Kālacakra as the ‘ultimate pinnacle’ of all the tantras: Jetsun Tāranātha and 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje

However, even compared to other Unexcelled Highest Yoga Tantras, the greatest and most supreme is the glorious Kālacakratantra; the only tantra of the ultimate, profound meaning of the vajra-yogas. It is the ‘ultimate’ or ‘pinnacle’ of all the vehicles of path and result, since it contains the results of the six branches of vajra-yoga, the ultimate pinnacle of all the vehicles of the Tripitaka teachings of the Buddha, is the glorious Kālacakratantra.

– Jetsun Tāranātha, A Hundred Blazing Lights: Commentary on ‘Meaningful to See’

The ultimate pinnacle and vehicle of all the tantras – Jetsun Tāranātha

The Kālacakra is often viewed as the pinnacle of tantra in various traditions, and it claims so itself (see for example Wallace 2001: 6, who quotes Kālacakratantra , V. 243):

In every king of tantras, the Vajrī concealed the vajra-word, and in the Ādibuddha, he taught it explicitly and in full for the sake of the liberation of living beings. Therefore, Sucandra, the splendid Ādibuddhatantra, a discourse of the supreme lord of Jinas, is the higher, more comprehensive and complete tantra than the mundane and supramundane [tantras].

Jonang master Tāranātha, (rje btsun tA ra nA tha, 1575-1634), in the first chapter of his major text on Kālacakra, A Hundred Blazing Lights: Commentary on ‘Meaningful to See’ (Tomlin 2019)[1], gives  seven reasons why the six vajra-yogas path of the Kālacakra is the supreme path to full enlightenment in one life and one body, the second being that the Kālacakra is the ultimate pinnacle and the ‘ultimate vehicle’ of all the tantras.

Here are some translated excerpts from Tāranātha’s explanation (TOMLIN 2020: 3-6):

In the Commentary on the Vajra Essence[2]:

It was not the intention of the Thubpa [Shakyamuni Buddha] to have four or five kinds of Buddhist [vehicles].

Even though a fourth vehicle is not included in the three kinds of vehicles of the Listeners, Self-Realisers and Mahayana, it is not contradictory that among the three [vehicles], there are systems of counting and dividing them into more categories.  In the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra:

Based on the aspirations of sentient beings, I taught different vehicles. I also taught just one vehicle. As long as there is a mind that aspires to enter the path, there will be no end to the vehicles serving them.[3]

Therefore, the unmistaken behaviour of adopting and abandoning through excellent faith, is the vehicle of the deities; the meditation on the worldly samadhis, is the vehicle of Brahma. As these two are worldly vehicles, they are not authentic vehicles [they resemble a vehicle but are not actual Buddhist vehicles].

From these on upwards, considered more supreme than those, are the vehicle of the Hearers, and similarly, [more supreme than that] the Self-realisers, then the path of the paramitas, then the vehicles of Action Tantra, Performance Tantra, Yoga Tantra, the Unexcelled Highest Yoga Tantras, both in previous and later times, are considered to be the most supreme.  However, even compared to other Unexcelled Highest Yoga Tantras, the greatest and most supreme is the glorious Kālacakratantra; the only tantra of the ultimate, profound meaning of the vajra-yogas. It is the ‘ultimate’ or ‘pinnacle’ of all the vehicles of path and result, since it contains the results of the six branches of vajra-yoga, the ultimate pinnacle of all the vehicles of the Tripitaka teachings of the Buddha, is the glorious Kālacakratantra.

Now here a doubt might arise, if the Guyhasamaja, Chakrasamvara and Hevajra are all Highest Yoga Tantras, one might think that Kālacakra is not higher than those Tantras. Generally, the speech of the Buddha is excellent and it is always unsuitable to talk about the amount of blessings of the words, or whether the objects of offering and homage are good or bad and so on. So why is it necessary to talk about such divisions within the Highest Yoga Tantras?  Nonetheless, generally, such distinctions between higher and lower, and profound and not so profound, are made regarding the meaning of the words and the literal meaning. So, in terms of the meaning here, as the Kālacakra is more extensive and more profound than the other Highest Yoga tantras, it is posited as the pinnacle of all the vehicles. What is hidden in other tantras, is explained clearly in the Kālacakra.

