Methodology And The Kc

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Methodology and the KC

Body Studies and the Kalacakratantra


The Kālacakratantra (Wheel of Time Tantra) is the last great esoteric Buddhist system to emerge out of India and occupies a key position within the architecture of Vajrayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, despite its great importance, this text has remained largely understudied in the West. The different ways in which we can study this tantra are almost as numerous as diverse as the contents of the tantra itself; juxtaposing different methodological lenses with this vast tantric system yields an infinite number of permutations, attesting to the viability and enormous potential of this emerging field. In this essay, I will briefly speculate on some of the methodological possibilities with which we can use to engage with this text, and then explore the possibilities of using recent developments in Body Studies to study the Kālacakratantra.

Broader Methodological Considerations

Here, I will briefly speculate on some of the methodological possibilities with which we can engage with this text. On the broadest level, one’s approach to studying the Kālacakratantra can be considered either emic or etic. Although this literature review is being written within the framework of the Western Scholarly Tradition, I strongly feel that we must never forget that Tibetans and Indians have been studying this text long before we became aware of it, and that the study of the Kālacakratantra, especially by Tibetan Buddhists, is still a vibrant living tradition today. Thus, on the broadest level, there are two groups of Kālacakratantra scholars – emic and etic. Although the courses of their studies largely run parallel, their paths occasionally do intersect when they interact with one another.

Further, the etic category can be divided into three broad approaches: literary, practical, and historical. The literary approach is concerned principally with the text itself. For example, in this approach, one could study the actual content of the Kālacakratantra, the literary aspects of the text, intertextuality between this text and other texts (including its commentaries), the texts that the Kālacakratantra inspires, the philosophical aspects of this text, how this text describes ritual, and finally, narratives associated with this text. The practical approach would involve performing ethnographic studies on the way in which the text and its contemplative tradition are used in Tibetan Buddhist communities today. Again, the possibilities are endless: for example, one could study the way the text is studied in monasteries, its significance to Tibetan Buddhists in modern times, or the ways in which ideas from the text are embodied in Tibetan Buddhist societies. Finally, the historical approach entails examining the history of the Kālacakratantra and its tradition within the context of both Indian Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism. Here, one could investigate possible sources of the text, the social milieu from which it emerged, or its relationship to other tantric systems throughout history. Relevant to all three approaches is the difference between studying a text or object in order to understand its contents in contradistinction to studying it for the sake of interpretation. Both are necessary for a thorough understanding of any object of study.

Religion and the Body as a Intepretative Framework for the Kālacakratantra

In recent years, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have become increasingly interested in using the human body as a theoretical framework for studying broader socio-cultural issues. This trend—called Body Studies—has also found its way into the field of Religious Studies. As discussed in Part I of this essay, there has been a paucity of scholarly work that attempts to interpret the contents of the Kālacakratantra. In this section, I argue that the resonances between themes in Body Studies and in the Kālacakratantra make Body Studies a promising interpretative framework for studying the Kālacakratantra.

One such resonance is the centrality of the "body." The body figures prominently in the Kālacakratantra both literally and figuratively. (In fact, in The Inner Kālacakra, Vesna Wallace has already gone in this direction when she uses the theoretical framework of the Cosmic Body, the Social Body, the Gnostic Body and the Transformative Body as the organizing principal of her text.) The Kālacakratantra discusses the physical body itself in great detail, including its components, its development, and its origins. Moreover, the subtle body, consisting of a system of invisible channels, winds and drops is closely associated with the gross physical body. It is central to this system because it is the medium through which one can achieve spiritual enlightenment. The state of enlightenment in the Kālacakratantra is described in terms or Four Bodies of the Buddha or the Four Vajras (Wallace Inner 156). The Four Bodies —the sahajakaya, dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya—are present within the navel, heart, throat, and forehead cakras, respectively, and the path towards enlightenment involves purifying the subtle body drops located in these four cakras (Wallace Inner 156). Thus, enlightenment is in a sense an alchemical transformation of the ordinary psycho-physical factors of one’s body into enlightened ones (Wallace Inner 91, 180). The physical body is also correlated to aspects and elements of the universe. For example, the sun and moon in the cosmos are correlated to semen and menstrual fluid in the body, and the twelve pilgrimage sites are correlated to twelve body parts (Wallace Inner 80, 97). In pages 105-108, Wallace has table after table of such complex correspondences. Through these extensive correlations, the line demarcating where the body ends and where the universe begins are blurred.

The blurring of the boundary between the body and the universe is further accomplished through the use of metaphors comparing the body to elements of the universe. In her discussion of the anatomy of Mt. Meru, Vesna Wallace describes the “spine,” the “head,” the “neck,” the “buttocks” and the “shoulders” of this mountain (72). In addition to the body being used as metaphor, the body is also used to explain difficult or abstract ideas such as enlightenment, time, or the dimensions of the universe. For example, each ring of mountains surrounding the universe has the width of 888 leagues, three earshots, 1,111 bow-lengths, ten finger-widths, and five and one-third barley seeds (Kongtrul 151), and time is measured in terms of number of breaths (Wallace Inner 93); measurements of both space and time are sometimes expressed in terms of bodily dimensions. As stated in the above paragraph, enlightenment is described in terms of Four Bodies. Why, one may ask, is it necessary to blur such boundaries? According to the tradition, this serves to teach the practitioner that the cosmos and the body of the individual are non-dual and manifestations of one another (Wallace Inner 64, 68). Once one realizes that the body and cosmos are really the same, one then transmutes them into “the transcendent body of the Buddha Kālacakra, into the Vajrasattva” (91).

