A memoriam and tribute to Kālacakra scholar, translator and calendar expert – Edward Henning (1949-2016)

Here is a brief memorial tribute to the late Kālacakra scholar, translator and Tibetan astrology expert Edward Henning (1949-2016). Although it is by no means full or comprehensive, it includes an account of my own personal experience and correspondence with Edward about his work (shortly before he suddenly passed away) and a full reproduction of a moving and insightful tribute written by his long time friend, Dharma translator and practitioner, Ken Holmes (that was originally published in the 2017 Samye Ling diary).

Henning’s personal connections and written translations
Edward Henning in front of the construction of the Kalacakra mandala at Dzamthang Monastery, Tibet (2014) – (source http://www.kalacakra.org).

I first became aware of the late scholar-translator, Edward Henning and his work on Kālacakra, during July 2016, while I was working on my MA thesis at the University of Hamburg, on a text by Jonang master, Jetsun Tāranātha on the Heart Sutra. It was through that research that I realised that the view of empty-of-other (gzhan stong) and Kālacakra were intimately bound together and I started emailing Edward and other scholars about their work. I did not know at that time Edward was sick (he did not even mention it) but in his emails he was quick and ready to respond and discuss his work and that of others.

Shortly after that, in October 2016, I  attended the first year of a course on the preliminaries of Kālacakra in Dharamsala, India (which Edward was supposed to have attended and translated for the Jonang teacher, whom he referred to as Khenpo Chonang (Chokyi Nangwa Rinpoche).  During the course, we emailed each other regularly about the course, his translations, his frustrations about the course organisers and Khenpo Chonang not responding to his emails or requests (even though he was very sick) and more. One thing that comes out clearly, looking back at Edward’s emails again now, is how passionate he was about translation and the choice of the right words and how keen he was to create more open and transparent communication between people. We agreed it was particularly frustrating when people with no real background in written translation changed and edited the texts without permission from the translator and that having oral colloquial Tibetan skills was not the same as working on written translations to a generally accepted academic standard.

I knew from his emails then that he was not well, but due to his continuing interest and responses, he seemed fine and he certainly never seemed pessimistic about his illness. Therefore, it was a major shock to hear that he suddenly passed away on 15th November 2016 in London, UK, reportedly with his wife Ayse, stepdaughter, John Howard and HE Chime Rinpoche at his bedside.  I subsequently attended Edward’s funeral in London (acting as a voluntary oral translator for Khenpo Chokyi Nangwa) with airfare paid out of my own pocket. Even though I had never met Henning in person (and I was not a very experienced oral translator), I admired his work greatly and so it was an honour to be able to attend his funeral and also hear Chime Rinpoche give an inspiring tribute to him.

Edward told me he was also ‘good friends’ with another Tibetan Jonang lama and Kālacakra practitioner, Khentrul Rinpoche, who had recently visited him in Austria that summer (see photo he sent me of both of them). Here is a quote from Rinpoche when I asked him to provide something for this memorial tribute:

“I was so pleased to meet Edward Henning, someone who knows so well the Jonang masters such as Taranatha and Bamda Gelek Gyatso. I have very good memories meeting him and discussing Kalachakra with him in his home. He showed me his secret dark room to practice Kalachakra. I really appreciated how precise Edwards Hennings was in his translations and his detailed knowledge of the Kalachakra mandala. I invited him to teach my students in Ladakh. We were interviewing each other for a Kalachakra documentary when he unexpectedly passed away. I very much appreciated his contributions to Kalachakra translations.”

Edward Henning with Khentrul Rinpoche in Austria, 2016

After Edward passed away, I offered to check, complete and edit his draft translation of the Tāranātha sadhana text on the Kālacakra preliminaries, ‘A Celestial Stairway’, for publication, as it was being used by people on A4 handouts and not in a finished state. Also, both he and I had both been frustrated that changes had been made to his translation by people on the course (who were not translators) and who had not consulted him about it.  It was also important to ensure his work did not go to waste and was published for the people he had done it for and for people who wanted to practise Kālacakra. Chokyi Nangwa agreed to my doing this and was subsequently published by his monastery in 2017, see details here

Henning also sent me his draft English translation of Meaningful to Behold by Tāranātha (up until the third of the six vajra-yogas) and told me that no one (including himself) had yet done any written translation of Tāranātha’s longer commentary ‘A Hundred Blazing Lights’ or the commentary by Bamda Gelek Gyatso called ‘The Chariot that Transports to the Four Kayas‘.   I thus began working on these two texts with the permission, transmission and instruction of Khenpo Chokyi Nangwa. I completed the Bamda Gelek text in 2018 and it was published by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (2018).  I completed the translation of A Hundred Blazing Lights (the preliminaries only) but due to other factors and commitments, I have been unable to get it checked and edited. I have published Chapter One here, and an outline, here.

