The ‘nature’ and ‘meaning’ of mantra, tantra and the ten-syllables in Kālacakra by Jamgon Kongtrul

The Tibetan word for mantra is ngag (sngags) and translators often mistakenly translate this as meaning tantra.  Sometimes referring to the Tantra vehicle, for translating mantrayana (sngags kyi thegs pa). However, the Tibetan word for tantra is gyu (rgyud) and both words do not necessarily mean the same thing.

I have been reading Book Six, Part Four, called the Infinite Ocean of Knowledge (Shes bya mtha’ yas pa’i rgya mtsho), of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s (Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas, 1813–1899) Treasury of Knowledge (shes bya kun khyab)  in preparation for the upcoming teachings on this text by HE 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche in October 2019, Nepal. The Tibetan version of the text I referred to is a computer print (W28978, vol. 4982), uploaded onto TBRC.

My reading of the Tibetan source text has been greatly aided by the only published English translation of it, by the Kalu Rinpoche Translation Group, called ‘Systems of Buddhist Tantra: The Indestructible Way of Mantra’ (Snow Lion Publications, 2005). I have pulled out relevant parts from that translation here, but also re-translated bits myself.

Having spent the last couple of years immersed in Tāranātha’s view of Shentong (gzhan stong) and Kālacakra, I was not surprised to see that Kongtrul, an avid student of Jonang Shentong and Kālacakra and huge admirer of Tāranātha, refes to them in several places in this text.  For this short post, I decided to pull together some of what Kongtrul talks about in relation to the nature of mantra, tantra and its relation to Kālacakra and the powerful ten-syllable mantra.

The Meaning and Nature of ‘Mantra’ and ‘Tantra’

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas, 1813–1899

Kongtrul has a discussion about the terms ‘mantra’ and ‘tantra’, first discussing the meaning of the Sanskrit word ‘man-tra’, which literally means mind (man-) protection (-tra). Then the ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ (ngo bo) of mantra as being the union of the wisdom-emptiness and the method-compassion.  He cites a section from the Kālacakra Tantra (my translation):

Mantra protects the realms of

Body, speech and mind;

The term 'mantra' refers to

The unchanging, primordial awareness-emptiness.

Mantra arising from merit and primordial awareness,

Is that emptiness-compassion itself.

ལུས་ངག་སེམས་ཀྱི་ཁམས་རྣམས་ནི ། །


སྔགས་དོན་སྔགས་ཀྱི་སྒྲ་ཡིས་ནི། །

སྟོང་ཉིད་ཡེ་ཤེས་འགྱུར་མེད་དེ། །


།སྟོང་ཉིད་སྙིང་རྗེའི་བདག་ཉིད་ཅན། །ཅེས་སོ། །[1]

Kongtrul then discusses the difference between mantra and tantra:

“How does one differentiate between mantra and tantra? All aspects of secret mantra and the pristine awareness of great bliss (bde ba chen po’i ye shes) are referred to as mantra. Applications (sbyor ba) of secret mantra (the collections of [rituals] for activations and powers) are known as tantra. However, the tantras (continuums) of the ground, path, and result (the content of mantra), as well as the collection of teachings that express and expound [the meaning of mantra], are referred to as tantra. Thus, there are contexts in which no distinction is made between mantra and tantra.”

Here, Kongtrul talks about tantra as generally having three meanings either:

  1. the ‘applications of secret mantra’,
  2. the ‘continuum’ of the ground, path and result; and
  3. the collection of teachings that express and expound the meaning of mantra.

So depending on the context a distinction between them can be made or not. Kongtrul states that:

“From the perspective of a direct translation, mantra means “secret utterance” because it is accomplished with secrecy and in concealment; or, from another perspective, because it cannot be understood by those unqualified to be its practitioners. Thus, it is called “secret mantra” (gsang sngags). Accordingly, the master Shraddhakaravarman’s Short Guide to the Meaning of Highest Yoga Tantra explains:

It is secret because its practices are accomplished with secrecy and in concealment, or because it cannot be understood by unqualified persons.”