At the same time, since all the fundamental points of the meaning of the enlightened intention in the other Highest Yoga Tantras are the same [as Kālacakra], then isn’t there a consequential fault in saying that the Tantras of Guhyasamāja, Chakrasamvara and Hevajra are not the Highest Unexcelled teachings?  So, for some beings with lower levels of intelligence, this doubt arises. If one says only this Dharma is the supreme pinnacle of all the vehicles, then it follows that all the other vehicles are not extraordinary, yet this appears to contradict [the statement] that it contains the ultimate intention of all the sūtras and tantras. Then, if it [Kālacakra] contains the intention of all the sūtras and tantras it follows that it has the same object as the Hinayana. But this contradicts [the statement] that it is the pinnacle. The answer to this is as follows.  The exalted heart and meaning of all the Mahayana and Hinayana, sūtras and tantras was taught by the Buddha with the same ultimate intention; that one intention being the [accomplishment] of the six vajra-yogas alone.

However, in terms of the explicit meaning and literal meaning of the teachings, since the distinction between what is clear and not clear, and vast and not vast, is enormous, one cannot say there are no greater and lesser teachings. The extremely hidden, definitive meaning in the scriptures that was taught to beings without much good fortune is renowned as the Hinayana vehicle. That which clearly teaches the hidden definitive meaning to those who were suitable, of a middling capacity with good fortune, from the Paramita vehicle up to the Yoga Tantra vehicle, is known as the Excellent (Uttara) Yoga Tantra. That which clearly teaches the ultimate, definitive meaning to those of the highest capacity and good fortune, is known as the Highest, Unexcelled (Anuttara) Yoga Vehicle.

It is not just that compared to the other highest, unsurpassable yoga tantras it [the Kālacakra tantra]clearly teaches the vajra-yogas, but that compared to the presentation of the six vajra-yogas in some other tantras, they either are not so clear, or abridged versions, or not as  complete as that which is produced in the glorious Kālacakra. Since in this King of Tantras [Kālacakra] here, the teachings of this profound path are the most profound, vast and extensive, completely perfect, without anything hidden, separated or disordered, it is the most supreme and highest.  Therefore, by teaching clearly and directly, it is the supreme pinnacle that is unique from other [teachings]. In terms of the innermost aspiration and ultimate intention, it is the ultimate intention of all the vehicles…….In general terms, the path of meditating on emptiness it is taught to be supreme. However, in terms of the uncommon meaning, it is implicitly taught that the most supreme path is the meditation on emptiness that is endowed with all aspects.

…Then, compared to other condensed Highest Yoga tantras, it [Kālacakra] is exceptional and distinctive from those, since it contains many teachings on the secret, hidden meanings.

8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, on Kālacakra

In a previous post, I wrote a little about the Kagyu and Kālacakra and the 8th Karmapa’s texts, see here.  Therefore, it was of particular interest to stumble across the following information during my research on the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, (Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507–1554) and his root lama the 1st Sangye Nyenpa, Tashi Paljor (1457 – 1525), also called the Mahasiddha of Denma.

According to Tibetan biographical sources, cited in a study by Jim Rheingans (2011 and 2017), when Mikyo Dorje met Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche he was around eight years old but did not become his student until two years later. As a young student of Sangye Nyenpa (between the years 1516-1519), they not only travelled to the Jonang Monastery in Dzamthang together but shortly after that, Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche gave him the Kālacakra transmission at Tshurphu (or Tsherphu) [6a]. The Tibetan source text for this [mKhas pa’i dga ston] reads:

When in Tsher-phu receiving from the mahasiddha [Nyenpa] the great commentary of Kālacakra, [Mikyö Dorjé] saw [yidam] Kālacakra and the Master Milarepa merge into the mahasiddha [Nyenpa]. He then composed a praise [6b].

