E. Henning.
    Last updated 7 February 2012.
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