TIBETAN BUDDHIST BELIEFS: KALACHAKRA, SHAMBALA, TANTRISM AND ORACLES

TIBETAN BUDDHIST BELIEFS

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Tantric God Tara
Tibetan Buddhism is far less philosophical and pacifist and far more earthy and superstitious than many people think. Tibetan Buddhists believe in gods and spirits, multiple heavens and horrible hells and many things that most people would describe as magic and mystical. Tibetan Buddhists believed that the power of Buddha can experienced through statues and other images of Buddha. They also believe many different aspects of Buddha are reincarnated over and over as human beings.

Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation, although not in the sense of an irreducible self passing from body to body. They describe a dying candle lighting a new one; one’s essence passes on. According to the BBC: “Tibetan Buddhism emphasises awareness of death and impermanence. Everything is always dying — the cells of our bodies are dying even while we live, reminding us of our own impermanence. And all the living things around us are dying, too. This awareness should not produce sadness or despair, nor should it cause a Buddhist to start a frantic pursuit of the impermanent pleasures of life. Instead, it should lead the Buddhist to see the value of every moment of existence, and be diligent in their meditation and other religious practice. Awareness of death, combined with the understanding of the impermanence of everything, leads the Buddhist to realise that only spiritual things have any lasting value. [Source: BBC |::|]

Practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism believe that one can achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, as opposed to the two main schools of Buddhism — Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhist — which postulate that it takes many eons to accrue the necessary good karma. Mahayana and its later offshoot, Vajrayana, teach that buddhahood is attainable by everyone with help from beings known as bodhisattvas. As a result, images of bodhisattvas proliferated in Mahayana and Vajrayana art and are often depicted flanking buddhas.

Tibetans consider snow-cover mountains to be holy sites, life-giving forces. Shambala is Tibetan Buddhism’s earthly paradise where there is no war and no suffering, where people live in peace and harmony through meditation and self-discipline. It is said to be beyond the Himalayas at the base a crystal mountains, where people have been untouched by the corrupting influences of the outside word. The Shambala story is reportedly one of inspirations for the Shangri la utopia conceived by James Hilton in his book “Lost Horizon”.

Practical Side of Tibetan Buddhism

Rinpoche Chokyi Nyima, recognized as the seventh incarnation of the Drikung Kagyu Lama and a spiritual emanation of Nagarjuna, the second-century Indian Buddhist philosopher and an aide to the 16th Karmapa Lama said: “Buddhism is not a religion, so to speak. It is a science, a way of understanding the world. It is practical. The wisdom side is sharp and the compassion side is beautiful. Even so, it is difficult for westerners to understand the east, just as it is for east to understand west. It takes a lot of hard work, and patience." [Source: Isabella Tree, Sunday Times, December 31, 2006]

The Dalai Lama often argues that Tibetan Buddhism is pragmatic and universal. He told Smithsonian magazine: "Buddhism is not theotic. It is heavily dependent on logic and reason. However, we also accept the value of nirvana. So there is a common language between persons of strong faith and Buddhism. I believe that the different religions, different philosophies, different systems and ideologies were all meant for human benefit.”

“While the ultimate goal of Buddhism is nirvana, our immediate goal is worldly benefit. As Buddhists, we have a deep interest in society, community. Our continual investigations for the worldly benefit of Man rely on observation and logic...If scientific reasoning proves something different from our scriptures, we accept the proof rather than scriptures. The human mind is the real creator."

Tibetan Views about Death

Tibetans believe that the cessation of breathing is only the first stage of death. Afterwards, they believe, the soul separates out of the various ‘subtle elements.” First, the earth elements dissolve into the water elements. As this happens the dead loses his sense of sight and feels like he is shriveling up. As the water elements dissolve into the air element the dead losses his hearing and feels surrounded by smoke. After the soul separates from the body, various levels of consciousness disappear and the deceased emerges into translucent light. This is when Tibetans believe that true death has occurred.