In any case, the time when they are both said to have visited the Jonang monastery, around 1519, was the era of Orgyen Dzongpa Chokyong Gyaltsen (?1455 – ?1520) who was a great Kālacakra six vajra-yogas master and also an important teacher of Lochen Ratnabhadra (1489-1563). Orgyen Dzongpa was the twentieth holder of the Jonang monastery at that time. So perhaps the pair met him and/or Ratnabhadra. Interestingly, it was Ratnabhadra who taught the Kālacakra six vajra-yogas to another great Jonang master of that era, Kunga Drolchok (1507-1566). Apparently, the 1st Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche got the Kālacakra transmission from his teacher, Sangye Pal, and recieved the teaching from the 4th Sharmapa (as detailed in the extensive biography written by the 8th Karmapa sangs rgyas mnyan pa chen po’i rnam par thar pa rgyas pa/ W8039).

The 8th Karmapa also receives instructions on Empty-of-Other (gzhan stong), Kalacakra and the six-branch yoga with one of his other main teachers, Chodrub Senge (Chos grub seng ge), a practice which, in the context of Kālacakra, is strongly connected to the gzhan stong teachings.

In one of his own compositions, the 8th Karmapa, like Tāranātha,  shares his view that the Kālacakra is the ultimate pinnacle of the tantras, particularly in relation to the fourth empowerment.   This is revealed by Jim Rheingans in relation to the 8th Karmapa’s use of the term “surpassable buddha” (bla bcas kyi sangs rgyas ) in his 2011 study of the 8th Karmapa’s text Answers to Lingdrungpa ( Gling drung pa la ’dor ba’i dris lan),  Rheingans explains (2011: 148-149) that the 8th Karmapa:

…goes on to outline what he considers a more general view on the matter; namely that, in general (spyir), there are two kinds of empowerment in the *niruttara-tantra, ‘mundane’ (’jig rten pa) and ‘supramundane’ (’jig rten las ’das pa). The Kālacakratantra would be the only tantra belonging to the supramundane category: Because in the father tantras, such as the cycles of Guhyasamāja and Yamantāka, and in all the mother tantras, such as Cakrasaṃvara[tantra] and Hevajra[tantra], there is taught nothing [else] than the four empowerments of the world, therefore the Vajradhara who will be accomplished through the creation- and completion-stages of these [tantras] is a surpassable (bla bcas pa) Vajradhara. The Karmapa explains that the karma- and jñāna-mudrā of the third empowerment used for achieving the fourth empowerment are those for obtaining the worldly siddhi.  What is reached with these mundane empowerments is also called “inferior Vajrasattva” (rdor sems nyi tshe ba). Only with the supramundane empowerments from the Kālacakra will one attain the ultimate goal: the “pervading Vajrasattva” (khyab pa’i rdor sems ). In this system the third empowerment—which brings forth the ultimate wisdom of the Great Seal [Mahāmudrā ], the fourth empowerment—is not mixed with the worldly siddhis. Through this Great Seal of the extraordinary primordial buddha (dang po’i sangs rgyas , Skt. ādibuddha ), the Great Seal itself (phyag rgya chen po nyid ) is brought to accomplishment. He [8th Karmapa] sums up his discussion of the first part of his answer:

Therefore, concerning the supramundane fourth empowerment which comes from the Kālacakra and the fourth empowerment which comes from [tantras] such as Cakrasaṃvara and Guhyasamāja, there is higher (the former) and lower (the latter); what the authorities on tantra mention (smra bar byed pa ) when speaking thus is that there exists a continuum [of the tantras] with respect to objects of knowledge in general.[7]

Rheingans elaborates that at the end of the 8th Karmapa’s own ritual for Kālacakra practice, he also praises the Kālacakra as the “ultimate vehicle” (mthar thug gyi theg pa) I have not been able to check this text, but it is certainly an area of further research[8].