Henning also sent me two excellent translations he did of important Jonang and Kālacakra texts, on the nine-deity Kālacakra mandala (a sadhana text by Tāranātha and an extensive commentary by Bamda Gelek Gyamtso). I saw both of these translations and that he had completed them for Bokar Rinpoche, a great Kagyu Kālacakra master, whom he followed and was close with for many years.

In 2017, during my first trip to Bokar monastery, Mirik (see article about that visit here) and Ralang Monastery, Sikkim, India, I personally gave hard copies of both these texts to Khenpo Donyo Lodro Rinpoche and HE 12th Gyaltsab Rinpoche (both Karma Kagyu masters of Kālacakra) in case they did not yet have these English translations. Henning also sent me a copy of a catalogue of Tibetan texts on Kālacakra he had compiled.

Henning’s Website and Oral Translations

Apart from written translations, Edward also produced an excellent and informative website resource on Kālacakra, which to this day, remains of immense value to practitioners, scholars and translators. This can be viewed at http://www.kalacakra.org. Henning also worked as an oral translator at Kālacakra initiations, and for HE Tenga Rinpoche and Chime Rinpoche in Europe, as detailed in this memorial tribute here by Wolfgang Neugebauer.

For example, here is the publicly available video of Edward giving an oral translation of a short, profound teaching on the Three Roots: Lama, Yidam and Protector by HE Tenga Rinpoche:

Tibetan Astrology and Calendar

Henning was also an expert mathematician and he became very skilled in “Kālacakra and the Tibetan Calendar”  (the title of his highly praised book); developing over decades – with the help of computer graphics – several 3D Kālacakra mandala diagrams, such as this one below:

3-D Kalacakra mandala image created by Edward Henning (source http://www.kalacakra.org)











According to scholars and experts, Henning was THE leading light on the Kālacakra calendar in the English-speaking world. Henning also made available on his website, open source software he had created on the Kālacakra, Tibetan, Tshurpu and Bhutanese Calendars, for more of his online work see, Kalacakra calendar.

Ken Holmes (a friend, fellow Brit and Dharma translator) wrote this tribute to Henning about his knowledge on this subject that was published in the Samye Ling 2017 diary. It is reproduced and published below in full, with Ken’s permission, and is a fascinating and valuable account of Henning’s life and unparalleled work on Tibetan astrology.

This brief article here is my own way of saying thank you to Henning and paying tribute to his valuable work and passionate dedication on such a precious (yet complex) Dharma subject. As Holmes so poetically puts it at the end of his tribute:

”To return to Edward, the Kalachakra Tantra gives us the famous teachings of Shambhala and its kings. I unhesitatingly elect Edward for a knighthood in that kingdom. I can imagine him sitting with the current king, at its round table decorated in fine detail with one of the Kalachakra mandalas that Edward researched and reproduced so well in three or two dimensions. I wish him rebirth in the magnificent wisdom and love of Shambhala. I hope you do too.”

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 3rd December 2019.

Edward Henning Memorial Tribute by Ken Holmes
A Tribute to Edward Henning (1949-2016)

Originally published in the Samye Ling Diary 2017, reproduced with permission by the author in full here.

“The calculations used in this diary in the past few years have come from the extraordinary work of Edward Henning, who not only brought Tibetan astrology into the digital world of the 21st century but also, at the same time, examined its history and steered it closer to its Kalachakra origins, over a millennium ago. Edward was one of that rare group of post-war youngsters whose past karma made them link swiftly with the Tibetan refugees, their language and their Buddhism. With time, he became an expert on Kalachakra, as you can appreciate by visiting his http://www.Kālacakra.org web site. He developed early ties with the Benchen monastery communities and became a key translator for Khyabjé Tenga Rinpoche, as well as a disciple of Chime Rinpoche. His “daytime job” was as a writer and editor of IT magazines: a realm where he was very successful, first as director of PC Magazine’s European laboratories and later as editor-in-chief of 9.9 Media publications in India.

