Kālacakra and the 3rd Jamgon Kongtrul: a stunning record of empowerment and teaching

As I have written about several times here and here, the Jamgon Kongtrul lineage of Kālacakra is very important not only for the Kagyu but also in continuing the Jonang and Shangpa lineage teachings.  Jamgon Kongtrul the Great received the entire empowerment of Kālacakra from Karma Kagyu masters, such as Tai Situ Rinpoche and also from his Jonang teacher, Ngawang Chophel, at the Jonang Dzamthang monastery Tibet. Kongtrul’s first journey to the Jonang monastery to receive those transmissions and empowerments, which involved black magic and murder plots on his life has been eloquently captured in the English language in the new book about his life by Alexander Gardner, and demonstrates the level of his tantric abilities as well as his determination to go there. Kongtrul also wrote several texts on Kālacakra, including an empowerment text that is still used today[1].

Jamgon Kongtrul 3rd and Kālacakra
Jamgon Kongtrul 3rd

I was delighted to find out yesterday, that film-maker Valierio Albisetti had uploaded onto Vimeo for free download, his documentary film of a Kālacakra empowerment in the Spanish town of San Sebastian in August 1989, given  by Jamgon Kongtrul the 3rd, only three years before he tragically passed away in a car accident in April 1992 (although many suspect it was a politically motivated assassination).  It is not clear who gave the 3rd Kongtrul the Kālacakra empowerments and transmission, but it seems likely that it would have been from Kalu Rinpoche, himself a great Kālacakra lineage holder, as I have written about here.

The 3rd Jamgon Kongtrul Karma Lodrö Chökyi Senge (1954-1992) was also an accomplished Kālacakra lineage master who gave several great Kālacakra empowerments during his lifetime. As well as this one in Spain, afterwards, in 1990, he also gave the great Kalachakra empowerment to the monks and laypersons of Rumtek, Sikkim and donated funds to initiate the conducting of the Kalachakra puja there on an annual basis. In 1991, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche returned to Tibet and as part of his trip, journeyed to Palpung Monastery and gave the great Kalachakra initiation to about 550 tulkus and lamas of the area, including Sangye Tendzin of Japa Gonzhab Surmang Tentrul, Dodrak Tulku, before a crowd of about 10,000 laypeople. Next he travelled to Damkar Monastery in Nangchen where he again gave the Kalachakra empowerment to about 10,000 sangha members, including lamas and tulkus such as Shangu Tulku, Kyodrak Tendzin, Salga, Drukpa Tulku, and Demon Tulku. (source http://www.jamgonkongtrul.org/)

Kālacakra empowerment in Spain, 1989

The documentary film opens with some shots of an ordinary town, to a sports centre where preparations are underway for the upcoming event, painting and construction and so on.  and people going about their daily life. The mundane, worldly backdrop to what will be an utterly extraordinary and supramundane event. Like the two views in Buddhist Philosophy, the relative mundane deluded level and the supramundane ultimate level that are inextricably entwined and connected. I loved this opening scene for the poetry of the time and effort taken to construct and prepare the place where the mandala for the empowerment will be placed, mimicking the time and effort taken to construct the Kālacakra sand mandala. Then switching to more picturesque surroundings of a villa building where painstaking effort is also going into the butter sculpture of the ‘tormas’, then back to the cons The construction both a worldly and spiritual endeavour but also the effort of it all (tsondru in Tibetan) which in itself is a source of spiritual practice and accumulating merit.

Then, the two-minute joyful laughing arrival of Jamgon Kongtrul with some monks before the first teaching is itself a joy to watch. A reminder of the blissful and joyful nature of the innate Kālacakra in us all.  At ten minutes the teaching starts. His gentle, dulcet yet very clear voice matching that sweet joyful nature.

Teaching Day One

Here is a transcript and translation of the teaching Kongtrul gave.  I have added in bits that were missed out etc.