During my discussions with the current 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche regarding his Empty-of-Other Mahāmudrā commentary, I was surprised to hear first-hand that he does not currently hold any Kālacakra lineage and does not practice it. I queried this with him several times but he told me he had not got it but did not say the reason why when asked. The HE 3rd Tenga Rinpoche performed all the Kālacakra initiations and transmissions at Benchen Monastery, Nepal. According to sources, Tenga Rinpoche received the Kālacakra transmission from Chogye Trichen Rinpoche.  The previous 9th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche got the Atisha (Jo lugs) Kālacakra[4] transmission in Drongpa from Karma Tenzin Chogyel, according to the biography, written by HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche[5]. The first Sangye Nyenpa transmitted the Tsami Lineage of Kālacakra to 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, according to the transmission record of 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje.

Texts by the 8th Karmapa on Kālacakra include the following:

  • A sadhana of Kālacakra from the Marpa and Ngog lineage, ‘the  vigorously swift descent of primordial awareness’ (bcom ldan ‘das dus kyi ‘khor lo’i ye shes btsan thabs su dbab pa’i cho ga rje btsun mar rngog nas brgyud pa/). W8039.  In Collected Works of the Eighth Karmapa, vol. 1, pp. 805–824, 11 fols.
  • A longer ritual mandala sadhana that ‘bestows happiness and well-being’ (bcom ldan ‘das dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i sgrub dkyil phan bde kun stsol/. In
    Collected Works of the Eighth Karmapa, vol. 25, pp. 384–619, 118 fols.
  • The Bhagavan Adibuddha: Laughter of the mind-ocean chakra that transports in the four times, worldly wanderers and non-wanderers – (a rough translation only!) (bCom ldan ‘das dang po’i sangs rgyas ‘gro ba dang mi ‘gro ba’i ‘jigs rten la dus bzhi bgrod tshul gyi ‘khor lo yid mtshor bzhad gad kyi ‘grel chen). In Collected Works of the Eighth Karmapa, vol. 16, pp. 366–806, 220 fols.


I hope this brief note, on how two astonishing Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhist scholars and masters clearly state how the Kālacakra is the ultimate pinnacle of all the tantras, encourages more people to study and practice Kālacakra and for the Kālacakra teachings and Shambhala tradition to flourish and prosper!


[1] Lhan thabs od brgya bar ba. This commentary is the supplementary commentary (lhan thabs) to the short root text by Tāranātha, Meaningful to See (mthong ba don ldan). It has been translated and can be downloaded here. Jamgon Kongtrul the First bases all his explanations on Kālacakra, and even copies verbatim (word for word) this text. These two texts, together with the instruction text, The Chariot that Transports to the Four Kāyas, by Jonang Bamda Gelek Gyatso, form the backbone of instruction on Kālacakra practice within and outside Tibet. The Bamda Gelek text has recently been translated and published in English for the first time: see The Chariot that Transports to the Four Kāyas, Tomlin, Adele, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 2019.

[2] Although Tāranātha cites this as Rdorje snying ‘grel by Vajragarbha (rDorje snying po) from the Trilogy of Bodhisattava Commentaries, the quote appears to be from the One Hundred Great Explanations of the Hevajra Tantra by Vajragarbha (hevajrapiṇḍārthaṭīkā, kye’i rdo rje bsdus pa’i don gyi rgya cher ‘grel pa): sangs rgyas pa la bzhi pa dang// lnga pa thub pa’i dgongs pa min// rnam pa thams cad mchog ldan pa’i// stong nyid dang por rgyu yin te// smon lam las ni snying rje phyis// ‘gro ba’i don byed ‘bras bu’o te//).

[3]Derge Kanjur rKTs-KD107. Lhasa Kanjur, H110. The full quote is:

lha yi theg dang tshangs pa’i theg_/nyan thos kyi yang de bzhin te//de bzhin gshegs dang rang rgyal gyi//theg pa de dag ngas bshad do//ji srid sems can ‘jug pa’i bar // theg pa dag la thug pa med// sems ni shin tu gyur pa na// theg pa med cing ‘gro ba’ang med/ / theg pa rnam par gzhag med kyang // sems can rnams ni drang ba’i phyir// theg pa tha dad ngas bshad de // theg pa gcig tu ngas bstan to//.

