Kālacakra maṇḍala symbolism

"The faces and hands of deities are not perfect enlightenment but are imagined in order to realise it" – Hevajrapīṇḍārthaṭīkā
Jonang Kālacakra maṇḍala, from Jonang Takten Phuntsok Choeling, in Shimla, northern India. The close-up images that follow are taken either from this maṇḍala or another executed by the monks of Namgyal Monastery under the guidance of Ven. Jhado Rinpoche.

There are two quite different aspects to the symbolism of a maṇḍala such as that of Kālacakra, and although no such equivalent terms exist in Tibetan or Sanskrit, it is useful to refer to these as static and dynamic symbolism.

The static symbolism is also divided into two parts, and it is the first of these that it the subject of this article. The maṇḍala consists of three major components that could be treated seperately. First, there is the base of Mt. Meru surrounded by various continents, sitting on top of huge disks of the four elements; we could call this the world system maṇḍala. Second, sitting on top of Meru, on a flat, circular ground is the divine palace maṇḍala. Third, the palace contains the chief deity, together with a retinue, which in the case of Kālacakra consists of over 600 deities (the numbers differ according to tradition).

In discussing the symbolism, the first two of these are taken together, and although in the meditation the maṇḍala is imagined as a 3D structure, the symbolism is discussed very much as if it were of the 2D drawn maṇḍala, as in the main image here. In that image, the disks of the elements are represented as circular perimeters surrounding the central square palace. Mt. Meru and the continents are not represented. It is this symbolism of the world system and palace maṇḍala that will be explained here. The second aspect of the static symbolism is that of the deities, and that is too extensive to cover here.

The dynamic symbolism concerns the function of the many stages in the process of generating the image of the maṇḍala and deity. In all practices of this kind, at some point the practitioner imagines everything dissolving into emptiness, and then from this emptiness, a maṇḍala palace is imagined, and then within this, usually some kind of seed syllable and/or emblem arises from which the practitioner transforms into the main deity; then, the various other deities are radiated to take their places in the palace. This is a very brief description, and the whole process is quite complex.

Translation note: Generation process: bskyed rim, utpattikrama: this is one of those terms that seems to have become stuck in modern translations, and is often seen translated as generation stage, or even, phase. It is the whole meditation from the dissolution into emptiness to the development of the full image of the maṇḍala complete with all its deities that is named in Sanskrit, utpattikrama. Each of the steps, or stages, within this process purifies some aspect of the process of gestation and life, and the term stage is quite inappropriate for the whole process. On the other hand, the term stage would be suitable for the steps involved: the OED gives among its definitions of stage: "Division of a journey or process", also "a step in a process".
rdzogs rim, utpannakrama: I am often asked why I use the term utpannakrama when indicating the Sanskrit original for perfection process, rather than the better known niṣpannakrama. The reason is simply that utpannakrama is the term used in the Kālacakra commentary, the Vimalaprabhā, and also elsewhere, the Hevajra cycle, for example.
There are three components to the dynamic symbolism in a full description: purification, perfection and development (dag rdzogs smin gsum).

Purity refers to the purification of the whole process in cyclic existence, from death, the intermediate state, conception, gestation in the womb, through birth, and growing up to be a sexually mature adult. The various stages of the generation process are contemplated as purifying the different steps in that whole process, from death to sexual maturity.

If the experience of cyclic existence is purified and one achieves the state of enlightenment, then the result of that purification is the various aspects of the goal, and so each step of the generation process is contemplated as producing in the practitioner some aspect of the goal, of the enlightened state.

Also, the generation process is a system of meditation that prepares the practitioner for perfection process meditation (rdzogs rim, utpannakrama), such as the six yogas in the Kālacakra system. Therefore many, but not all, steps in the generation process are contemplated as preparing, or developing, in the practitioner certain qualities needed for the correct practice of the perfection process.

Typically, an instruction text might include something along these lines, at some point in the generation process: "Identify with this, contemplating that the process of birth in saṃsāra has been purified and that I have obtained the ability in the goal-state to produce emanations to benefit other beings". That is not a direct quote, but the sense should be clear. Many other instances will also include the need to imagine that some quality relevant to the perfection process has been achieved. Banda Gelek expresses this in the following way:

"Regarding the purification, perfection and development of the generation process, that which is to be purified is birth, death and the intermediate state of cyclic existence; the ultimate results that are obtained by means of the generation process are that which are to be perfected, and, the particular aspects of the perfection process are to be developed. The generation process purifies birth, death and the intermediate state, perfects or obtains the ultimate results, and, develops aspects of the perfection process."

