The first image, depicting the world system with Mt. Meru in the centre.

Depictions of the ground

Outer and inner Kālacakra

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This set of pages contains images from a set of eight paintings that depict the outer and inner aspects of Kālacakra. These are thought to have been painted under the direction of the eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (mi bskyod rdo rje).

[Update:] The images on these pages have recently (February 2010) been replaced thanks to higher resolution master copies kindly provided by the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York. Changes to some of the text will be made soon – mainly due to greater legibility of the writing on these images. Due to the high quality of these images, they are larger than their predecessors, and will take time to load on some systems.

The subject matter of the Kālacakra Tantra is subdivided in a couple of different ways. One that is common to many other tantras, and derives from the Buddhist definition of the word tantra (given in the Guhyasamāja Tantra), is to talk in terms of ground (the state of things as we find them), path and goal. This structure is reflected in the composition of the Kālacakra tantra itself, although the tantra also has its own classification into outer, inner and other.

The tantra is divided into five chapters, the first of which describes outer Kālacakra, the physical world. The second describes inner Kālacakra, the body with the channels (rtsa, nāḍī), winds (rlung, vāyu) and drops (thig le, bindu). These first two chapters constitute the ground. The last three chapters of the tantra are concerned with other Kālacakra, dealing with the empowerment, practices and finally awareness. These describe the path and goal.

The paintings described here cover the ground: the outer and inner aspects of Kālacakra. The first that is described on this page represents the outer world system as a whole, as does that described on the third of these pages. Two on the second main page depict details of that physical world, the first showing Jambudvīpa, and the second Sambhala. The two pictures on the fourth page are of the different positions of the orbit of the Sun during the year. Finally, the two images on the last two pages illustrate inner Kālacakra, the physical body with the various channels and centres.

Many of the images shown here can be clicked on in order to access higher resolution versions. For the sake of clarity, as the original paintings are rather old, some of the images have been computer enhanced.

The world system.

The levels of the gods of the formless and form realms.
The world system consists of Mt. Meru, sitting on top of four elemental disks, with the realms of all the gods above. At the very bottom is the black disk of wind, 400,000 yojanas (dpag tshad) in diameter; above it is the red disk of fire, 300,000 yojanas in diameter; next is the white disk of water, 200,000 yojanas in diamater; finally there is the yellow disk of earth, 100,000 yojanas across. Each of these is 50,000 yojanas in height, and so their total height is 200,000.

In the centre of the disk of earth sits Mt. Meru, 100,000 yojanas in height. Above this, stretching up a further 100,000 yojanas are the realms of the gods, widening to a diameter of 400,000 yojanas. An important feature in this structure is that the total height and the total width are both the same: 400,000 yojanas.

The gods of the desire realm
The world system is a representation of the abodes of all the different classes of beings. In the briefest form, Buddhism lists six classes of beings ('gro ba rigs drug), or, six different states of being: the gods, asuras (lha ma yin, non-gods), humans, animals, ghosts and those in the hell realms. The gods are further subdivided into three groups: the six classes of gods of the desire-realm, the 16 classes of the form-realm and the four classes of gods of the formless-realm. All of these taken together constitute the 31 states of existence (srid pa sum cu rtsa gcig).

The locations of these different states of existence are depicted in this painting, with the gods of the formless-realm at the very top. For the states of the formless and form realms, these are depicted in groups of four, each group being associated with the meditation on the totality (zad par, kṛitsna) of a particular element. The colours in the painting are now rather faded, but the top group of four is the green formless-realm, associated with the element of space. The next four sets of four constitute the form realm, associated with the elements of black wind, red fire, white water and yellow earth.

The locations of the gods of the desire realm are seen in the next image. These states come about through the practice of generosity and the power of the meditation on mantras. There are two levels shown in blue and two in red, above Mt. Meru, and then there is one group in the uppermost of the five platforms of Mt. Meru, and and one group on the next platform down. The full list of the names of these different realms of the gods are given below. The English names are taken from "The Outer Wheel of Time", by John Newman, the main English language source for this material. These names are then followed by their equivalents in Sanskrit and Tibetan, together with the seed syllables associated with each. These syllables appear in the paintings, written in Tibetan script.

Formless realm, element of space:

The sphere of neither perception nor non-perception – Naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatanaṃ – 'du shes med 'du shes med min skye mched – a
The sphere of nothing at all – Akiñcanyātanaṃ – ci yang med pa'i skye mched – ā
The sphere of limitless consciousness – Vijñānānantyāyatanaṃ – rnam shes mtha' yas skye mched – aṃ
The sphere of limitless space – Ākāśānantyāyatanaṃ – nam mkha' mtha' yas skye mched – aḥ

Form realm, element of wind:

Not lower – Akaniṣṭa – 'og min – i
Good-seeing – Sudarśana – shin tu mthong – ī
Unafflicted – Atapa – mi gdung ba – e
Not big – Avṛiha – mi che ba – ai

Form realm, element of fire:

Great result – Bṛihatphala – 'bras bu che ba – ṛi
Begetting merit – Puṇyaprasava – bsod nams skyes – ṛī
Cloudless – Anabhraka – sprin med – ar
Vast virtues – Śubhakṛitsna – dge rgyas – ār

Form realm, element of water:

Measureless virtues – Apramāṇaśubha – tshad med dge ba – u
Limitless virtue – Prīttaśubha – dge chung – ū
Shining – Ābhāsvara – 'od gsal ba – o
Measureless light – Apramāṇābha – tshad med 'od – au

Form realm, element of earth:

Limited light – Parīttābha – 'od chung – ḷi
Great Brahmā – Mahābrahmāṇa – tshangs chen – ḷī
The high priest of Brahmā – Brahmapurohita – tshangs pa mdun na 'don – al
The party of Brahmā – Brahmakāyika – tshangs ris – āl

Gods of the desire realm:

Controlling others – Paranirmitavasavartin – gzhan 'phrul dbang byed – ha
Delighting in emanations – Nirmāṇarati – 'phrul dga' – hā
Satisfied – Tuṣita – dga' ldan – ya
Free from fighting – Yāma – 'thab bral – yā
The thirty-three – Trāyastiṃśa – sum cu rtsa gsum – ra
The four guardians of the directions – Cāturmahārājakāyika – rgyal chen bzhi'i ris – rā
The abode of the humans, animals, and so forth; Great Jambudvīpa.

The desire realm consists of a total of eleven groupings. In addition to the six classes of gods, it contains the asuras, humans and so forth. The seed syllable (va) for the asuras is not visible in the painting, but the Tibetan word for asura is written on the disk of the element of earth. The asuras are considered to dwell in the upper quarter of the disk of earth (below the surface). The quarter immediately below them is the realm of the nāgas (klu).

The hells in the centres of the disks of water (top), fire and wind.
Visible on the earth disk are the syllables for the humans (vā), animals (la) and ghosts (lā). The state of the asuras comes about by the power of generosity. The human state is caused by a combination of virtuous and evil actions. The animal state is the result of minor evils, the ghosts the result of middling evils.

Also drawn on the earth disk is the syllable (kṣa) for the hell-realms, the result of great evils. These are not, however, on the surface of the disk of earth, but beneath that surface, inside the four elemental disks.

The surface of the disk of earth constitutes the realm known as Great Jambudvīpa, principally the land of men and animals. This consists of the familiar twelve continents. Our own continent of Jambudvīpa is the red triangular one, to the south of Mt. Meru. It is the middle of the three triangular continents.

Below the surface of the disk of earth, and below the upper half of that disk, are the eight hell-realms. The first is in the lower half of the disk of earth. The next two are in the disk of water. They comprise the section immediately below the disk of earth, that section therefore being 100,000 yojanas in diameter, and divided into upper and lower halves. Similarly, the next two are in the 100,000 yojana middle section of the disk of water. The final three are in the upper half of the equivalent section in the disk of wind, and in respectively the inner part and perimeter of the lower half. The names of these hell-realms and their locations are given here:

In the lower half of the disk of earth:

Gravel water – śarkarāmbha – gseg ma'i chu'i dmyal ba

In the upper and lower halves of the disk of water:

Sandy water – bālukāmbha – bye ma'i chu'i dmyal ba
Muddy water – paṅkāmbha – 'dam gyi chu'i dmyal ba (these two are the cold hells.)

In the upper and lower halves of the disk of fire:

Intense smoke – tīvradhūmra – mi bzad pa'i du ba'i dmyal ba
Fire – havis – me'i dmyal ba (these two are the hot hells.)

In the upper and lower halves of the disk of wind:

Darkness – tama – mun pa'i dmyal ba
Great wailing – mahāraurava – ngu 'bod chen po'i dmyal ba (lower, middle)
Vajra flame – vajrārci – rdo rje'i (me lce) dmyal ba (lower, outside)

Close up of Mt. Meru.

One of the intriguing aspects of this image of the world system is the unusual shape of Mt. Meru. In the Kālacakra literature Meru is described as having five summits or peaks (rwa lnga). There are many ways in which this simple comment is interpreted. The most straightforward is that given in the Jonang tradition, of five equally spaced peaks rising from the upper flat surface of Meru. See this page for some computer images depicting this.

The images shown here are reputedly from the Karma-Kagyu tradition, and yet the only description of Mt. Meru that closely matches them that I have been able to find are also from a Jonang writer, Chokle Namgyal (jo nang phyogs las rnam rgyal). He has a reputation for having somewhat controversial views on such subjects, but was an excellent and highly respected writer and teacher, and the main Kālacakra teacher of Tsongkhapa. In this view, Mt. Meru resembles five steps, and so the five peaks become rather like five plateaux, each one overhanging the one below. If further information regarding the origins of this tradition become available, this will be added to these notes.
Computer model of Mt. Meru and the four disks. The realms of the gods are not shown, but material can be seen rising from the main disks, to the level of the top surface of the disk of earth.

    E. Henning.
    Last updated 29 January 2011.
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