Text Analysis Of The Kālachakra Tantra

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Week 12

Text Analysis of the Kālachakra Tantra in the Tibetan Renaissance Period


The Kālachakra Tantra or Wheel of Time Tantra has been called the greatest achievement of Indian Buddhist Tantra for its unique and cogent synthesis of Indian tantra and non-tantra traditions. It originated in India in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, yet its pinnacle came upon its arrival in Tibet soon after its inception. The term Kālachakra Tantra refers to both the specific text itself, as well as to a whole family of related texts, including commentaries and exegesis (including its most authoritative Indian commentary, the Vimalaprabhā). The Tantra was created by monastics in a monastic setting in India and falls into the class of Yoga Tantras or Anuttara Tantras.

Unique Qualities

The Kālachakra Tantra is unique among tantras in several ways. First, its attempt to synthesize all of tantric Buddhism’s various strains, philosophy, and practices. It is regarded as fairly successful in this attempt in that it presents a complicated though cogent account of all of esoteric Buddhism. Because of this goal of synthesis, the Kālachakra Tantra is much like an encyclopedia that is global in scope; it contains information from a variety of fields: astrology, astronomy, medicine, esoteric philosophy, esoteric ritual, myth, and so on.

The Kālachakra Tantra is also unique in that it is a polished presentation of these many facets of Buddhism; in comparison all other tantras up until the eleventh century have lacked cohesion and unity. This notable unity suggests that the Kālachakra Tantra was authored by one hand.

“Future-oriented” is one way to describe the Kālachakra Tantra. The tantra spends and enormous amount of column length devoted to temporal issues in general. Its central metaphor is time, and it situates itself in historical time. Its title comes from the intricate astrological system in presents, and it also includes a new calendrical system.

The somatic yoga system presented in the Kālachakra Tantra contains some similarities to other somatic yoga systems (such as the one presented in the Guhyasamāja), but many important differences. One of the definitive differences is that the central channels are not empty as they are in other systems. This may seem to be insignificant minutia, yet it is indicative of a larger, unique theme in the Kālachakra Tantra: an appreciation for gnosis or jnana. In its gnostic emphasis, the Kālachakra Tantra locates knowledge in ordinary locations and contexts, such as in the central channels of the somatic body. The goal of this yoga system is to undergo a material transformation of the physical body; the transformation of the mind follows, rather than the other way around. Interestingly, the although the somatic yoga presented in the Kālachakra Tantra is gnostic in flavor, it is also extremely systematic.

Also regarding its somatic yoga, the Kālachakra Tantra presents a vision of practice which is more focused in general terms on the building of things rather than the destruction of things; instead of a motif of collapse found in other systems, the Kālachakra Tantra uses a motif of unfolding or transformation.

The Kālachakra Tantra was the single most important text in introducing tantra as a philosophical genre. After its advent, tantra in Tibet makes a heavy philosophical turn in contrast to India’s more ritually-oriented tantras.

Other Characteristics

Created in an institutional setting by monastics, the Kālachakra Tantra is a pro-monastic tantra. We see this in its advocacy of “sexual nonemission,” the monks themselves are able to maintain a certain type of respectable and monastic chastity by refraining from sexual emission, thereby still be able to submit to monastic bows while having the opportunity to participate in sexual ritual. Only a monastic mindset could equate a monk who engages in sexual ritual without emission as being the equivalent of a “young virgin.” (Wallace, 12)

The Kālachakra Tantra addresses other Buddhist systems as well as other faiths, such as Jainism and Hinduism. Some scholars perceive this as an effort to invite these other traditions to join the Kālachakra Tantra bandwagon (Germano), while other scholars perceive a message of superiority and refutation towards other faiths.

The Kālachakra Tantra is characterized as a “nondual” tantra, meaning that emptiness and bliss are undifferentiated in its philosophical system. It also emphasizes the importance of a proper teacher, and hints at the damage that can be done by obtaining a poor teacher.


The Kālachakra Tantra includes five chapters, the first two of which are considered the “ground Kālachakra.” The first chapter describes the “outer Kālachakra,” the physical world, including a calendrical system and astronomy. The second chapter is about the “inner Kālachakra,” and includes an incredibly complex somatic yoga system. The last three chapters describe the "other Kālachakra,” the philosophical heart of the text. The third chapter includes the Kālachakra initiations. The fourth chapter explains the meditation practices. The fifth chapter describes the state of enlightenment of bliss and emptiness in unity.

Significance for the Tibetan Renaissance Period

Tibetologist scholars differ on the influence of the Kālachakra Tantra upon its entrance into Tibet. Ronald Davison suggests that the Kālachakra Tantra was simply too complex for the Tibetan scholarship in the eleventh century and was largely disregarded for a century or so. David Germano sees the influence of the Kālachakra Tantra on eleventh century Tibet as huge, and therefore underestimated by Ronald Davidson. Germano suggests that the influence at this time was splintered and not cohesive until the twelfth century, and he asserts that evidence of its influence can be seen in other textual traditions from this time period. Both Davidson and Germano agree that its full efflorescence and influence comes in twelfth century Tibet.

The Kālachakra Tantra would seem to have a certain level of appeal to Renaissance period Tibet: its model for unification, both political and religious, must have been alluring in this time period so soon after the post-imperial time of fragmentation. Other appealing motifs include its love of sacred geography, its nationalistic flavor, and its community-oriented aspects.

A very alluring aspect of the Kālachakra Tantra to the Renaissance mind must have been that the text itself locates the sacred center of Buddhism in Shambhala, an area considered to be “to the north,” i.e., not India but Tibet. The Shambhala narrative gave Tibet a unifying cultural motif.

David Germano suggests that the Kālachakra Tantra is extremely influential on the burgeoning Dzokchen tradition in the Renaissance period, hinting that the Kālachakra Tantra is essentially taken apart and reassembled within the Dzokchen context.

The Kālachakra Tantra in the Blue Annals

An entire section of the Blue Annals is dedicated to the Kālachakra Tantra, chapter 10. The majority of this chapter is devoted to recounting all the Kālachakra lineages as the text enters into Tibet up through the year of 1481, the year of Gö Lotsawa’s death. Although many are mentioned, the main two lines of transmission are affiliated with two Tibetan clans: the Rwa and the Bro. The chapter begins with a fuzzy description of the Indian origins of the Kālachakra and notably does not include any of the mythology of Shambhala. Gö Lotsawa suggests that the Kālachakra appeared in India earlier than the accepted scholarly date of 1027 AD.

Gö Lotsawa then focuses on the Kālachakra within Tibet, starting with the Bro transmission and focusing on the Indian figure Somanātha. He includes the Rwa transmission line all the way through Buston Rinpoche and the Shong brothers, and also includes various other lineages of lesser importance.

Gö Lotsawa concludes the chapter by noting that at his time there were around twenty translations of the Kālachakra Tantra, and that no other work had been translating into Tibetan so many times.


Blue Annals Fragment #10: A Section on The Wheel of Time Tantra (dus kyi 'khor lo'i skabs), {R 885-979}.

Cozort, Daniel. Highest Yoga Tantra. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1986.

Newman, John. The Wheel of Time, “A Brief History of the Kālachakra.” Madison, Wisconsin: Deer Park Books, 1985.

Wallace, Vesna A. The Inner Kālacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Lecture notes from Professor David Germano’s Tibetan Renaissance Seminar, University of Virginia, 2007.