All of this can be considered a process of purification: the experiences in cyclic existence are to be purified, the perfection of the aspects of the goal are the results of that purification, and also the development of qualities needed for the perfection process is a result of purification of aspects of the mind. There is a little more here than we normally understand by the deceptively simple word symbolism.

Static symbolism of the maṇḍala

The main sādhanas all approach the symbolism in a similar manner. After the maṇḍala palace has been created and after it has been filled with all the deities, there are liturgical sections in which the symbolism of each is recited and contemplated. The first of these is of course concerned with the palace alone, and the second with the deities, although there are a few other details thrown in. These verses are mainly taken straight from the Kālacakra Tantra and its commentary, the Vimalaprabhā, predominantly from chapter four, but also partly from chapter five.

To describe this symbolism I am mainly going to follow the explanation of Banda Gelek in his commentary to these liturgical verses, but I shall also draw on Mipham, Detri Rinpoche (Jamyang Thubten Nyima) and others where relevant, although the basic discussion is generally the same.

This is in two sections, the second of which is used by most sādhanas, but the first not by all; for example, it does not appear in the main sādhana by Kalzang Gyatso (7th Dalai Lama). The liturgy for this first section comprises the second and third verses of the fifth chapter of the Kālacakra Tantra. At first sight these two verses appear to be refering to the 2D powder maṇḍala, particulary as mention is made of placing coloured powders (more than once, in the Vimalaprabhā commentary). This may well be the reason that some sādhana writers do not use these verses, but the symbolism is clearly also relevant to the full 3D maṇḍala as imagined in the meditation.

Maṇḍala palace symbolism from the fifth chapter

The relevant section in Banda Gelek's instruction text is entitled "Contemplating the purity of the vajrakāya", although, as we shall see later, the Vimalaprabhā takes things a little further to involve both speech, mind and awareness.

Close up view of the Circle of Great Bliss. This is very small in a painted maṇḍala, but the vajra designs on the beams can just about be made out. As far as the colours of the directions are concerned, east, black, is to the bottom.
All the outer and inner pillars of the maṇḍala, from the 12 pillars in the chief deity's place to the pillars of the body maṇḍala, are created from the pure awareness of the eight bones of the limbs: in the two thighs, two shins, the forearms and upper arms. It is curious that he lists here eight bones, when there are in fact 12. In the image to the right, 16 pillars are depicted. These are the pillars on the outside of the Circle of Great Bliss; the number 12 refers to those on the inside.

The vajra designs on the outer and inner beams and pillars of the Circle of Great Bliss, the perimeter of space and the vajra-garland fence, are all created from the pure bones of the right and left ribs. (These vajra garlands, as the vajra designs on the beams are described in the tantra, are only relevant to the 2D maṇḍala.)

The perimeter of the earth is created from the pure bones of the spine.

The walls of the mind palace are created from the pure bones of the hands and feet other than those of the fingers and toes.

The colours of the directions of the top and bottom, inside and out, of the whole maṇḍala, are created from: east black, pure flesh; south red, pure blood; north white, pure urine; and, west yellow, pure faeces. The blue colour around the chief deity lotus (see image above) is pure seed. Both the Vimalaprabhā, and Mipham in his commentary on the tantra, state first that in the centre is pure semen, and also the sixth coloured powder, purified seed; neither gives any actual colour here. So why does Banda Gelek only mention seed? The colour blue is usually associated with the direction below, seed, and the colour green with above, semen. As the colour that does surround the lotus of Kālacakra is normally blue, rather than green, he appears to have chosen just that one.

It would seem sensible to include both, as both green and blue are associated with the centre, although in the drawn 2D maṇḍala only blue. Other than this point about the blue colour, which seems specific to the 2D maṇḍala, in discussing these colours, Banda Gelek is clearly biasing his description a little towards the full 3D maṇḍala. The Vimalaprabhā talks in terms of applying powder colours of black, red, etc., in the various directions, including the two in the centre; such comments could only refer to the 2D maṇḍala.

Close up of parts of the speech and body palaces, showing the walls of five colours, and some of the lotuses, on the receptacles of which are either sun or moon disks.
The sun seats of the deities on the Tathāgata-dais and in the mind palace are created from pure bile (mkhris pa, pitta), the moon seats from pure phlegm (bad kan, śleṣmā), and the lotuses on which these seats all rest from pure sinews (chu rgyus).

