The Kalachakra Effect – Why is the Kalachakra Initiation so popular?

(This is an unedited version of my article on Buddhistdoor in March 2017)

Once every couple of years or so, the news and social media worldwide light up with images of the red-robed Dalai Lama seated upon a high throne amidst the sea of a captivated audience. The newsworthy, major Buddhist event – the Kalachakra Initiation – has become somewhat of a hallmark of His Holiness, as the religious gathering has enjoyed steady popularity throughout the last six decades. Arenas worldwide filled to bursting have earned the self-proclaimed ‘simple Buddhist monk’ quite the rockstar status.

At the start of this year (2017), without fail, multitudes of Tibetan Buddhists and fans of the Dalai Lama from around the world came flooding in, this time to the holy site of Bodhgaya, India, to attend the “34th Kalachakra Initiation and Teachings” starting on 2nd January 2017. The ten-day event, presided over by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet and perfectly organized by the Tibetan government in exile, reached a staggering total of over 200.000 attendees from 92 countries, and the numbers would have been even higher had the Chinese government allowed people from Tibet to attend. Nevertheless, a provision had been made so that 150.000 viewers were able to join in via live webcast links in 15 languages. Struck by reports of such massive turnout, an outside observer might naturally wonder: ‘What is so special about the Kalachakra to draw such enormous crowds? And, more particularly, what makes it so appealing to the Westerners?’


Image: Beijing-based Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser receiving the Kalachakra empowerment via live webcast. Photo: Pazu Kong, http://www.buddhisttimes.news

The Kalachakra has had a history of popular attendance ever since the first two occasions His Holiness gave it in Tibet, in 1954 and 1956, to huge congregations. Westerners must have observed the event in India in the first years upon His Holiness’ arrival into exile, resulting in the seventh Kalachakra Initiation taking place in Wisconsin, USA, in 1981. A tradition has developed, and His Holiness has given the Kalachakra in the West ten times till date. For many Westerns, his name has become practically synonymous with the Kalachakra.

In addition to that, the first Kalachakra initiation was given 2594 years ago in southern India by Shakyamuni Buddha, who achieved enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, so receiving any Dharma at such a sacred place is seen as especially auspicious. Since that time, the Kalachakra has been passed from a master to a disciple in an unbroken lineage down to the present day master, in the form of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the most prominent Kalachakra lineage holder living today. He has given the initiation, upon request, 34 times in his life to scores of thousands at a time. Receiving an initiation, more correctly referred to as empowerment, and subsequently accomplishing a practice as given by a realized master of an authentic lineage, is a pinnacle of the spiritual endeavour for Vajrayana Buddhists.


Image: Dalai Lama during a Kalachakra empowerment. eventida.com

The series of empowerments itself is so sophisticated that only a fraction of the multitudes present are subject to truly receiving it, which depends on one’s level of preparation and motivation, though anyone present is certain to receive blessings in the least. During the three main days of the initiation into the Highest Yoga Tantra class practice, His Holiness leads the initiates through a complex visualization, which requires the ability to grasp emptiness and a special kind of concentration achieved through prior experience with meditation. Having dissolved ordinary appearances and concepts into emptiness, one’s self, the surroundings, and the master are experienced in their pure form as the deity within its mandala. Received within that frame, the empowerments then act as a catalyst for the transformation of the mind’s energies. Having received the initiation and associated vows in this manner, the disciple then goes on to accomplish the practice, with the aim to achieve a total transformation of the mind and, ultimately, enlightenment for the sake of all beings.


Image: The Kalachakra stone at the Mahabodhi Temple complex in Bodh Gaya. Photo Zuzana Griffiths Cernakova

Buddha’s original exposition was later written down as a tantric text containing explanations and meditation instructions aimed at leading the practitioner towards the ultimate goal, perfect enlightenment. The ‘Cycles of Time’ Tantra addresses the phenomenon of time, experienced by unenlightened beings as a never-ending stream carrying their lives forward through changes towards aging and death. Time is categorized into three cycles: The alternative cycles deal with ways to defy time as a life-destroying force, otherwise known as impermanence, the very nature of samsara. The outer cycles of time are external cycles the universe goes through and are a basis for ancient cosmology, which inspired Tibetan astrology and calendar making. The inner cycles relate to the physiological and mental cycles of the body, which form a basis for Tibetan medicine. In this way, the Kalachakra Tantra has been integral to the Tibetan culture and science since it reached Tibet a thousand years ago. The relevance within the Tibetan context is obvious, but what does the Kalachakra have to offer the rest of the world?