Edward combined his IT knowledge with that of Tibetan language and astrology to develop amazing software for the Karmapa and Rumtek monastery, Tai Situpa and Sherab Ling monastery and the Jonang tradition, making much of his work freely available to all interested. Many of the things due for review and reform had been tackled by him, due to his diligence, before his passing in 2016 through cancer: the sad loss of a very special person and a loss to Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan astrology is a superposition of traditions rather than their fusion. In its extensive yearly diaries, one finds traditional Tibetan almanac observation; a system of lunar cycles and a “lunar year”; the more universally-known 12-sign, 12-house astrology, which came to Tibet from India; Chinese components based on the Chinese dynamic elemental system (not quite the same as the Indian one) and the bāguà (trigrams) and also the ancient Tibetan mé-wa numerological system. Unlike Tibetan medicine, in which Yuthok the Younger brought Indian, Chinese and Tibetan elements “together under one roof”, Tibetan astrology seems happy to have let its various elements co-habit and is more a small village of their individual bungalows, in which the user can home in on whichever aspects feel most relevant. I remember many times when important dates had to be set in Samye Ling. Akong Rinpoche and I consulted the almanacs and he zoomed in on his own preferred values first and, having found a day on which they were the most favourable, then left me to check out the other criteria— bāguà, mé-wa and other more subtle aspects, just to be sure.

As is the case with Tibetan Medicine, the Indian input in Tibetan astrology tends to somewhat overshadow that from China and ancient Tibet. Within that, Kalachakra plays a key role, not surprisingly sinceits very name means “Cycles of Time” and its teachings relate the microcosm of humanity (physically and mentally) to the macrocosm of the great clock of planetary movements. The Tibetan calendar dates itself from the year attributed to the introduction (arrival of Pandita Somanātha) of the Kalachakra Tantra to Tibet: 1027. Edward writes:

“The history of the Kālacakra tradition is complex. Back in the 13th century, the first native Tibetan text on the perfection process meditation of Kālacakra was written by the Jonang master Kunpangpa (kun spangs pa), who lived from 1243-1313. He collated the different traditions existing in Tibet at the time, and identified 17 distinct traditions of the Six Yogas.

“In addition to this there were many traditions of other aspects of Kālacakra: the generation process meditations, the initiations, the theory (explanations of the tantra, etc), astronomy and astrology, and so forth. All of these traditions had come from the variety of lineages in northern India, had been translated into Tibetan by various translators, and found their way into the different schools in Tibet.

“All these traditions share a common origin in the early teachings as they emerged in India, apparently from the mysterious land of Shambhala. These traditions were then transferred to Tibet, starting in the early 11th century. All the stories relate that the Buddha taught the Kālacakra Mūlatantra to Sucandra, king of Sambhala, at the great stupa of Dhānyakaṭaka, in Amaravati. These teachings were preserved in that land until approximately the 10th century, when contact between one of Sucandra’s successors and an Indian master (very often named as Cilupa or Piṇḍo Ācārya) saw the adoption of Kālacakra in India.

“Three or four generations later, various Indians and Nepalis helped with the translation of many Sanskrit works on Kālacakra into Tibetan. The Blue Annals gives a list of twenty translators who translated the Kālacakra Tantra alone, but it is generally accepted that two translators stand out as pre-eminent: Dro Sherab Drak (‘bro shes rab grags), born at the beginning of the 11th century, who worked mainly with the Kashmiri Somanātha, and Rwa Chorab (rwa chos rab), born in the middle of the 11th century. He travelled to Nepal and worked with the Newari paṇḍita Samantaśrī, who lived in Patan, just south of Kathmandu.

“The traditions that come down to us from these two great translators are known respectively as the Rwa and Dro traditions.”

In 1318, at the age of 35, the IIIrd Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Dorjé, received the Kalachakra and developed a revised version of its astrological calculations, known as the Tsurphu Tradition or tsur-tsi. It is used until this day. This diary contains Edwards revisions of it, established in close coordination with the late master-astrologer of Rumtek, Tsipa Gelek Dharjé. After the latter’s death, Rumtek had stopped producing its yearly calendar and the present Karmapa subsequently asked Edward to produce software to generate a new calendar based on one of the key analyses of the 3rd Karmapa’s tsur-tsi, written by the 14th Karmapa Tekcho Dorjé.

In the late 17th century, perhaps in 1685, the Dalai Lama Regent, Desi Sanjay Gyatso made his own revision of the Kalachakra calculations. This led to the Phugkpa system of calculation; puk-tsi or puk-luk, which is the version most used these days by Tibetans these days.

