The meaning of ‘innate’ (lhan skyes) in generation stage Kālacakra

During my research and translation of three major Jonang texts on the simple form deity (one face, two hands union of father-mother consort) generation stage of Kālacakra (dus ‘khor lhan skyes), I began to write a footnote on the meaning and translation of the Tibetan term lhen kye (lhan skyes or lhan cig skyes pa), which has been variously translated as ‘innate’, ‘connate’, ‘co-emergent’, ‘spontaneously arisen’ and more. The reason it is not such a simple term to understand and translate is because it does have several meanings depending on how and where it is used and there is no single, simple English word that seems to adequately capture its meaning. In this brief article, I share my extended footnote on the meaning of this much used term in tantric literature and how it should be understood in the context of Kālacakra generation stage practice according to the great Tibetan master, Tāranātha. Even though poetically and linguistically, I prefer the term ‘innate’ in English, I conclude, in accordance with the scholar, Per Kvaerne, that the most suitable meaning translation of the term, depending on the context of use, is ‘simultaneously born/arisen’, which I have also translated here as ‘simultaneously present’ to get across the ‘innateness’ aspect of the meaning too.

The Sanskrit term- sahaja

The Sanskrit root of the Tibetan term is sahaja, which literally means ‘born’ (-ja)  ‘together’  (saha-).  In On the Concept of Sahaja in Indian Buddhist Tantric Literature, Per Kvaerne discusses the term and some of the various English translations of it:

(While the concept of sahaja certainly is not limited to any particular yana within tantric Buddhism – as we shall see, it is frequently found in a basic tantra like the Hevajratantra (HVT), and is, moreover, identical with many other concepts, like mahasukha (“Great Bliss”), tattva (“the Essence”), samarasa (“Sameness of Flavour”) etc. – there can be no doubt as to its fundamental importance. However, this basic concept of tantric Buddhism has not, to the best of my knowledge, been studied in a systematic way. Sahaja literally signifies “being bom (-ja) together with (saha-)”. The Tibetan lhan-cig skyes-pa, followed by the Mongolian qamtu toriigsen, faithfully renders this. Frequently this basic meaning is expanded to include “congenital, innate, hereditary, original”, hence also “natural”. Translations of sahaja have tended to be based on these derived senses; thus, to quote but two examples, Shahidullah rendered it “l’lnne” followed by Snellgrove “the Innate”. While this translation is etymologically sound, and doubtlessly expresses an important aspect of sahaja, it nevertheless has the disadvantage of suggesting that sahaja is purely subjective or in some sense individual, that it is something like a hidden “divine spark” in the depths of man. Such at least are the associations which would seem most readily to present themselves. M. Eliade has suggested another translation, “le non-conditionne”; while certainly correct as far as it goes, this, too, is unsatisfactory as it seems to lay exclusive stress on the transcendent nature of sahaja.

In a work now in the press, An Anthology of Buddhist Tantric Songs. A Study of the Caryaglti, I adopted the translation suggested by H. Guenther, and I shall repeat here his explanation: “The literal translation of the Tibetan term lhan-cig skyes-pa (Sanskrit sahaja) would be “co-emergence” . . . Essentially it refers to the spontaneity and totality of the experience in which the opposites such as transcendence and immanence, subject and object, the noumenal and phenomenal indivisibly blend”. – I still believe that Guenther has succeeded in giving a correct description of the implications of the term sahaja.  However, his translation must, I think, be modified to “co-emergent”. i.e. to an adjective, as I doubt whether sahaja is ever used – as far as Buddhist tantric texts are concerned – as a noun, except as short-hand for sahajananda, sahajajnana etc., terms which will be discussed below. For the moment I shall limit myself to saying that I believe that “simultaneously-arisen” or the like is the most suitable translation, and (anticipating my conclusions) that the term sahaja is basically connected with the tantric ritual of consecration where it refers to the relation between the ultimate and the preliminary Joys.

I agree with Kvaerne that ‘co-emergent’ or ‘simultaneously arisen’ are the most faithful renderings of the term.  I have translated it here as ‘simultaneously present’ to get across the ‘innateness’ aspect of the meaning too.  As we shall read below, Tāranātha also gives an explanation on what is meant by ‘lhenkye’ when it comes to the practice of generation stage Kālacakra (dus ‘khor lhan skyes).

