Dreaming of Kālacakra

Warning! This is a very different letter than I have written to you before. My world has been turned upside down — and all by a dream! I use the term ‘dream’ with reservation as the experience seemed so very real at the time. Whatever the nature of the experience, I am struggling to come to terms with it. I suspect it has profound implications for the future course my life will take.

Several nights ago, I was fondly recalling our recent pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. Remember I wrote to you about encountering the monks en route? They were constructing a giant (seven feet in diameter!) Kālacakra mandala out of coloured sand. The mandala had intrigued me at the time and, as sleep approached, an image of the mandala suddenly appeared in my imagination, suspended in space and glowing like stained glass with a light or power from within.

Perhaps I fell asleep then. In my next moment of conscious awareness, I was suspended in space engulfed in and penetrated by multi-coloured rays of light. Yellow, red, blue and green, they swirled and danced, gently buffeting me. In the distance, I could see what looked like an elaborate palace on an island. I was overcome with a desire to reach this palace an explore it, yet as I drifted ever nearer to it, many barriers arose.

The first was a fence of golden vajras which swung open as I approached. Leaving the ephemera of swirling colour behind I entered a new realm — and immediately wished that I hadn’t! A ferocious wind quickly knocked me to my knees, disorienting me. Directly in front of me, a seemingly impenetrable wall of fire was whipped to tremendous heights by this wind. As my vision cleared, I realized stood in a charnel ground surrounded by corpses in various states of dismemberment and decay. Suspended in the air above me unaffected by the howling wind were two giant red dharma wheels. Beside these, a row of unintelligible (to me, at least!) Sanskrit seed syllables, or bījas, floated in the air and extended off out of sight to my left and right. I watched, horrified, as one of the bījas began to change shape and finally manifested as Malakala, a protector deity (Harrington 174). Seated in full lotus, brandishing weapons in two of his four arms, he glared at me. I quickly prostrated myself before him expecting that my final moments were at hand. Instead, he hilariously and incongruously asked me the most unexpected question possible, “Can you swim?”

In fact, I cannot! This quickly became problematic. Malakala transported me through the wall of fire before unceremoniously dumping me in a vast and tumultuous river. I was quickly submerged by the waves. Determined to approach to Chikhai Bardo with bravery and dignity, I succumbed to the current. Instead, the waters coughed me up on their far shore and I lay exhausting and retching on a beach of yellow sand, the roaring wind and towering flames safely behind me.

Looking up, I realized I now lay at the foot of the palace I had glimpsed earlier. It was surrounded by a garden filled with lotus blossoms and offering vases. The earth was of the deepest ebony. A full moon hung suspended to the northeast; a sun set simultaneously to the southwest (Harrington 70). Windblown and scorched, water-logged and thoroughly disoriented, I paused to consider my options.

But by now you are probably way ahead of me, yes? You have already realized from my description that in my dream (if that’s what this was!) I had somehow fallen into the Kālacakra mandala that had so transfixed me as I was falling asleep! I was at that moment standing before the massive, black, eastern gate of the Kālacakra residence palace.

I’ve included a picture of the Kālacakra mandala, which is also a ‘map’ of my dream journey. I believe the convention for you is to place north at the top of a map but in the Kālacakra mandala, north is to the right. The circular elements are the realms I had just traversed; the square ones show the palace that now loomed above me. At this point in my story, I was standing at the spot marked with an ‘X’ near the bottom.

There didn’t seem to be anything else to do but enter the palace. It was a large, five-story building set on a raised platform. As I cautiously climbed the stairs to its black double doors, those doors burst open. A wagon drawn by six black pigs emerged carrying Niladanda, another guardian god, and his consort Marichi (Harrington 152). I stepped back hurriedly to avoid being run over and continued across the threshold, transfixed by what rose above me. A three-story portico stood above the doorway, its nine alcoves containing yet further wonders: a black dharma wheel held by a buck and a doe, and eight different goddesses. Lions, elephants and shālabhañjika (male figures) supported the portico’s tiers (Hopkins 77). These details are tiny in most representations of the mandala but to me they were not only larger than life, they were alive!

Once through the outer doors, the structure of the palace became clear to me. It was actually a set of five buildings nested within one another like Russian dolls. These buildings, I now know, are called the Palaces of Enlightened Body, Speech, Mind and Wisdom, and the Palace of Great Bliss (Leidy and Thurman 154); you can see their floor plans in the picture above. The largest palace, Enlightened Body, (through whose eastern gate I had just come) contains the Palace of Enlightened Speech which is half its size and raised up one story. The Speech Palace in turn contains the Mind Palace, again at half-size and one story higher. The pattern continues until one reaches the Palace of Great Bliss at the center.