“I will first give a general teaching on Kālacakra in general and Buddhism in general. If one asks can one attain Buddhahood by following the Heares vehicle one can not. It is in dependence on that path that one can then attain Buddhahood only when they attain the full realisation of tat and enter the Mahayana path which does lead to the full enlightenment. So they are taught at these different levels and stages depending on the practitioners themselves. If the practitioner, gets teaching on Vajrayana and does not have that capacity then they might experience some fear and lose their confidence. Therefor, in order to suit the different capacities of individuals, difference levels were taught. Three stages were taught. The hearers, the Mahayana and then Vajrayana. According to each level the view is unique and the result is unique to that and the time is unique to each path. So those who follow the sudden vehicle some take shorter time than others to attain enlightenment. Even though these were all taught to achieve the same result they have these differences.

Then there are the different stages of the empowerment of Kālacakra: there are five days first day there is called ‘requesting to be taken as a disciple’ the supplication by the student for the lama to bestow the empowerment, then second day is the preparatory initiation, so that all the disciples are fit and suitable for the practice of the Kālacakra and further iniitaions, then there is the main empowerment. Then on the third day there is the main empowerment. This is called ‘the seven empowerments of raising a child’ there are seven stages to it. Generally it is the vase empowerment. In Tantras there are generally four empowerments, the vase initiation symbolising the body, the speech intiation , the mind of wisdom and the secret. The main initiation of ‘raising the child’ is one initiation, the vase, but has seven different parts in it. So in the Kālacakra tantra the vase initiation is given in this way as the ‘seven stages of raising a child’.

Then the following day after that, the fourth day, there is the secret empowerment. There are generally three other empowerments, secret, primordial awareness and word empowerment. In the Kālacakra tradition, those three empowerments are categorised as ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’. The ordinary is the ‘secret’ empowerment and the ‘extraordinary’ is the other two. Then after that there is the master and great master vajra master empowerment which is only to be given to those who are seriously involved in the practice of Kālacakra. The empowerment is given like that over four days.’’

The teachings are interspersed with clips of the sand mandala being constructed. Kongtrul then gives a teaching on the importance of the Bodhisattva vow and giving rise to Bodhicitta mind, the mind that wishes to attain enlightenment not just so oneself is free of suffering but so that all sentient beings can be liberated from suffering.  “The enlightened attitude is for the benefit of sentient beings, if one does not have that then one will not be able to attain full Buddhahood. One can become liberated from suffering but will not have the qualities of the Buddhas. Until an enlightened being is able to benefit sentient beings then one is not enlightened. Also, that we should not become discouraged even if negative mind states arise, we cannot expect it stay the same at all times.”

‘Seven stages of a child’

Forty-five minutes into the film, shows excerpts from the ‘seven stages of the development of a child’ initiation. Kongtrul is now in the full majestic and divine costume of the Kalacakra deity he has self-generated himself as.  He explains that this is part of the supreme empowerment (chog gi wang) and it is given before the other general initiations of speech, mind and word:

“The reason it is called the seven stages of a child, with the example of a small child, is that first when a child is born, he doesn’t know anything, similarly even though you will enter the Kālacakra mandala and get the empowerment, the secret Vajrayana you don’t know well and as you don’t know the Kālacakra tantra well, one has to enter into that in stages. That is the reason it is called the empowerment of ‘seven stages of a child’. So, once that empowerment has finished today, then tomorrow the higher empowerments of the speech, mind, wisdom and word will be given. What is the most important thing to remember? During the empowerment one shouldn’t think you will get some special and magical power. This is not the right view or expectation for taking any empowerment. The reason we give and take the Kālacakra empowerment is because until now by not realising the true abiding nature of mind and in dependence on dualistic perception of appearances, even though they are the pure nature of the deity, we do not know this and are circling in samsara. One should think that this is the benefit of the empowerment, for the purpose of breaking free of this dualistic and deluded perception and realising the true nature of reality. Then, one should supplicate and have confidence in and visualise the vajra master who gives the empowerment as the deity Kālacakra and imagine that all the surroundings are the mandala, celestial palace and assembly of deities of Kālacakra.