A further resonance between the Kālacakratantra and Body Studies is the idea of the definition of the "body" being a tricky task. In Body Studies, scholars from different fields often have trouble coming to a consensus as to what exactly the word “body” refers to. Similarly, in the Kālacakratantra, the body, the cosmos and the maṇḍala are interrelated to such an extent that it is no longer clear what or who the body is. In both cases, defining the "body" is not a straightforward task.

Because of the resonances between the Kālacakratantra and Body Studies, the juxtaposition of these two disparate areas could yield some interesting findings. But how exactly can the Kālacakratantra contribute to the current discussions taking place in Body Studies? First, I feel that the Kālacakratantra can offer Western scholarship a fresh way of thinking about the body. In Religion and Body, Sarah Coakley argues that our current cultural obsession over the body and embodiment is in effect some sort of post-Christian post-Enlightenment reaction against the privileging of the mind that began in 18th century Cartesian thought (6). To borrow Mary Midgley’s metaphor, it represents the retaliation of the divorced “unsatisfactory wife”—the body—who has been suppressed and silenced since the 18th century by her imposing husband—the mind (Coakley 66). In addition, despite this vociferous cry for the embodiment of the intellect that began with such thinkers as Merleau-Ponty, Bryan Turner argues that there is an underlying uneasiness with the body that has its roots in the Western Judeo-Christian conception of the body as “the vehicle or vessel of unruly, ungovernable, and irrational passions, desire, and emotions” (Coakley 20). Thus, there is sometimes a certain shame or guilt in Western academic discussions of the physical body, and, in some cases even a defiant glee. Yet, to be fair, it is also necessary to note that the early Buddhist worldview, like the Judeo-Christian one, observed a certain aversion towards the body as seen in the early Buddhist phrase often used to describe the body – “like a boil with nine openings.” In order to encourage monks to renounce the impermanent world of temptation, the flesh, and cyclic rebirth, a common meditative technique was to contemplate the fact that the body, despite being ornamented with the most tantalizing garments and perfumes, was really a walking cadaver filled with blood, pus and other such unsightly fluids. Still, even with this early Buddhist aversion towards the body, there was never the same type of shame and guilt in Buddhist discussions of the body as there was in more Judeo-Christian influenced discussions.

In contrast to both the Judeo-Christian and early Buddhist worldviews, there is no shame or aversion associated with the body in the tantric Buddhist system of thought. In this system, despite that the ordinary body is viewed as a tool that will be abandoned once one reaches enlightenment, this tool is nevertheless treated with a profound respect reminiscent of the way in which a musician would treat her instrument; the body is not a senseless object but a living entity in its own right that one must engage with. Unlike the stark Cartesian division between body and mind, the body and mind are seen as mutually dependent yet distinct; in the explanation of the Wheel of Time Tantra, “time” is said to refer to the Buddha’s mind while the “wheel” refers to his body (Vesna Inner 94). At the same time, “gnosis is described not only in terms of the mind but also in terms of the body. The Vimalaprabhā asserts that apart from the body, there is no other Buddha who is the pervader (vyapaka) and the bestower of liberation. The elements of the body that are free of obscurations (nirvana) are the bestowers of Buddhahood and liberation” (Vesna Inner 155). Thus in the Kālacakra Tantra, the body is almost deified, but never to the point where one attaches to it. Whatever the case, the body is not an object to be used and discarded, and certainly not an enemy. The Kālacakra shows us a mode of discourse on the flesh that is surprisingly liberating. Indeed, to phrase it in colloquial terms, speaking about the flesh is "no big deal".

Furthermore, the very fact that the body is celebrated in tantric Buddhism in contrast to early Buddhism compels us to ask why the Tantric Buddhists felt it necessary to re-evaluate the way that they saw the body. The body in many ways reflects this-worldly concerns; if Buddhism originally represented an impulse to renounce the world, then why did the Tantric Buddhists feel the need to plunge right back into the world? As seen in the above line of inquiry, even such a preliminary juxtaposition of Body Studies and the Kālacakratantra has already yielded a series of fascinating questions. Who knows what further studies will yield?


Yet, is it viable to use Body Studies as a theoretical framework to discuss the Kālacakratantra? Taking into the account the roots of Body Studies, would it be wise to juxtapose it with the field of Kālacakra studies? I say, certainly. As already demonstrated by Vesna Wallace in The Inner Kālacakra, when the concept of the “body” is applied to the Kālacakratantra it proves to be a valuable interpretative lens. The Kālacakratantra has such a wealth of information that is very difficult to study all at once; methodological frameworks aid the intellectual study of such intricate textual sources. For example, by using the framework of a "social" body, Vesna Wallace was able to tease out the social dimension of the Kālacakratantra. In this way, Western scholarship can contribute to the centuries-old study of this ancient text.