According to the BBC: “Tibetan Buddhism emphasises awareness of death and impermanence. Everything is always dying — the cells of our bodies are dying even while we live, reminding us of our own impermanence. And all the living things around us are dying, too. This awareness should not produce sadness or despair, nor should it cause a Buddhist to start a frantic pursuit of the impermanent pleasures of life. Instead, it should lead the Buddhist to see the value of every moment of existence, and be diligent in their meditation and other religious practice. Awareness of death, combined with the understanding of the impermanence of everything, leads the Buddhist to realise that only spiritual things have any lasting value. [Source: BBC |::|]

Tibetans believe that an individual’s souls remain in “bardo” (bar do), a special zone for the newly dead, for 49 days after death, during which time they enter a new body (that of a human, a hell being, a god, or an animal) to start a new cycle of life, death and rebirth. On each of the 49 days the deceased passes through a new level. After true death has occurred the dead begins his journey towards rebirth and this may involve communion with gods, demons, hungry ghosts or a trip to hell. All this occurs with the understanding that post-death experiences are not real, but projections of consciousness that causes birth, death and rebirth. This recurrent process of life, death, and rebirth continues until an individual achieves enlightenment. [Source: Rebecca R. French, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

Tibetan Buddhism and Tantrism

Tantrism is sometimes regarded as one of the three major sects of Buddhism along with Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. Originally from India, it is a highly ritualistic religion that combines beliefs in magic and esoteric philosophy and emphasizes mystic symbols, sacred chants, and other esoteric devotional techniques. It is usually associated with Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism.

Tantric Buddhism is often called Vajrayana ("thunderbolt vehicle"). In Tibet, it is heavily influenced by the ancient Bon religion,which used shaman to dispel demons and appease the gods, and incorporates a number of “mudras” ("ritual postures"), “mantras” ("sacred speech"), “yantras” ("sacred art") and secret initiation rites. Most of the ritual objects and images of deities used in Tibetan Buddhism are derived from Tantrism. The techniques are generally not written down but passed orally from master to student.

Tantrism emerged around A.D. 600 and was based on texts known as Tantras. It put forth the idea that all human states and conditions, even one traditionally regarded as polluting,, were connected and things such as desire and wrath could be viewed as being on the same plane with love and righteousness. According to the BBC: “ Tibetan Buddhism was much influenced by Tantra, and this has brought in a wealth of complex rituals and symbols and techniques. Tantra originated in India and appears in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It brings Tibetan Buddhism a magical element and a rich portfolio of heavenly beings. It also brings a wide variety of spiritual techniques such as mantras, mandalas, ceremonies, and many varieties of yoga.

Tantrism is seen by some as a complex union of Hinduism and Buddhism: incorporating different offshoots of each religion with folk religious beliefs and combing Hindu gods with Buddhist theology. One religious text described Tantrism as “Buddhist and Hindu hierarchies converted to create rigid social organizational patterns” that merge “erotic Hindu ideas....static and authoritative Buddhist teachings...Hindu patterns of individual paths to enlightenment” and “Buddhist notions of the power of many.”

Tantric Techniques

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Sakaymuni
Tantric Buddhists believe that anyone willing to pursue a regimen of ritual-intensive discipline can reach enlightenment now, and in the process benefit all other creatures, which is the ultimate goal. To achieve enlightenment special tools are needed. These include items that can be touched, held or worn . These tools are not intended to be art works that are mediated upon. Rather they are seen as objects that contact turns into a two-way power sources, with devotees injecting the objects with power and that objects returning the power with an extra punch to the devotee. The power exchange goes back and forth in a way that is referred to as the “Circle of Bliss.”

According to followers of Buddhist Tantrism the Buddha left behind some special esoteric techniques, known as Tantra (Gyu), to a small group of his disciples with the understanding that if these techniques were followed they could achieve nirvana (enlightenment) and become a bodhisattvas much more quickly than if they followed conventional methods.The techniques often involve identification with a tutelary deity through deep meditation and recitation of deity’s mantra, the most well-known of which is “om mani padem hum,” the mantra of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara). The process is enhanced by the use of yogic techniques that may include sexual acts. Masters of Tantric methods can not only visualize a deity in all its forms but can visualize it in a three-dimensional mandala world and absorb its “terma” (“reveled” words or writings).

Tantric objects include bells to wake up slumbering minds, prayer wheels and mandalas. New York Times Art critic Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “the function and meaning of mandalas and other their such objects can be fully explained only in an interpretive calculus of prodigious complexity, one ultimately accessible only to initiates.”

Describing a 15th century mandala made by Newar artists at a Tibetan monastery, art critic Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “it offers a labyrinthine, circles-within-squared topographic charts of heaven and hell, bristling with tiny sprits and monsters. A Tantric teacher, a guru, who knows the image, with its pitfalls and high places, will lead the committed student on a pilgrims progress to the mandala’s center...There twin deities, male and female, are locked in an amorous embrace. The male is named Chakrasamvara, the female, Vajravarahi. Their intertwined bodies are the “The Circle of Bliss.” Separately they represent the forces of wisdom and compassion; enlightenment is their union.”