Then there are the three higher and inner empowerments. Kongtrul emphasises again the importance of believing and visualising the vajra master as the deity Kālacakra in union with consort, then the blessing of body, speech and mind will arise from it and one should also have a good motivation. It is very important that those on the secret mantra path have a pure view and good motivation.  If one only expects to fulfil ordinary accomplishments necessary for worldly reasons but to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of sentient beings.

After bestowing the seven stage and four common empowerments, the vajra master empowerments, greater and lesser are not given publicly.  Kongtrul then talks about ‘samaya’ (damtshig) that elusive yet important feature of the Vajrayana. The general tantra commitments are to be held, even though there are special commitments for Kālacakra. He tells the audience to practise the Kālacakra daily, or if not that, then another deity yoga practice is fine and to recite the mantra of Kālacakra.  If one can do the practice that is very good. The seven stages of a child gives you the permission and power to do the generation stage of Kālacakra. The four empowerments give one the permission to do completion stage.

After that teaching, the film then switches to Kongtrul and some monks brushing away the meticulously crafted sand mandala. Always a moment of poetry in motion, signifying the impermanence and transient nature of conditioned phenomena, the sand is then placed into a glass jar with the deity crown on top and taken on a boat trip where it is dispersed into the water with other ritual offerings.”

For a more detailed online explanation of the Kalacakra initation, see this post by the recently deceased scholar-translator, Edward Henning here.

Teaching on the generation stage of Kalacakra

The following day, Kongtrul gives a teaching on the generation stage practice:

”Generally, in the secret mantra vehicle, there are ‘three roots’, these three roots are the root of blessing the lama, the root of accomplishments the yidam and the root of activity, the dharma protectors. Then, to accomplish the practise of secret mantra, it is necessary by perfecting combine these three roots into one. If one is unable to complete the unity of these three roots, then attaining liberation via secret mantra is difficult.

Then, the ultimate lama (dondampai lama) is necessary, which is the mind of the lama. The definition of the Dharmakaya aspect is free from the four borders and free from the eight different types of fabrications. When talking about the mind of the ultimate lama, the Dharmakaya aspect, it means it is free from any kind of obscurations. That is the ultimate nature and essence of all phenomena, which is free from death, aging, cessation or birth. On the ordinary level we sentient beings do not have this quality because we need to remove the obscurations to realise the actual nature of reality. So, when we say ‘one’s mind and the lama’s mind are indivisible (nyi su mepa)’, that means that the essence of the nature of mind is the ultimate lama’s mind. So, when the obscurations are purified then the mind of the lama is inseparable from, and no different, from one’s own mind. However, when one doesn’t recognise the nature of mind then one remains deluded. When one is able to recognise the abiding nature of mind, then that is the meaning of saying ‘one’s mind is indivisible from the mind of the lama’.

When it comes to apprehending the mind via the deity and what it is, that is also very important. If one doesn’t realise that, but thinks about the deity only in dependence on a photo or drawing, like in thangkas or statues, this is actually more like the thinking about a worldly deity. On the path of secret mantra this way of seeing the deity is not correct.  The reason for the two stages of the practise [generation and completion stage] are this. The reason for meditation on the generation stage is, right now we have dualistic clinging, not only that but clinging to everything. For example, clinging to ‘I’ and ‘other’ and all that is around us. In dependence on clinging we have to die and so on. We may understand intellectually that all is emptiness and not established and illusory but when it comes to meditation we do not really experience that understanding. The path and skilful means of secret mantra is directly experiencing the lack of an inherent self via the generation of the deity. It is not about blocking the self clinging, if the self does not exist there is no need to block it. Instead of saying the self is established or not established and the refutations and reasoning that goes along with that, that is put to one side, and that is the reason for the self-generation as the deity yidam. At the moment, our view of ‘I’ or ’self’ is impure and deluded, and we have attachment and aversion to those close and far and so on, but by generating oneself as the deity one transforms that into a pure view. So, if one is able to practise the deity correctly, with this unmistaken view, then it will be of great benefit in not having a mistaken view of the deity.