For a start, this ancient scripture baffles modern science. It offers a strikingly sophisticated presentation of the universe, with a description of atoms and sub-atomic particles that have a surprising correlation with modern theories of particle physics. His Holiness discusses these parallels at meetings with scientists, and there are suggestions that the space particle asserted in the tantra may be equivalent to the famously elusive Higgs boson.

Despite its incredibly sophisticated, multilayered technical aspect, the Kalachakra is not putting people off. Quite the contrary, the most popular and simplest of reasons for showing up is the social aspect of the event. Tibetans have traditionally enjoyed religious gatherings as an opportunity to socialize. For foreign participants, there is similarly an obvious benefit in meeting with like-minded people, sharing in the generation of positive collective merit and bathing in His Holiness’ charismatic presence. Realizing this, His Holiness uses any opportunity to preach his universal message of love, compassion, and peace in the world beyond his flock. When the Washington event was billed ‘2011 Kalachakra for World Peace’, it opened up to a more mainstream audience and served as a platform for a general discussion on His Holiness’ famous message of peace, making attending this ancient ritual extremely meaningful to them.


Image: Verizon Center during the 31st ‘Kalachakra for World Peace’ in Washington, D.C. in 2011. Image: kalachakra2017.net

The Kalachakra Tantra has also given the West the notion of Shambhala, or, by extension, Shangri-la, which revolves around the myth of a sacred land, perfect in every way, the result of a holy war waged and won. In the tantra, it’s the initiates who will form the victorious army of spiritual warriors. The myth of the Shambhala pure land, however, was singled out at the start of the last century to inspire fanciful theories, which led to a hopeless search for the hidden land that could be exploited, and later went on to fire the imagination of the followers of the New Age movement of the 1970s, thus making the notion of Shambhala as a perfect spiritual land part of the popular culture. Later, Shambhala was further popularised in the West by the hugely influential Tibetan yogi, Chogyam Trungpa, the founder of the Shambhala lineage. In his book, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Trungpa explains that Shambhala is a level of spiritual attainment to achieve, rather than a physical or celestial place to find.

Assumptions based on popularised misconceptions make the Kalachakra text a likely subject to misinterpretation. Similarly, the esoteric atmosphere of the distinctly Tibetan Buddhist initiation ritual itself, with its trade-mark sand mandala construction, chanting, masked dances, deity depiction, and mantra symbol, can easily be misinterpreted within the context of an entirely different sociocultural, historical, and religious background. Owing to authentic teachings having been notoriously scarce to come by in the past, without preliminary study, the ceremony could easily be confused for a great mystical show. But with more reliably sourced information made widely available in the modern languages in print and online nowadays, earnest candidates are made well-equipped to appreciate the real meaning and potential of the Kalachakra Tantra and make the most out of the initiation experience.


Image: A medley of foreign disciples receiving an empowerment during the 34th Kalachakra Initiation and Teachings in Bodh Gaya in 2017. Image: magazine.wisdomwinds.com

Originally, the Kalachakra tantra, similarly to many other ancient Indian Buddhist texts, found its way to Tibet, where it was saved from extinction and practised for a thousand years. With time, these practices adjusted to and subsequently permeated the unique Tibetan culture, ultimately proving their absolute value through producing living examples of realized Tibetan practitioners. The Buddha’s intention is to benefit all sentient beings beyond time, space, and cultural constraints. Despite its esoteric feel and cultural baggage, the unfading global popularity of events like the Kalachakra Initiation proves how relevant these ancient treasures are for today’s spiritually and morally deficient society, by showing us possibilities beyond shallow materialistic goals and stifling consumerist self-expression. Ultimately, it is to emulate the Buddha in following a wholesome path to achieving the perfect freedom of enlightenment for the benefit of fellow shackled beings.


Thanks to Khenpo Sonam Tsewang for expert advice and factual accuracy check.








More on the blog >

  • How to use a mala A unique view on the common meditation accessory. Sourced from tantric text and sources not generally available.
  •  You are not your mind’s boss The mind is out of control when it’s rigid. How do we make the mind malleable? Dzongsar Khyentse’s brief introduction to Shamatha and Vipassana. A quote from Prajnaparamita teachings in Nepal.
  • Equanimity The Dalai Lama reminds tantric practitioners to include all beings without exception in their practice, and the importance of foundational practices of wisdom and bodhicitta in Tantra.
  • Havel and Dalai Lama Exploring the special friendship between the leader of the Tibetan people oppressed by the communist China and the president of post-communist Czechoslovakia.

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