Tsur-tsi and puk-tsi are the two main current systems in use but there are quite a few others. One problem Edward had to tackle was the enormous respect Tibetan have for their history and the great minds that gave them their systems: this can lead to an unwillingness to modify the ancient ways. However, the whole reason for the various revisions made by great Tibetan masters over the past millennium was the discrepancies appearing more vividly each century between the calculated truth on paper and the truths of the natural year, the night sky, eclipses and so forth, apparent to our five senses in reality. Edward, brilliant in IT, with NASA and other accurate astronomical data at his fingertips, managed to discuss many of the issues he found with his Jonang Kalachakra teachers, the elderly astrologers of Rumtek and Sherab Ling, as well as with the Gyalwa Karmapa and the Tai Situpa. Not only was there eventually some consensus about how to move forward in the long term but it also became clear that the original Kalachakra had its own very relevant, but little-used, system of checks and balances, fallen by the Tibetan wayside.  There is also the simple check of astronomical observation, which gave birth to our world’s astrological systems in the first place. One needs at times to take one’s head out of the calculations and look at the sky itself!

Despite so much progress, the key issues left in suspension by the deaths of these key experts, and now Edward, were the enormous ones of the precession of the equinoxes, unfamiliar to Tibetans, and the more obvious one of time-zones. The traditional calculations were based on central Tibetan time, which is not so far from that of the Bihar and its great monastic universities and Bodh Gaya: the “Vajra Seat”. You will have noticed the three tables in this diary for making a rough time-zone correction for Europe or the Americas. In response to requests from Thrangu Rinpoche and the Karmapa, Edward created software in which an exact longitude could be entered so that the transition from one lunar day to the next could be calculated exactly for different places like Bodh Gaya, Namo Buddha in Nepal and so forth. A “lunar day” is the Moon moving 6° further away from the Sun in their journeys around the Ecliptic.

These are astrologers’ issues, mathematically complex, mentioned briefly and simply here and more at length on the Kālacakra.org site and in Edward’s book, Kālacakra and the Tibetan Calendar, published by Columbia University Press. Outside of astrology, Edward Henning’s work on the Kalachakra Tantra and Vajrayana practice itself was extraordinary. Like that of many pioneers and great minds, much of his work was still in progress and not yet ready for publication.

My own work on this diary, initiated by Chöjé Akong Tulku Rinpoché in 1994, was to simply set information given to me by Dr Thubten Phuntsog into a printable layout. Three years passed and he was no longer visiting Samye Ling. A fortunate encounter with  Lama Tenpa Gyaltsen gave me three years of calculated data to typeset into diaries in the late 90s. Knowing that source would dry up, and with Akong Rinpoche keen on continued production of the diary, I undertook a fast learning curve in Tibetan astrology, enough to carry on the Puk-luk calculations used until then. I already had some basic understanding of astrological principles, as well as excellent software, thanks to the kindness of Martin at Matrix Astrology, UK. Although we had known each other loosely since the 70s, I only discovered Edward Henning’s work a decade ago. From the outset, he was helpful and generous, as well as happy to have feedback from someone actually using the software and finding small anomalies here and there, which he would always investigate and fix rapidly. This led to very useful discussions giving me a much clearer idea of the state of play with the Tsurphu and Palpung calendars produced by Rumtek and Sherab Ling.

With knowledge comes responsibility and the years from 2012 to the present have been rather experimental. Would Samye Ling produce a Tsurphu calendar or a Sherab Ling one? Would the calculations be the traditional ones or the revised ones? In years with 13 lunar months and a possible Losar (Tibetan New Year) a month different from the Puk-luk Losar, used by Dharamsala, what to do? In the last few years, given the absence of a Rumtek calendar and with no Akong Rinpoché to consult, I decided the diary should follow the Tsur-tsi system, using the partially-revised Tsurphu calculations established by Edward Henning in his software. This is complemented by input from me from Tibetan Medicine and various Tibetan sources concerning days for interacting with nāga and raising prayer-flags.

I hope this article helps understand the information you find in this diary. To return to Edward, the Kalachakra Tantra gives us the famous teachings of Shambhala and its kings. I unhesitatingly elect Edward for a knighthood in that kingdom. I can imagine him sitting with the current king, at its round table decorated in fine detail with one of the Kalachakra mandalas that Edward researched and reproduced so well in three or two dimensions. I wish him rebirth in the magnificent wisdom and love of Shambhala. I hope you do too.

In memoriam, respect and gratitude. Ken Holmes, June 2017.”

One thought on “A memoriam and tribute to Kālacakra scholar, translator and calendar expert – Edward Henning (1949-2016)

  1. We are very old friends of Edward’s, my husband and he were at school together. Although we had not been in touch for a while, we were truly shocked and saddened to hear of his death. We would be extremely grateful for any contact details for his wife & family to extend our condolences.

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