Kalachakra

The Kalachakra, an 11-day ritual and initiation, lies at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. During it some devotees visualize themselves exploring a five-story palace. At the center of the palace is a green lotus petal, and on it is said to reside the Kalachakra deity, with blue skin, four faces and 24 arms. [Source: NPR, 2016]

Dr. Alexander Berzin wrote: “The word “kalachakra” means cycles of time, and the Kalachakra system presents three such cycles — external, internal and alternative. The external and internal cycles deal with time as we normally know it, while the alternative cycles are practices for gaining liberation from these two. The structures of the external and internal cycles are analogous, similar to the parallel between macrocosm and microcosm discussed in Western philosophy. This means that the same laws that govern a universe also pertain to atoms, the body and our experience of life. The practices of the alternative cycles also follow this structure so as to allow us to engage with and surmount these forces in an efficient manner. Such mimicking is, in fact, one of the distinguishing features of the anuttarayoga tantra method. [Source: The Berzin Archives, Dr. Alexander Berzin]

Time, in Buddhism, is defined as a measurement of change. For example, a month is the measurement of change involved either externally in the moon circling the earth or internally in a woman going from one menstruation to the next. Such changes are cyclical in that the pattern repeats, although the events of each cycle are not completely identical. Normally the passage of time exercises a debilitating effect. As we age, our sight, hearing, memory and physical strength gradually weaken and eventually we die.

In short, the external and internal cycles of time delineate samsara — uncontrollably recurring rebirth, fraught with problems and difficulties. These cycles are driven by impulses of energy, known in the Kalachakra system as "winds of karma." Karma is a force intimately connected with mind and arises due to confusion about reality. Karmic potentials, in fact, give rise to a broad array of impulses that affect our lives. Within this context, individual karmic potentials, at the appropriate juncture in each being's internal cycles — namely after each death — give rise to the impulse to take rebirth in a specific environment with a particular body.

Liberation from Cycles of Time

The alternative cycles of time entail a graded series of meditative practices of anuttarayoga tantra, Dr. Alexander Berzin wrote. They serve not only as an alternative to the external and internal cycles, but as a way to gain liberation from them. The possibility of gaining liberation from time, however, does not imply that time does not actually exist or that someone can live and benefit others outside of time. Time, as a measurement of change, also occurs as a measure of the cycles of actions of a Buddha. Liberation from time means ridding ourselves of the confusion, and its instincts, that repeatedly give rise to the impulses, or karma, that render us at the mercy of the ravages of time. Once free, we are no longer adversely affected by external winter darkness, eclipses, wars and so on that periodically recur. Nor are we restricted by the type of body that is under the control of periodic biological forces, such as hunger, sexual urges, tiredness or aging. As a result of the full understanding of reality, it becomes possible, instead, to generate cycles of forms that benefit others beyond any limitations imposed by time.

The process begins with the Kalachakra initiation. Properly empowered, we engage in generation and then complete stage meditation practice in the form of the Buddha-figure called Kalachakra. Through these two stages, we access and utilize the subtlest level of our mind to see reality. Remaining continually focused on reality with it eliminates forever confusion and its instincts, thus bringing liberation from the external and internal cycles of time. This is possible because our basis tantra, our individual clear light mind, underlies each moment of experience and, like time, it has no end. Once our subtlest mind is freed from the deepest cause giving rise to the impulses of energy that perpetuate cycles of time and bondage to them, it gives rise, instead, to the bodies of a Buddha, in the form of Kalachakra.

Shambhala

Since Shambhala plays a prominent role in the Kalachakra system, most people are curious to know what Shambhala actually is and where it is located, Dr. Alexander Berzin wrote. It is undoubtedly from a distortion of the name "Shambhala" that the Western romantic writer James Hilton has derived the myth of Shangri-la — a hidden paradise on Earth. Although there may be a place in this world representative of Shambhala, that is not the actual fabled land. Shambhala cannot be found on this planet or even in some distant world. It is, however, a human realm in which everything is conducive for spiritual practice, particularly of Kalachakra.

Meditation masters have written guidebooks, in both Sanskrit and Tibetan, for reaching Shambhala. They describe the journey as a physical one only up to a certain point. The sojourner must subsequently repeat millions of mantras and other special practices in order to arrive at the final goal. The journey to Shambhala, then, is primarily a spiritual one. The aim of receiving Kalachakra initiation is not to reach or be reborn in Shambhala, but, like all other mahayana, or "vast vehicle" Buddhist practices, is to gain enlightenment here and now for the benefit of all. The empowerment plants the seeds enabling us to reach this goal and helps purify some of the grosser internal obstacles that would prevent its attainment.