Of the five-fold walls of the speech and body palaces, the yellow speech walls are created from the pure earth-element thumbs of the hands, the white walls from the pure water-element fore-fingers, the red walls from the pure fire-element middle fingers, the black walls from the pure wind-element ring fingers and the green walls from the pure space-element little fingers; the yellow body walls are created from the pure earth-element big toes of the feet, and so on, as with the hands.

The green lotus (see image above) that is the support for the chief deity Kālacakra is created from the pure avadhūtī central channel; the seats of sun, moon and rāhu on its receptacle from the three purified channels for faeces, urine and semen, and the purified qualities of rajas, tamas and sattva inside the central channel.

The lotuses and animals that are the seats for the speech palace yoginīs and the body palace deities of the lunar days, and also the chariots of the body palace door protectors, are created from the pure 72,000 channels other than the central avadhūtī: ie. the rasanā, lalanā and the rest.

The perimeter of wind is created from pure skin; the fire perimeter from the pure blood inside the body, the water perimeter from the descent of pure seed. The earth and space perimeters were described earlier.

The 12 doors in the three palaces, four in each, are the pure 12 orifices: the two ears, two noses, two eyes, the mouth and anus, the path of semen and the two holes in the nipples. Banda Gelek's list is of only 11. The Vimalaprabhā adds to those the orifice for urine, to make the total of 12.

The various ornaments that have the nature of vajra jewels, the garlands and drops, and so forth, are the rows of pure teeth.

The wheels that are the seats for the pracaṇḍās in the eight charnel grounds on the border of the wind perimeter are created from the pure nails of the fingers and toes. In more detail, the nails of the right and left ring fingers are the wheels in the east and south-east, similarly, the middle fingers south and south-west, the index fingers north and north-east, the thumbs west and north-west; the nails of the little fingers are the chariots of the lower and upper pracaṇḍās. (This is presumably based on the elements associated with the fingers: see above.)

On this basis, the seats of the ten nāgas are created from the awareness of the pure ten nails of the toes.

The garland of flames that exist in the cardinal and intermediate directions are created from the pure awareness of all the pores of the body.

In his description of this symbolism, Banda Gelek continues: "Contemplate this, imagining without doubt that the whole of the supporting maṇḍala is created from the single pure awareness of the parts of one's body and see it as contained within one's conscious experience."

This is where the liturgy and Banda Gelek's explanation leaves the original verses. However, the tantra and commentary continue the subject into the next verse (v.4), first explaining that the description just given is for the supporting maṇḍala palace which has the nature of body-vajra. The texts go on to state that the speech-vajra is the set of vowels and consonants that form into the various deities of the maṇḍala, and that these forms are to be drawn in the powder maṇḍala. Next, the mind-vajra is the emptiness of the six senses and the six objects of those senses, and this is drawn in the maṇḍala as the form of the chief deity, Kālacakra. Finally, the awareness-vajra, empty-form, free from all concepts, is represented in the form of the consort, Viśvamātā.

Maṇḍala palace symbolism from the fourth chapter

The second part of the static symbolism of the palace is taken from the fourth chapter of the Vimalaprabhā, in verses that are said to be a quotation from the original Kālacakra Mūlatantra. These verses come after the explanation of verse 9 of the fourth chapter, and can be found in English translation on pp. 31-34 of The Kālacakra Tantra: The Chapter on Sādhanā Together with the Vimalaprabhā Commentary, by Vesna A. Wallace: "The maṇḍalas of the mind, speech..."

Just as a golden flask is made out of actual gold, so the mind, speech and body maṇḍalas are created respectively from the buddha, dharma and saṃgha. This seems quite a strong statement, and it is worth pointing out here that this description of the symbolism by Banda Gelek comes from a text explaining the meditation, and the practitioner is expected to imagine strongly that the image in the meditation really is the maṇḍala of Kālacakra, that it is a true representation of the enlightened mind of a buddha, and that by contemplating this properly one will become enlightened, and so forth. That is what the symbolism is for: to provide the substance and meaning of the images employed in the meditation.

Similarly, the square nature of the maṇḍala, from the chief deity site out to the body maṇḍala, is created from the four immeasurables (tshad med pa, apramāṇa; tshangs pa'i gnas, brahmavihāra): the love, compassion, joy and equanimity of the ultimate goal. (The Vimalaprabhā has here the four vajra-lines, presumably meaning the four central lines.)