The term ‘lhenkye’

In Elements of Tantric Practice (2008), by Jamgon Kongtrul, the English translators cite a text by Jamgon Kongtrul on the meaning of lhenkye, which they translate as a noun, ‘the innate’:

Kongtrul explains the meaning of “the innate” (lhan cig skyes pa, sahaja) in terms of the ground, the path, and the result. In the context of the ground, the innate means ultimate luminous bodhichitta, which transcends the domain of the intellect. It is the lord pervader of everything in existence and beyond, the ground or essence of all. In the context of the path, in a general sense, the innate means the view that understands emptiness– luminous clarity. In a hidden sense, the innate refers to the direct experience of the innate fourth joy, which occurs as the inner winds dissolve in the central channel, effected through the technique of inner fire or through reliance on a consort. In the context of the result, the innate refers to that very innate of the ground, which, through the strength of contemplation of the innate of the path, has become free from obscurations and possessed of the two purities. See Kongtrul’s Phrase-by-Phrase Commentary on the Hevajra Tantra (henceforth cited as Commentary on the Hevajra), ff. 92b5-93b5.

In terms of Kālacakra, according to Tāranātha in A Hundred Blazing Lights (p258), the term lhenkye has two general meanings, the first means like the primary seed or root that flourishes into a tree with many branches and fruit and so on. The term is only applied to the union of the two armed, one face yab-yum consorts and not to a single deity figure though and the label is posited based on the aspects of the deity and union. The translation ‘primordially present’ or ‘innate’ seems suitable for that meaning:

There are two intellectual meanings (go don) of ‘lhan kyes’ (innate). The first meaning is ‘primordial’ (gdod ma) or ‘root’ (rtsa ba) or ‘foremost’ (thog ma nyid). It, is like the seed, or root, of the flourishing bough of a tree with many leaves, of a deity with many hands and faces. Positing one with two hands, is normally like positing the root of the world, it is smaller and fewer but proliferates and becomes bigger and bigger.  Here, also the ‘innate’ of one face and two hands is the most well known in the ordinary secret mantrayana.  The source of this term does not come from meaning one solitary figure only, as in one hero and one heroine, they are not called ‘spontaneously arisen’ (or co-emergent) for that reason. They are renowned as ‘simultaneously arisen’ as the one singular form of the two hand deities of father-mother consort in face to face union. On top of that meaning, the quantity of faces and hands for the ‘cause’ and’ result’ is different. Even though distinctions between the branches and the root are not definite, in the context of the exemplificatory meaning (mtshon don), the cause (or root), the Dharmakāya free of elaborations, is symbolised by the two-handed form.  As for the result, the nirmanakāya free from elaborations, is symbolised by a form with many faces and hands. The cause (or root) deity is known as ‘lhenkye’. Thus the way of positing the name ‘simultaneously arisen’ [lhenkye] is based on the aspects of the object that are generated.

In terms of the second understanding of lhenkye, Tāranātha gives an explanation of it as it is related to the primordial ‘simultaneous’ nature of the ultimate nature of a sentient beings’ body, speech and mind (p.259):

The body, speech and mind of sentient beings, those three, and the body speech and mind of Buddha, those three, have always been primordially simultaneously present [or together]. For sentient beings, as the incidental and temporary stains obscure that and it is unknown, contemplating the meaning of shunyata [emptiness], the ordinary stains of the body, speech and mind transform into the body, speech and mind of the form of the deity; the primordial awareness that is primordially established.  That way of meditating with devotion is called meditation on the ‘simultaneously present’ [lhenkye]. This way of imagining and ritual of creation is thus labelled as ‘meditation on the simultaneously present’. Even though it is suitable to do a concise or extensive generation ritual, such as here, from that of a single hero deity up until an extensive mandala, and it is contained within the meaning of the term ‘lhenkye’, the label ‘lhenkye’ is not applied to a form with many faces and hands with retinue. It is like the reasoning of the followers of secret mantra, who established via extremely well-known valid cognition, that even though there are many other things that are ‘born from water’, the term ‘born from water’ is applied only to lotuses.

Creation Stage Methods and Types of Practitioner

So if we consider the different types of ‘creation stage’ in tantra and where the simultaneously arisen Kālacakra practice fits into that framework, the translation ‘simultaneously arisen’ seems to make more sense as well.

