A long awaited Kalachakra empowerment (dus-’khordwang-chen) is coming into reality during this beautiful summer of Ladakh. Once again, this mass sacred gathering is presided by the Vajra Master, His Holiness, 14th Dalai Lama rGyal-wabsTan-’bdzinrGya-mtso. There cannot be better auspicious day for us when the Buddha Kalachakra himself set to bestow Kalachakra initiation upon his chosen and faithful disciples. We pledge to obey the vows of Kalachakra initiation.
Looking back to its long cultural history of Ladakh, one hardly finds instances parallelto present ones in term of spiritual as well as material ascendant. Indeed, ongoing momentum has commenced with the first visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Ladakh combined withLadakh’s easy access to mainland India-both the events, co-incidentally, taking place in early 1960s.Indeed, Ladakh is re-discovering the lost Shangrila, the paradise, once said to have existed in vicinity of the great Himalayas. His Holiness comes calling us with a message of peace and prosperity and Ladakh has become a field of His Holiness’s dharma mission laboratory where the Tibetan culture and civilization takes culturing for the future.
Bound by one culture and one Master, there is absolute cultural and historical affinity between the greater Tibet and little Tibet (Ladakh). This relation is not a new development. In ancient times, Ladakhi lamas and pilgrims used to make months and months long trekking on foot through a vast Tibetan plateau to avail glimpse of the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and the Jovo of Lhasa. Topics of talks among the Ladakhis on those days centered on rGyal-wa Rinpoche, Panchen Rinpoche and Jovo Rinpoche. They knew nothing about then their rulersMaharaja Gulab Singh in Jammu, Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore and Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi. Ladakh has remained living Buddhism for more over than one millennium without interruption.
Once the most venerable late KushokBakula Rinpoche had made this striking remarks, “Occupation of Tibet is tragedy for the Tibetans but it has proved rewarding for the Ladakhis.” His Holiness trained dozens of LadakhisdGe-shes at various Tibetan Settlements in South India andmKhan-pos elsewhere in India and sent back to Ladakh to preserve and spread their culture. Nowthe 3rd Kalachakra initiation, the highest Buddhist Tantra teachings is being conferred in Ladakh by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
Buddhist Tantra, which has become predominant in the entire Tibetan cultural region, is known as Lamaism or Tibetan Buddhism, was originated in India. Buddhist Tantra and its art have been “transplanted” in the fertile soil of the ‘Land of Snows’ between the eight and the 12th century AD. Tibetan tradition affirms that Tantra is Buddha’s word and bka’gyur (Collection of Buddhas treaties) contained a bulk of Tantra texts; but others say that Buddhist Tantra took roots in the seventh and the eight centuries. They claim that a number of Tantra texts were discovered in the north-west India by BuddhisattvaPadmapani Padmasambhava and a few others. In Tibetan, Tantra is called ‘brgyud’ which means ‘continuity’. It is the continuation of training in three shiksha (precepts) of shila (moral discipline) Samadhi (absorbtion) and prajya (wisdom). And Tantra is the culmination of Theravada and Mahayana vehicles, the expression of celebration of freedom from all physical and mental fetters. The goal of the practioners, (Sadhakas), according to Tantra tradition, is to attain enlightenment within one life. Through rigorous practical and visualisation; one gains control of breath (parana) and mind. Tantra is esoteric, not meant for public but for a group of specialised people. It is also known as ‘whispered-teaching’ and this esoteric transmission is handed down from teacher to student, person to person. Because of such methodologies, the Tibetans give great importance to the lineage system which is continued through Buddha Vajradhara to one’s own teacher. The walls of monasteries are filled with fresco-paintings of the lineage of Lamas; and during prayer session, Lamas invoke this lineage of teachers seeking their blessings.
Another important characteristic of Vajrayana Buddhism is the creation of hundreds of anthropomorphic gods and goddesses with multiple arms and heads, yogis and yoginis. These gods and goddesses take the shapes of both furious and mild forms. In the mild form, the ‘god of knowledge’ is called Manjushree and in the furious form, he is called Yamantakas.
According to the famous book, The Tibetan Book of Dead, Padmasambhava counts 100 deities 48 in mild forms and 52 furious forms. This text is instructions for the deceased who are supposed to encounter dreaded visions during their journey into the Bardo realm (a period between dead and before rebirth).
The texts advise a deceased not to run away in panic from these forms. If the deceased runs away in panic, he will miss liberation and suffer more. But these dreaded forms are just a fantasy, a projection of his mind. Being the creation of onesown imagination, they have no existence of their own. Padmasambhava strongly recommends the deceased to recognise these forms as his own mind’s creation.
