Week 12

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Week 12: The Wheel of Time Tantra


The Wheel of Time Tantra (Kālachakra Tantra) is the greatest achievement of Indian Buddhist Tantra. Produced in the tenth to eleventh century in the final great flowering of Indian Buddhism, the tantra with its associated exegetical and ritual literature and practices is unique in the history of Indian Buddhism. Created by monastics within the framework of institutional Buddhism, it is an attempt by scholars with a masterly understanding of Buddhism to synthesize all of the achievements of esoteric Buddhism over the preceding five centuries - institutional and non-institutional - into a very complex but integrated architectonic system that functions in many ways as an encyclopedia of esoteric knowledge, myth, and practice. In addition, it clearly is trying to present a new esoteric Buddhism that could rally other Indians from outside Buddhist circles in its deliberate incorporation of a vast range of ideas, motifs, and narratives from Hindu, Jain and other sources. One component of this is is its complex astrological program, from which its title derives. The Wheel of Time Tantra thus has many highly distinctive elements that are unique to it, against the backdrop of its distinctive character as a late Buddhist tantric system that is highly polished, systematic, and tightly integrated despite its sprawling terms of reference. In particular, one should note its distinctive astrological system, its innovative narratives about the Kings of Shambhala and the coming apocalypse, and its innovative somatic yogas, though there are unique elements throughout, usually tending towards great complexity. The development of the tradition is also interesting because it was transmitted in Tibet shortly after its composition, so that as a tradition it was Indo-Tibetan essentially form its inception, and ultimately Tibetans wrote far more about it than Indians. However, its great complexity and scholastic mastery evidently made it slow to be assimilated in Tibet in the eleventh century, though I would that its individual components were influential from the beginning. However, by the twelfth century it caught fire as a whole, as Tibetans new found mastery and clarity of understanding of the the diverse Indian Buddhist systems that had flooded across the Himalayas in the eleventh century led them to an enthusiastic appropriation of this most elegant and complex of all Indian Buddhist esoteric traditions. Finally, the uniqueness of The Wheel of Time Tantra means that it bears interesting comparison to Mahāmudrā and Dzokchen, those other great tantric eccentrics that thrived in Tibet. While in some ways a study in contrast - the great apostle of tantric complexity vs. the great apostles of tantric simplicity - in other ways there were striking similarities, and Germano has argued that the most important form of Dzokchen ultimately seems to bear a heavy debt to The Wheel of Time Tantra.

Required Readings

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

Newman, John. external link: “A Brief History of the Kalachakra”. 51-84.

Cozort, Daniel (1986). external link: Highest Yoga Tantra. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. Pp. 117-133 compares the Guhyasamaja and Kalacakra.

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

  • Chapter 1: The Broader Theoretical Framework of the Kālacakratantra, pp. 6-24
  • Chapter 2: A History of the ṣaḍaṅga-yoga of the Kālacakratantra and its Relation to Other Religious Traditions of India, pp. 25-30.
  • Chapter 7: The Gnostic Body, pp. 143-181.
  • Chapter 8: The Transformative Body, pp. 182-208.

Additional Bibliographical Resources

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