First one self generates as the deity and then there are the pujas such as making offerings and praises and various different ways of doing this and so on. What is the reason for all that? Actually, it is not like if one offers to them they are pleased and if one doesn’t offer they will be displeased, like a worldly deity it is not like that at all. It’s like this, we like to eat food and hear praise and give seats and invitations and so on, this comes about in dependence on hopes and doubts and that is what we call impure appearances. Once these attachments based on hopes and doubts have been purified and one sees everything as the aspect of the deity, this is beneficial because the wisdom aspect of the deity does not have attachment or clinging based on hopes and fear. It is in order to develop this aspect in ourselves that is free from attachment that we do these activities and pujas. The practice should have a direct effect on one’s own daily life and be integrated into one’s life. For example, with deities they have different colours, forms, implements and so on and it is explained that the wrathful ones are the antidote to aggression and the deity has six arms that symbolise the six perfections. These things are not just a created fantasy but all come from the tantras that were taught by the Shakyamuni Buddha, who taught in his omniscience the different aspects of the deities with the intention of their suiting different individuals who have different predispositions. Whenever you do any deity practice, not just Kalacakra, one should have the essence of the practise and the right view.”

Personal connection with 4th Jamgon Kongtrul
4th Jamgon Kongtrul, Lodro Choyki Nyima Tenpey Dronme

My own personal connection with Jamgon Kongtrul in this life, has been brief but nonetheless compellingly powerful.  In 2007, I had the great fortune of ‘accidentally’ meeting the 4th Jamgon Kongtrul, Lodro Choyki Nyima Tenpey Dronme, during an interlude in the Kagyu Monlam in Bodh Gaya, when I visited the sacred pilgrimage place of Vulture’s Peak for the first time.  He arrived with some attendants at the same time.  I was able to sit with him and his attendants on the peak and continue on with them to Nalanda University as well.  An ‘auspicious’ interdependent arising indeed.  This meeting started a train of events that culminated in my studying the profound view of Empty-of-Other (Shentong) of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great at Kongtrul’s seat in Pullahari Monastery, Nepal in 2014 and then translating Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra for my MA thesis, which later became a book. The first Jamgon Kongtrul was a huge admirer of Tāranātha and received the transmission of his collected works while at the Jonang Dzamthang monastery.

For a moving and insightful interview of HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, speaking about his recognition of the 4th Jamgon Kongtrul, and how it was one of the ‘clearest’ he has had, see here:

17. Karmapa The relationship with Jamgon Rinpoche 05.06.2014 from Valerio Albisetti on Vimeo.

Special thanks to the film-maker, Albisetti, for recording for prosperity this amazing event in the life of one of the most accomplished and important Kagyu and Rime lineage lamas of the Dro lineage of Kālacakra.  Watching this simple, yet profound and moving, documentary film, almost three decades later, on a fifteen inch laptop screen it was extraordinary nonetheless in the palpable power of Kongtrul’s body, speech and mind to still transmit the energy and magnificent bliss and wisdom of the deity. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for those fortunate to have been there in person. In that brief moment of time, an ordinary sports centre became a divine celestial mansion and mandala, filled with enlightened Buddha deities. A metaphor as to how the extraordinary pervades the ordinary at all times. Like the space present in the sand granules of a mandala, ever present and pervading all whether the sand mandala is constructed or swept away.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 29 November 2019.

[1] This text is dPal dus kyi ‘khor lo sku gsung thugs yongs rdzogs kyi dkyil ‘khor du byis pa ‘jug pa’i dbang bskur bklags chog tu bkod pa ye shes rgya mtsho’i bcud ‘dren/ TBRC W21808.

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