I continued heading west moving ever more deeply into the mandala. The outside walls of each palace were hung with white-backed terraces holding vibrating bījas. Given my earlier encounter with Malakala, I recognized these to be disguised deities. Immediately inside each wall, more bījas/deities stood on white platforms. As I neared the center of the palace and space tightened, the deities were disguised as simple dots (bindus) instead of bījas, a concession I suppose to the poor monks who would have to represent them in sand (Harrington 69). Overcome by the sheer number of gods and goddesses present (there are 722 deities in the palace alone and 88 more in the wind and fire realms outside (Hopkins 79)), I decided to make further progress using full prostrations. The floor was black but as I neared the centre of the building, I could see that it was red in the southern quadrant of the palace, yellowish-orange to the west and white to the north, the colours of the four faces that the deity Kālacakra (for whom the mandala is named) presents to each of the cardinal directions (Brauen 32).

I was awestruck by the ornateness and opulence of the palace. Walls were decorated with auspicious objects: mirrors, fans, bells, half-moons, victory banners and flowers. Sea monsters spit pearls and peacocks unfurled their spectacular plumage. Black swords represented Amoghasiddhi, red jewels stood for Ratnasambhava, white lotuses for Amitābha, and yellow wheels for Vairocana (Hopkins 78). My vision swam, my heart filled to bursting. I staggered forward and ever upward finally falling, dizzy and prone, before the Palace of Great Bliss at the mandala’s heart.

If anything, the spectacle here was even more intense and intoxicating. Above me rose a green, eight-petalled lotus and on each petal stood a shakti, a particularly powerful goddess (Harrington 80). Four discs were stacked in the centre of the lotus: a white one representing the moon, a red one for the sun, a yellow one for the head of the dragon Rahu, and a black one for the tail of the dragon Kaligni (Harrington 70). Atop the discs stood Kālacakra himself. I could not take him in all at once; in addition to his four faces, he had three necks, six shoulders and seemingly countless arms brandishing vajras, swords, tridents, cleavers, drums and arrows. He was embraced by his consort, Vishvamata, who was also fearsomely ornamented. Abiding inseparably from them, although invisible, were four other deities as well: Akshobhya and his consort Prajñaparamita, and Vajrasattva and his consort Vajradhatvishvari (Harrington 80–1).

Completely overwhelmed, I trembled until I feared losing consciousness altogether. Instead of sinking into oblivion, however, I became lighter, almost weightless and transparent. As I rose through space, higher and higher, the majesty and detail of the palace fell away until all that remained in my conscious awareness was an image of the Kālacakra mandala, again suspended and glowing in my mind as it had been when I was falling asleep.

How am I to interpret this experience? How would you? How would anyone? Very shaken, I began paying regular visits to our monastery attempting to gain some perspective from the monks there. They told me that a mandala (or a kyil kyor in Tibetan) is a “blueprint for imagination” (Hopkins 70). (I like this phrase, although I’m not sure that my experience was purely imaginary.) Interpreting one is far from straightforward. The Kālacakra mandala can actually be understood on three seemingly independent levels: an ‘outer’ one dealing with cosmology and astrology; an ‘inner’ one which describes human physiology and psychology; and an ‘operational’ one laying out a path of Tantric practice (Brauen 11). I’ll try to explain each of these in turn.

The Outer Interpretation: A Model of the Cosmos

According to some scholars, the mandala is “above all, a map of the cosmos. It is the whole universe in its essential plan” (Tucci 23). In the Kālacakra mandala, we do not see a chart of the solar system or a literal map of the continents. Instead, we see a symbolic representation of the cosmos as it is presented in Kālacakra teachings (Brauen 18, 22 and 23).

These teachings imagine the universe to lie on a massive cylindrical base. The base is surrounded by a ring of mountains and supports four colossal discs, each disc having a smaller diameter than the one beneath it. From bottom to top, the discs are composed of the four universal elements: air, fire, water and earth. Rising above the discs is Mount Meru, home to the thirty-three gods that rule this region of the universe. The city of Sudarśana lies at Mount Meru’s summit; in the center of this city lies Vaijayanta, a square palace (Brauen 18). Twenty-nine heaven realms extend above Mount Meru; these are home to various deities and energies. I imagine a model of the whole system might look something like this:

Can you picture this model viewed from above? With a little imagination, it resembles the Kālacakra mandala (Brauen 22). The outer mountain range (not shown here) corresponds to the multi-coloured light of consciousness and the protective ring of vajras. The elemental discs correspond to the outer rings which burned and almost drowned me. Mount Meru’s Vaijayanta Palace is the inner squares. Interpreted this way, my dream journey was actually an education in the mythological structure of the universe we all inhabit.