In Elements of Tantric Practice, Kongtrul states that there are eight classifications of the methods of creation stage (pp.62-63):

The varieties of creation methods have been presented in many formats, detailed and condensed. These methods may be classified as eight types or all contained in two [broad categories]. In the eightfold classification, the methods are as follows: creation based on transformation of the bases of purification; creation by means of strong intent; creation [like] the flash of a fish [as it springs] from water; creation based on the seed-syllable and name only; creation based on the essential mantra only; creation in three steps only; creation in three steps plus a seat; and creation based on the sun and moon together.

The first method is creation based on transformation of the bases of purification. An example would be the visualization of [white and red] spheres [of light] within the channels [of one’s body] and the heroes and heroines who arise from the transformation of those spheres.

The second method is creation by means of strong intent. This is to imagine that [the deity] has fully manifested in an instant simply by bringing her to mind. It is a meditation that is spontaneous, dependent solely on will. This method is also called instantaneous creation.

The third method is creation [like] the flash of a fish [as it springs] from water. This is to imagine that [the deity suddenly] appears above a seat or within a celestial palace, like the springing of a fish from water or the swelling up of a bubble.

The fourth method is creation based on a seed-syllable or name only. An example would be [the visualization of the deity] as one says, “from I [arises] Amoghasiddhi”; or, “from tam [arises] Tara.”

The fifth method is creation based on the essential mantra only.  An example would be to imagine that by saying “om amoghasiddhi svaha,” the body of Amogasiddhi arises.

The sixth method is creation in three steps [only]. An example would be visualization [of the deity] as one says, “[The seed-syllable i appears.] From i [arises] a sword. From the sword [arises] Amoghasiddhi.”

The seventh method is creation in three steps plus a seat. This is to visualize [the deity] by following the [previous] three steps, with the addition of a lotus and moon [seat] or a lotus and sun [seat].

The eighth method is creation based on the sun and moon together. This is to visualize [the deity] arising from a seed-syllable that stands between sun and moon [disks] joined together, or from a seed-syllable atop sun and moon [disks].

Kongtrul goes on to explain that the methods are suited to people of different faculties (p63):

To the question of whether or not there are [specific] levels of yogins’ faculties [suited] to the stages of those various methods of creating the deity, one must answer in the affirmative. This is substantiated by the following citation from the Samvarodaya Tantra:

For meditation on the creation-phase mandala,

The weak and mediocre should imagine the mandala,

While one of sharp faculties should meditate

On the mandala that is mind itself, in an instant;

By means of the yoga performed in an instant

One should meditate on the phase of completion.

The first [two] lines mean that the first two types of creation-phase practitioner— those of weak or mediocre faculties—create [the deity] gradually. [The second two lines] mean that the third type—of sharp faculties—does the method of creation of the full form all at once, which takes [only] an instant. The last two lines mean that even the full manifestation of the body of pristine awareness in the phase of completion is accomplished in an instant, as in the previous case (the sharp). An alternative interpretation would be, as stated in [Abhayakaragupta’s] Garland of the Complete Yogas,10 that creation performed instantaneously, called “the profound phase of creation” or “the superficial phase of completion,” is the method of deity yoga intended for a person of sharp faculties.

In A Hundred Blazing Lights, Tāranātha says that:

The generation ritual for this ’simultaneous arisal’, is performing the path of the aspect of the deity that is naturally self-arising and primordial. As that naturally self-arising deity, is the embodiment of all the Buddhas, it self-established as inseparable from the samaya and jnana beings. Thus it is not necessary to do blessings of the armour , the inviting, empowerment and sealing.

In that respect then, the practice of ‘Simultaneous’ or ‘Innate’ Kālacakra falls into the category of creation stage for sharp practitioners.



Tāranātha, Jetsun: “rdo rje’i rnal ‘byor gyi ‘khrid yig mthong ba don ldan gyi lhan thabs ‘od brgya ‘bar ba/.” In Collected Works of Tāranātha (Peking edition), Volume 7, 143-420. TBRC W1PD45495 (krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang) 2008.

Tomlin, Adele (2019): One Hundred Blazing Lights: Simultaneous Kālacakra by Jetsun Tāranātha (forthcoming publication).

Kvaerne, Per: On the Concept of Sahaja in Indian Buddhist Tantric Literature, Temenos, XI (1975), 88-135.

Guarisco, Elio and Mcleod, Ingrid (2008): Elements of Tantric Practice: Book Eight, Part Three9: by Jamgon Kongtrul, Snow Lion Publications (2008).