Before entering tantric practice, we need to understand that at least the grossest levels of our projections do not refer to anything real. No one is a born loser and no relation is doomed to failure. Such understanding comes from an outlook on reality, or "correct view" of voidness, corresponding to at least one of the mahayana systems of philosophical tenets Buddha taught — chittamatra or one of the several madhyamaka ones. According to these systems, not only ourselves, but everything is devoid of existing in fantasized ways. The particular systems differ primarily according to the level of subtlety of fantasy they address.

As further preparation for tantra, faith and confidence are needed in the tantric methods in general, and particularly in those of its highest class, anuttarayoga, as constituting the most efficient and effective means for attaining enlightenment. Anyone having this confident belief, the frame of mind of the three principal paths and a background in lam-rim is called a "proper vessel" for receiving the Kalachakra empowerment. We must judge for ourselves if we are sufficiently prepared.

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Kalachakra Initiation

The Kalachakra Initiation process spans several days, with the first day being a preparation ceremony, followed by usually two or three days of actual empowerment, Dr. Alexander Berzin wrote. The most important part of the initial procedures is taking refuge and the bodhisattva and tantric vows. Without all three, we cannot actually receive empowerment, although we may witness it and derive great benefit. The empowerment itself involves a complex procedure of imagining ourselves transforming into a series of special forms, entering the mandala of the Buddha-figure Kalachakra, and experiencing in it a sequence of purifications and the awakening and enhancing of potentials for future success in the practice. The mandala is an enormous multistoried palace, in and around which are 722 figures, including a principal couple in the center. The master conferring the empowerment simultaneously appears as all these figures, not just as the central one. Thus, throughout the process we visualize ourselves, our teacher and our surroundings in a very special way.

The steps of the initiation are extremely intricate and, without familiarity, the visualizations involved can be quite perplexing. But if, as a proper vessel, we take the vows with full sincerity and at least feel, with strong faith, that all the visualizations are actually occurring, we can be confident that we are receiving the empowerment. With this basis secured, the next step is seeking further instruction and then trying, as sincerely as possible, to travel the full path to enlightenment as presented in the Kalachakra Tantra.

Many believe that even if one is simply present at this initiation ceremony that lasts for a few days, one can be free of suffering and gain enlightenment. There are five main subjects in focus — cosmology, psycho-physiology, initiation, sadhana (study) and attaining Buddhahood.

A Kalachakra Initiation for world peace presided over by the Dalai Lama drew 10,000 people to Washington in July 2011. “The Kalchakra ceremony was performed by the Dalai Lama in August 2000. This prayer is organised on a grand scale with an aim to awaken the Buddha nature of each individual, using a combination of prayer, teaching, blessing, devotion, mantra, yoga and meditation. It is essentially a search for peace. In 2016, a Kalachakra Initiation was held at the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse (Xigaze), Tibet, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, and was presided over by the China-backed Panchen Lama much to disdain of most Tibetan Buddhists and supporters of the Dalai Lama.

Tibetan Buddhist Oracles

Tibetan Buddhists believe that it is possible to communicate with spirits and deities through intermediaries and oracles. Selections for these positions are often based on certain signs or body marks. After a Tibetan child is born, his or her body is searched for omens and signs. Large ears like those on Buddha statues are considered a sign of wisdom. Moles with particular shapes found in significant places have special meanings.

Living with the Dalai Lama in India is the Oracle from Nechung Monetary in Tibet. Not unlike his ancient Greek counterpart at Delphi, the oracle mediates near the Oracle statue — a small doll-like figure with reaching arms, bulging eyes and an expression reminiscent of Edvar Munch's The Scream — in a chapel and goes into a trance, with an interpreter interpreting what he says.

Before 1959, the Dalai Lama used to meet with Nechung oracle on every New Year’s day. The oracle donned bracelets shaped like human eyes and wore an elaborate headdress made of feathers and went into a trance. Observers said his eyeballs rolled on his sockets, his face turned red, his mouth opened up and his tongue curled up inside his mouth. He answered questions in an anguished hissing voice while looking in a mirror. A clerk recorded and translated what he said. The session was over after he fainted.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: The Dalai Lama “relies most heavily on the "state oracle," a deity called Nechung, who communicates through a human medium, usually a monk.” According to the Dalai Lama's description in his memoir, the medium slips into a trance "with bulging eyes and swollen cheeks. . . . His breathing begins to shorten and he starts to hiss violently." The Dalai Lama poses questions, and the oracle responds with enigmatic advice. On complex affairs of state, he writes, "I seek his opinion in the same way as I seek the opinion of my Cabinet." For further help, the Dalai Lama relies on a form of mo divination, in which choices are written on pieces of paper and placed in balls of dough. He then swirls the balls in a cup until the right answer tumbles out. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

When how he balances his trust in science with his faith in the supernatural, he told The New Yorker that he views the oracles as "consultants." "After I consult human beings and these oracles, if there's something clear, something which I can now decide, then I decide,” he told me. He said he had made “all major decisions” from the age of sixteen with the help of the oracles, and he had become convinced that they are correct.