The Inner Interpretation: A Model of the Human Figure

There are many ways we Tibetans can understand our human bodies. We can think of it in terms of the five constituent elements (earth, water, fire, wind and space), or as the arising of the five aggregates (forms, feelings, perceptions, mental factors, and consciousness) or, energetically, in terms of the ten most important ‘winds’ (invisible energy currents) that move through it. Using terms that are more familiar to us on a daily basis, we can also divide physical experience into the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) and the things they operate on (sights and sounds, for example). Finally we can analyze a body in terms of six categories of actions that it can perform (speaking, taking, going, defecating, urinating and ejaculating). Elements, aggregates, winds, senses and actions… a ‘body’ is indeed a complex and multi-layered phenomenon!

According to Tantric wisdom, each of these bodily components or functions is assigned a location within the Kālacakra mandala. I’ve drawn a quick diagram showing how it all maps out:

So, although it doesn’t really coincide with our ordinary experience like a high-resolution x-ray, the mandala can also be viewed is a ‘picture’ of the human body (Brauen 53). As I was moving through the mandala, I was also exploring inner space on the physical, psychological and energetic levels. Indeed in Buddhism, true wisdom is developed as much (or more!) by looking inward as looking outward.

The ‘Operational’ Interpretation: A Path of Tantric Practice

As I’ve been learning about the multiple levels of symbolism the mandala contains, it’s been all too easy to relate to it overly cerebrally. But our local monks assure me that this is to miss the point. Despite all these ‘heady’ concepts, the mandala is most importantly “an object of meditation with a specific purpose: to transform our ordinary perception of the world into a pure perception of the Buddha Nature that permeates all phenomena (Ricard in Leidy and Thurman, 157).

“Huh!?”, you are saying? Well, the idea is to use the mandala as a meditation aid and focus your attention on it with a high degree on concentration. Once you’ve done this for a while, you are able to recreate an imaginary version of the mandala in your mind (Brauen 61). You now have an internal representation that clearly and intelligibly shows the relationship between the your body and the universe. You then mentally digest these teachings, analogies and correlations; you want to assimilate them so completely that their truths become self-evident and fall under conscious control. This is obviously a very long process requiring great dedication; those interested in pursuing it undertake formal initiation into Kālacakra practice. For them, the mandala begins to serve as an explicit map of the journey to liberation.

The above description probably sounds anything but explicit to you — more magic than method! Well, to be honest, that’s the way it sounds to me right now too. But I am intrigued. When I first started learning about the mandala, I was stunned by its superficial beauty and complexity. Now though, its allure for me is much more than merely aesthetic. Jung famously hypothesized that “the circle is deeply rooted in the human soul” (qtd. in Brauen 121) and “an archetype of wholeness” (Jung 4). For me, this dream has resonated profoundly and I think I can see what Jung means. I feel as if my letters to you over recent months have been an exploration of my religion and culture that has finally borne fruit.

For now, I have responsibilities as a householder and a deeply cherished son to raise. But a seed has been planted. I will continue to practice the Eightfold Path, to recognize the suffering inherent in ordinary life, and to cultivate the compassion and bodhicitta central to spiritual life. I don’t know when I will be ready for Kālacakra initiation, but I do know that day will most definitely come.


Brauen, Martin. The Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism. Trans. Martin Willson. Boston: Shambhala, 1998. Print.

Harrington, Laura, ed. Kalachakra. Comp. Enrico Del Vico. Rome: Tibet Domani, 1999. Print.

Hopkins, Jeffrey, Tenzin Gyatso, The XIVth Dalai Lama, and Kay-drup-ge-lek-bēl-sang-bō. The Kālachakra Tantra: Rite of Initiation for the Stage of Generation: A Commentary on the Text of Kay-drup-ge-lek-bēl-sang-bō. London: Wisdom Publications, 1985. Print.

Jung, C.G. Mandala Symbolism. Princeton, NJ: Bollington Series, Princeton UP, 1972. Print.

Leidy, Denise Patry, and Robert A. F. Thurman. Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment. New York: Asia Society Galleries, 1997. Print.

Tucci, Giuseppe. The Theory and Practice of the Mandala, with Special Reference to the Modern Psychology of the Subconscious;. Trans. Alan Houghton Brodrick. London: Rider, 1961. Print.

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