The thirty-seven factors oriented towards enlightenment are a common theme in the symbolism of maṇḍalas. For example, they are the most important component of the symbolism of the Cakrasaṃvara maṇḍala. A brief description of that symbolism is available in this pdf document, according to the instruction text by Tāranātha.
From this point on, some of the qualities that create the maṇḍala are described as members of the thirty-seven factors oriented towards enlightenment (byang chub kyi phyogs kyi chos, bodhipakṣa dharma), such as the four objects of close attention. (In the following, these are all indicated at the end of the paragraph with [37])

Here, the perfectly symmetrical square shape of the maṇḍala is created from the four objects of close attention (dran pa nyer gzhag zhi, smṛityupasthāna): the body, sensations, phenomena and the mind. [37]

The twelve doors, four in each of the three palaces of body, speech and mind, are created from the purity of the cessation of the twelve links of dependent origination (rten 'brel, pratītyasamutpāda), mis-perception, and so forth. Similarly, the twelve toran that adorn the palaces are created from the twelve buddha levels, samantaprabhā (kun tu 'od), and so forth. Detri Rinpoche indicates a different list: pramuditā (rab dga'), and so forth.

Close up of one of the charnel grounds. There are eight of these, and they are position above the border between the fire and wind perimeters.
The eight charnel grounds are created from the noble eight-fold path ('phags pa'i lam yan lag brgyad, āryāṣṭāṅgomārga), of right view, attitude, speech, pursuit, livelihood, effort, attention and concentration. [37]

The sixteen pillars of the Circle of Great Bliss are created from the sixteen emptinesses, external emptiness, and so forth, and the sixteen that consist of: the five emptinesses of the five skandhas, the five emptinesses of the five elements, the five emptinesses of the five senses, plus, emptiness possessing the totality of possibilities (rnam kun mchog ldan gyi stong pa nyid, sarvākāraśūnyatā).

The body maṇḍala palace is created from the pure earth element; similarly, the speech palace from pure water element, mind palace from pure fire element, Circle of Great Bliss from pure wind element, and, the chief deity site from pure space element, each of these stories being higher than the previous.

The eight porch-projections of the body palace (the two sides of each doorway) are created from the eight liberations that emphasise body: the liberation of seeing that which has form as form; that of seeing the formless as form; that of auspiciousness; that of infinite space; that of infinite consciousness; that of complete voidness; that of the pinnacle of existence; and, that of cessation. Similarly, the eight porch-projections of the speech palace are created from the eight liberations that emphasise speech, and the eight porch-projections of the mind palace are created from the eight liberations that emphasise mind. The latter two sets of eight, speech and mind, are not listed by Banda Gelek, nor by other writers, as far as I can tell. (rnam thar brgyad, aṣṭauvimokṣā)

Schematic showing the positions of the different parts of the porches and also the sections above the walls. The image is relevant for all three palaces.
Earth, water, fire and wind, created from the awareness of the enlightened state, together with form, smell, taste and texture are the eight physical materials; form, sound, smell, taste and texture, together with rajas, tamas and sattva, are the eight qualities; each of these have aspects of body, speech and mind. The eight porch-extensions and porch-sides of the mind palace are respectively created from the mind aspects of the eight materials and eight qualities; the extensions and sides of the speech and body palaces are similarly created from the speech and body aspects of the materials and qualities.

The five colours of the palace are created from the five untainted collections (zag med kyi phung po) of discipline, absorption, understanding, liberation and liberated awareness.

The (inner) black walls of the mind palace are created from the awareness of the realisations of the Mahāyāna; the red walls from the awareness of the realisations of the Pratyekabuddhayāna; and, the white walls from the awareness of the realisations of the Śrāvakayāna.

The five walls of the speech palace are created from the five abilities (dbang po, indriya), of confidence, effort, attention, concentration and understanding. The five walls of the body palace are created from the five powers (stobs, bala), also of confidence, effort, attention, concentration and understanding. [37]

Each palace has two plinths in each direction, making a total of eight; these are created from the four absorptions, and the four dhāraṇīs: the four absorptions are the absorption of bravery, of space treasury, of stainless mudrā and of the playing lion (ting nge 'dzin, samādhi); the four dhāraṇīs are the tolerance, mantra, dharma and ultimate dhāraṇīs (gzungs, dhāraṇī).