Later, in the section on Highest Yoga Tantra (bla na med pa) , Kongtrul goes into detail about the meaning of tantra in terms of the second meaning: a ‘continuum’ of the ground, path and result. He cites the Continuation of the Guhyasamaja Tantra (‘dus pa’ rgyud phyi ma las)”

“Tantra denotes ‘continuum’[2].

It is composed of three aspects:

Ground, nature, and inviolability[3].

When distinguished in this way,

The nature aspect is the cause;

The ground aspect refers to the method;

And inviolability, the result.

These three contain tantra’s meaning.

རྒྱུད་ནི་རྒྱུན་ཆགས་ཞེས་བྱར་བརྗོད། །

རྒྱུད་དེའང་རྣམ་པ་གསུམ་དུ་འགྱུར། །

གཞི་དང་དེ་ཡི་རང་བཞིན་དང༌། །

མི་འཕྲོགས་པ་ཡིས་རབ་དབྱེ་བས། །

རང་བཞིན་རྣམ་པ་རྒྱུ་ཡིན་ཏེ། །

གཞི་ནི་ཐབས་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་ཡིན། །

དེ་བཞིན་མི་འཕྲོགས་འབྲས་བུ་སྟེ། །

གསུམ་གྱིས་རྒྱུད་ཀྱི་དོན་བསྡུས་པའོ། །

Kongtrul goes on to explain:

“The term “tantra” [“continuum”] denotes the mind of awakening, Ever- Perfect (Samantabhadra), which has neither beginning nor end, in nature luminous clarity. It is “continuous” since, from time without beginning up to the attainment of enlightenment, it has always been present without any interruption. Tantra has “three [aspects]”: the “nature” or causal continuum, from the perspective of being the fundamental cause [for awakening]; “ground” or continuum of method, from the perspective of being the contributory condition [for awakening]; and “inviolability” or resultant continuum, from the perspective of being the awakening that is the perfect fulfillment of the two goals [of one’s own and others’ welfare].

The nature of the ten-syllable Kālacakra mantra

 Later on in the text, Kongtrul discusses the nature of the ten syllable mantra of Kālacakra , haṃ kṣaḥ ma la va ra ya  and three other elements.  The ten letters of the root mantra of Kalachakra are:

  1. h
  2. kṣ
  3. m
  4. l
  5. v
  6. r
  7. y
  8. the visārga in kṣaḥ, which features as the cresent below the anusvāra
  9. the anusvāra in haṃ
  10. the vowel a, which is the “life” of the consonants.

However, according to Tāranātha, and in the generation stage practise of Kalacakra, the following images below represent the ten-syllables (see for a discussion of these images).

The Kalacakra ten-syllables as represented by Tāranātha (from

“The mantra is referred to in Tibetan as namchu wangden (rnam bcu dbang ldan), literally ‘the powerful one possessed of ten aspects’.  This consists of seven individual syllables combined together (ham, kshya, ma, la , va ,ra, ya), in Indian Lantsa characters (ornamental script, or Ranjana script.) In addition there are three other components that make a total of ten elements within the image – these are the crescent (usually red) known as a visarga, the disk or doughnut shape (usually white) known as a bindu or anusvāra, and a deep blue nāda, or wisp with three twists, at the top.”

In brief, the ten syllables are representations of, and describe, the outer (inanimate world), the inner and other/alternative realities. For an excellent explanation and visual description of how the ten syllables are stacked up and their various meanings in Kālacakra, as described by Jonang and Rime master, Bamda Gelek Gyamtso, see http://www.Kā

The Causal Continuum

Jamgon Kongtrul states:

The causal continuum (rgyu’i rgyud) manifests as the powerful ten-letter mantra and Kālacakra.

What does Kongtrul mean here by causal continuum?