The next important tradition is Buddhist Tantra is a visualisation of Mandala. Mandala means a family, a ‘kula’ in Sanskrit. Mandala is an extention of one’s own family. The drawing of Mandala has its ubiquitous presence on the walls of all the assembly halls of the monasteries in Ladakh. There are hundreds of forms of Mandala visualisations and the visualisation of the five-fold Buddhas (panch-kula) Mandala is an important part. During their meditation, the practitioners bring into their minds the Buddha Vairocana seated in the centre of Mandala surrounded by the Blue Buddha, Akshobhya in the east, Red Buddha Amitabha in the west, Yellow Buddha Ratnasambhava in the north and the Green Buddha Amogasiddhi in the south. Their colours, hand gestures and directions are significant as the white Vairocanas stands for brilliant light, the Buddha mind. His hand gesture (DharmacakraParivartana) reminds of Buddha Shakyamuni’s first preaching in Sarnath. The Blue Akshobhya stands for dawn, his hand touching to earth (bhumi sparsha mudra) calling the mother earth to witness his enlightenment on full moon day at dawn. The Red Amitabha stands for the sun-set, a time the Buddha Shakyamuni’s begins his meditation session, hands on his laps,(dhyana-mudra). Yellow Ratnasambhava Buddha for his generosity, right palm outstretched (varada mudra); and the Green Buddha Amogasiddhi stands for all accomplishment, his hand raised to his chest is called (abhyamudra), fearlessness. In reality, the five Buddhas have no separate entity. They are an extension of the central Buddha and there is a link between the centre and the periphery. Tantric masters evoke Vairocana Mandala in meditation which resulted in the practitioners themselves taking finally the central seat and becoming the Buddha Vairocana themselves.
Every monastery in Ladakh has an annual mask-dance performed by the Lamas, who are not considered ordinary dancers. It is called ‘vajra-nirtya’ (divine dance) and consists of Vajra-gita (divine-song). It is a divine dance performed by divine-beings or Lamas.
These dances are the culmination of long practices and visualisation by the practitioners in retreat. It is the celebration of victory over their ego. The Lamas wearing frightening masks dance in monastic courtyards, conveying to the audience to get accustomed to these terrifying figures which they may encounter in the Bardo state.
The message is the recognition and getting used to these frightening figures. The son of a sculptor who made masks of terrifying forms died and encountered various terrifying forms in Bardo. Being accustomed to these forms, he said to himself, “I have seen these figures and they are created by my father’s own hands”. He took them very easy and achieved liberation, recognising them as mere phantoms. This anecdote explains the philosophy of the famous book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
As Tantra uses symbols liberally, Buddhist symbols being a language must not be taken literally. Violent deities who have several human heads symbolise faces of one’s own negative emotion like greed, hatred, jealousy, pride, envy, ignorance etc. Crowns of human skulls and tasting of blood represent extinction of the difference between good and bad taste. Couples embracing each other tightly symbolises the union of compassion, wisdom, and achieves eternal bliss, the Mahasukha. During the heydays of Tantric practices in India, some charlatans in the garb of Mahasiddhas brought a bad name to Tantric Buddhism, creating misconceptions among the public. Some scholars think that widespread practices of Tantra caused the downfall of Buddhism in India. In reality, Tantra is sacred and secret, an esoteric practice. Rejected by the mainland population, Buddhist Tantra breathes life in the fertile soil of Tibet and the Himalayas, and hence they have preserved a great spiritual practice and its artistic tradition that had originated in mainland India.
Ubiquitous presence of deities belonging to the highest Buddhist Tantra are: Adhi Buddha, Vajradhara, Vajrasattva, Samantabhada, Kalachakra, Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, Yamantaka etc. These Yidams are found depicted both in murals as well as sculptures in multiple heads, arms, mudras, colours, gestures and sculptures. However, the invocation techniques of these Yidams are not varied as their forms. Kalachakra is the name of Tantric Buddha. Kala means ‘time’ and Chakra means ‘a circle.’ A circle of time means circle of samsara. In reality, whole universe is under the clutch of time subjects of destruction which consumes everything. A practitioner attempts to transcend the time and eternality. Liberated from the circle of time, he or she attains eternal bliss symbolizes the Buddha-Kalachakra.
The Buddha Kalachakra is shown in fierce form embraced with his female partner Vishvamata. In middle of his chest, he holds skull-cup filled with amrit and stands on corpses. He wears five prongs crownwhich symbolise his conquering over five passions, viz, delusion, hatred, ignorant, pride and envy. Each neurotic expression is associated with enlightenment aspects. In Tantra negative emotions are not rejected and as energy they are acknowledged and directly dealt with transforming delusion into compassion, hatred to calmness, ignorant to wisdom, pride to equanimity and envy into accomplishing action. Union of male and female Yidams must not be taken literally. It is a union of compassion and wisdom culminating in experience of bliss, i.e., mahasukha. Evam is a basic symbol of Kalachakra Tantra is the ultimate realisation of egolessness.
For common men, who are not trained in Tantra practice, for them, Tantra is faith. Faith has tremendous potency, it is workable. With unshakable faith in a Vajra master, the Buddha Kalachakra and its initiation one may achieve liberation or even enlightenment. Motivated by true faith, fulfilment comes simply lightening the teachings, reciting the mantra, seeing the Master and receiving Kalachakra initiation.
The writer, Dr. Nawang Tsering is the Former Principal of Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh. He has served this Institution for many years.