“These days, the Nechung medium is Thupten Ngodup, an amiable fiftyish monk who likes to garden in his spare time,” Osnos wrote.. “When I visited him one morning in Dharamsala, he explained that he’d been an ordinary monk, overseeing the sculptures and incense at a monastery, until one day, in 1987, when the deity suddenly chose him as the medium — a physical sensation that he compared to an electric shock. “My position is very difficult,” he said. He had joined the monastery at the age of nine, never expecting much drama. “When the oracle chooses me, I’m just a normal monk.” His job now requires him to be on call whenever the Dalai Lama needs a consultation. “Anytime His Holiness needs, he calls.”

How Realistic are the Tantric Buddhist Rituals in the Taiwan horror film “Incantation”

The Taiwanese horror film ‘Incantation’ was a big sensation in 2022. Directed by Kevin Ko, the horror movie following the experiences of a woman cursed by a Tantric-Tibetan-Buddhist incantation. After its premiere in March, 2022 it became the highest grossing Taiwanese horror film of all time, and Taiwan’s highest grossing film of 2022. The central character is Ronan who is curse after breaking a religious taboo while ghost-hunting in Yunnan province. Ronan and her two friends visit a remote village practicing an extreme form of Buddhism and get caught up in cult that worship Dahei Mother Buddha. While searching for ghosts in forbidden parts of the village, Ronan’s two companions face disturbing deaths. When Ronan returns similar strange, nasty things occur involving her daughter. [Source:Emma Burleigh, SupChina, July 27, 2022]

“Incantation” opens with “Based on a True Story,” but how true is it. Emma Burleigh wrote in in Sup China. Most have guessed its inspiration comes from an ominous incident that took place in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. In 2005, a family there claimed to be possessed by demons, performing disturbing ritual acts and killing their two daughters. But what the movie really wants you to think is that it’s the curse at the film’s center that is real. Citing a modified form of Tantric Buddhism and Brahmic script, the movie explains how the religion traveled from Southeast Asia to Yunnan province.

The curse and religion in “Incantation” revolve around the worship of Dàhēi Fúm. This is a fictitious deity that isn’t present in any religious mythology. Instead, its inspiration likely comes from Tantric Buddhist figures Dàhēitiān and Dàhēin. In ancient Brahmanism, a version of Dahei exists as “Kali.”There was a real-life case where a cult worshipper of Kali subjected herself to blood sacrifice. In 2016, a woman cut off her tongue in worship of Kali in the hope that the goddess would fulfill her wishes. We see similar sacrifices in Incantation, where a young girl cuts off her ear to appease Dahei.

In the film, statues of Dahei have her face covered with a cloth. It’s implied that Dahei’s real power rests in her face — and if anyone removes the cloth and looks, they are destined for a gruesome death. Ronan’s two friends unveil the face in a forbidden tunnel, and frightening chaos ensues. That is one of many taboos they break. There is no Tantric Buddhist practice of covering a deity’s face. In fact, traditionally Buddhist statues should face a door or window for clarity.

Throughout the movie, Ronan begs the audience to chant “Hou ho xiu yi, si sei wu ma”. She tells us that reciting this incantation will stop the curse from escalating in the moment.” Research on the chant lead characters in the film “to a secluded monk practicing Tantric Buddhism in Yunnan — one of few who can translate the incantation. He is told the incantation comes from a Minnan dialect, meaning: “Misfortune and blessing depend on one another, death and life lies in the name.” There is a twist, which I will not reveal for fear of spoiling it.

The “Hou ho xiu yi, si sei wu ma” mantra bears no relation to any of Tantric Buddhism’s spiritual practices. Tantra religions do share a commonality: sacraments or rituals are used to conjure divine energies. We can see vestiges of this idea in “Incantation” but the extreme practice depicted in the film is not found in Tantric Buddhism.

Image Sources: Kalachakranet.org and Simha.com except Texts, Wason collection, and Wheel of Life, Library of Congress.

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4)\=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022


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