“The causal continuum denotes the natural condition of mind from the level of a sentient being to the state of a buddha, which abides, like the sky, without ever changing. There are any number of expressions for this, such as “nature,” “essence of enlightenment,” and “naturally present affinity,” found in the sutras; and “essential principle of oneself,” “awakening mind,” and “mind of Ever-Perfect,” found in the lower tantras. In this system of highest yoga tantra, however, the causal continuum may be explained in conjunction with the meaning of the union of e and vam.

The natural condition of the mind is possessed of three features: remaining unchanged from the level of a sentient being until the state of a buddha; being an inner knowing, whose characteristic nature is one’s intrinsic self awareness [i.e., awareness that cognizes its own nature]; and being supreme immutable great bliss.

That which has the nature of these manifold forms is called “emptiness endowed with the supreme of all aspects,” or “totality of forms,” “totality of faculties,” and so forth, and is represented by the syllable e.

The union of what is represented by e and by vam is referred to as the “causal continuum,” “cause” in terms of being the fundamental stuff of awakening and “continuum,” because it exists from time without beginning as the nature of the mind and continues from the level of a sentient being until the state of a buddha. 

The ten powerful syllables are explained by Kongtrul as follows:

“The true-nature aspect of the impure environment and its inhabitants, which exists grounded in the causal continuum, is the pervading agent, the indestructible awakened body, present as the nature of the powerful [mantra] of ten letters. The powerful ten-letter [mantra], which serves as the symbol of the causal continuum, is formed of the following: a, i, ri, u, li (the five root vowels); ma (seed of the collection of the inanimate); ksha (seed of the collection of the animate); ha (seed of the four formless realms) (these form the connection to [vowels known as] qualities); the simple sign of aspiration (the crescent moon); and the sphere and tip of pristine awareness, which stand above them. Thus is formed [the mantra] called ham ksha ma la va ra ya [written one above the other].

The causal continuum, the luminous clarity nature of mind itself, cannot be divided into separate substances or parts. However, when distinguished from the standpoint of conceptual categories, the unobscured aspect of that luminous clarity nature exists as the essence of the ten letters or signs, or “ten visions.” This aspect serves as the ground for the arising of the impure environment and its inhabitants, which are manifestations of the powerful ten-letter [mantra].”

Kongtrul then goes on to give a brief summary of the ten-syllable mantra, as presented in Kālacakra:

There are extensive expositions on how the essence of the meaning of the name [Kalacakra], the causal continuum itself, manifests as Kalacakra in its three dimensions of outer, inner, and alternative.  At this point, however, will be provided a synopsis, noting only the essence [of this topic].

The ground-of-all causal continuum, the union of e and vam in its complete form [of the deity’s body], is called “Shri Kalachakra (Wheel of Time),” wherein “time” (kala) refers to immutable bliss [method], and “wheel” (chakra), the emptiness [wisdom] endowed with the supreme of all aspects. By virtue of being the inseparability of bliss and emptiness, [Kalachakra] is said to be “glorious” (shri). That Kalachakra itself manifests as the attributes of the outer world, the inner vajra body, and the alternative circle of [deities of ] the [Kalachakra] mandala.”


[1] This is cited in the Stainless Light Commentary on the Kālacakra Root Tantra, D1349

དཔལ་ལྡན་དྲི་མ་དང་བྲལ་བའི་འོད་ཀྱི་རྒྱུད་ལ་འཇུག་པའི་བཤད་སྦྱར་སྙིང་པོ་སྣང་བ, rgyud ‘grel, na 20a3-72b5 (vol. 13).

[2] rgyun chags

[3] Mi ‘phrog pa, I have re-translated here as inviolability instead of ‘inalienableness’. I think this gets across the etymology of ‘phrog, which normally means ‘robbed of’ or ‘taken away’. So here it means that the result cannot be ‘robbed’ cannot be violated or reduced in any way.

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