The friezes that are decorated with jewels are created from the ten transcendent virtues, of generosity, and so forth. (pha rol tu phyin pa, pāramitā)

The garlands and drops and other various ornaments of the palace are created from the 18 unique attributes (ma 'dres pa'i chos, āveṇikā dharmā) of a tathāgatha. These are: the six concerning conduct: no bodily error, no babble in the speech, no failure of presence of mind, no lack of composure, no conflicting interpretations and no unconsidered attitudes; the six concerning realisation: no failure of aspiration, effort, mindfulness, absorption, understanding and of completely liberated awareness; the three concerned with awareness: perceiving the past, the present and the future with an awareness that is unattached and unhindered; and, the three concerned with activity: all activities of body, speech and mind are preceded by and enacted through awareness.

The pipes (fascia) hanging down from the eaves (or cornice) are created from the ten controlling powers: control over life, mind, activity, necessities, birth, interest, aspiration, transformation, awareness and dharma. The parapet is created from the ten virtues, that of abandoning killing, and so forth.

The sound of ringing bells that fills the palace is created from the four doors of liberation (rnam thar sgo, vimokṣamukha): the door of liberation of emptiness, and so forth.

The victory banners in the four directions on top of each of the palaces are created from the four bases of transformation (rdzu 'phrul gyi rkang pa, ṛiddhipāda): aspiration, effort, analysis and mind. [37]

The mirrors glistening with light that adorn the palace are created from the four disciplines (yang dag pa'i spong ba, samyakprahṇa): to develop virtuous qualities, to protect those that have arisen, to not develop non-virtuous qualities that have not arisen, and, to abandon those that have arisen. [37]

The jewel-handled chowries that swing from the palace are created from the seven components of the path of enlightenment: concentration, discernement of phenomena, effort, joy, thorough training, absorption and equanimity. [37]

The ornaments of garlands of jewels and flowers are created from the nine aspects of the teachings: discourse (sūtra), teachings in song, prophesies, teachings in verse, aphorisms, narratives, parables, history of previous lives (jātaka) and miraculous stories. (gsung rab yan lag dgu, pravacana) These are also often found in a list of twelve.

The crossed vajras at the four corners of the palaces are created from the four methods of discipline: generosity, kind speech, appropriate behaviour and exemplary behaviour. (bsdu ba'i dngos po bzhi, saṃgrahavastu)

The crescent moons adorning the junctures of the porches and porch-projections (properly speaking, the porch-alcoves) are created from the awareness that perceives the four truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin (of suffering), the truth of cessation and the truth of the path. (bden pa bzhi, catuḥsatya)

The five external perimeters of earth, water, fire, wind and space are created from the five direct perceptions (mngon shes, abhijñā): perception with the divine eye, divine ear, understanding others' minds, remembering previous existences, and, perception of magical transformation.

The external vajra-garland that surrounds the palace is created from the awareness of great enlightenment that understands all things. The perimeter garland of vajra-fire of awareness is created from the unchanging bliss of instantaneous enlightenment.

Close up of the Circle of Great Bliss, showing the four emblems in the corners of the square containing the central lotus.
The full Moon continually rising in the north-east is created from method, great bliss; the Sun continually setting in the south-west is created from understanding, emptiness. Detri Rinpoche adds here that the full Moon continually rising indicates the increase of positive qualities and the Sun continually setting indicates the decrease of negative qualities.

The dharmacakra in the lowest stage of the body palace east toran is created from mind-vajra, the flask (south) from speech-vajra, the great drum (north) from body-vajra and the bodhi-tree (west) from awareness-vajra.

Similarly, the four emblems (just beyond the central lotus of Kālacakra) that are created together with the deities, the wish-fulfilling jewel, the dharma-conch, the semantron and the wish-granting tree are also created from the four vajras.

Banda Gelek concludes this section on the static symbolism with the comment: "In this way, the great maṇḍala of Kālacakra is created from the awareness and qualities of enlightenment. One should contemplate it with the conviction that the vast aspects of the awareness and qualities of enlightenment appear in the form of the various parts of the maṇḍala, because, in contemplating the purity, if one does not see the whole of the support and supported maṇḍala as the essence of the body, speech and mind of enlightenment, there will be no difference between this and contemplating the ordinary physical and animate worlds."

The above is adapted from "The Excellent Flask of Realisation Nectar", dpal dus kyi 'khor lo'i bskyed rim rgyas pa gzhi lam 'bras bu khyad par can sbyar nas sgom tshul dngos grub bdud rtsi'i bum bzang, by, 'ba' mda' dge legs.

This article is a brief extract from a forthcoming book on the Kālacakra maṇḍala.

    E. Henning.
    Last updated 26 December 2013.
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