[4] According to the seventeen lineages of Kālacakra cited by Tāranātha in A Hundred Blazing Lights, this lineage is the one Lord Atisha received from Krṣṇābhijnā (bla ma nag po).

[5] The 9th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, was the older brother of HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who became the root lama of the current 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche. The biography is called sangs rgyas mnyan sprul dgu pa’i rnam thar mdor bsdus dad pa’i sa bon/, TBRC W2PD19903. For details about the Kālacakra transmission see p.9 of that text.

[6a] See RHEINGANS 2017: 92 Although, according to one Tibetan Khenpo (who wishes to remain anonymous), it is incorrect to say they went to Tsurphu and the pair never travelled to central Tibet together, that the Kālacakra transmission was given in Khams. The mkhas pa’i dga’ ston edition he sent me states tsher phu, not mtshur phu.

I subsequently asked Rheingans about this and he told me that later in his 2017 book he came to the same conclusion that the  pair did not travel to central Tibet together (see p. 101-102,  where he states that 8th Karmapa did not travel to central Tibet (dBus) before 1537. Some of these biographical details used by Rheingans were based on an MA thesis, in German, by Gregor Verhufen, on the life of the 8th Karmapa and his relation with the 1st Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, which I have not been able to read at the time of writing. See Die Biographien des Achten Karma Pha mi bskyod rdo rje und seines Lehrers Sangs rgyas mnyan pa: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der KarmabKa’- brgyud-pa– Schulrichtung des tibetischen Buddhismus . Bonn: Private Publication. (University of Bonn, 1992).

A French translator, Karma Sangye Tenzin, who wrote to me shortly after I published this note, regarding information contained in a biography by Tai Situpa, Situ Panchen (Zla ba chu shel gyi phreng ba):

During the month of December 1516….[Nyenpa transmitted to Mikyö Dorjé] the empowerments, explanations and instructions for practice [of the yidams] of the four classes of tantra, Guhyasamāja, Cakrasaṃvara, etc., as well as the Kālacakra glorious empowerment (generation stage, bskyed rim) associated with the Six-branched Yoga (completion stage, rdzogs rim), the Innate-Union of Mahamudra.
(byi lo zla ba bcu gcig par…‘dus pa sdom pa sogs rgyud sde bzhi’i dbang rgyud bshad man ngag dan bcas pa/ dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i dbang dang sbyor ba yan lag drug gi rnam ‘byor phyag rgya chen po lhan cig skyes sbyor).

And it’s only shortly before the end of their relationship (Sangye Paldrup dates this event to March 29, 1519) that they both would have gone to the Tsher-phu area. 17 years later, in 1537 (Situ Panchen: December 17, 1537), Mikyö Dorjé will arrive at Tsurphu.

[6b] The Tibetan text of the mKhas pa’i dga’ ston, p.1233: tsher phur drung pa grub thob la dus ‘khor ‘grel chen gsan pa na dus kyi ‘khor lo dang rje mi la gzigs pa rje grub thob pa la thim par gzigs nas bstod par mdzad.

RHEINGANS 2017:92 further explains that:

After guiding the Karmapa, Sangs rgyas mnyan pa was pleased and his wishes were fulfilled. He passed away in the first month of the hare year (1519). During the funeral rites, the Karmapa uttered a verse in veneration of his teacher and had a vision of Sangs rgyas mnyan pa on the shoulder of the Buddha statue. The Karmapa spent the Tibetan New Year of the ensuing dragon year (1520) in Tsher lung monastery.

[7] RHEINGANS 2011: des na dus kyi ’khor lo nas ’byung ba’i ’jig rten las ’das pa’i dbang bzhi pa dang / bde gsang sogs nas ’byung ba’i dbang bzhi pa la mchog dman yod ces rgyud sde mkhan po rnams smra bar byed pa ni shes bya spyi pa la rgyud yod pa’i de yin.  Rheingans further clarifies this passage in a footnote:

The last passage is slightly ambiguous. The interpretation found in the text above assumes that just as there are tantras higher with respect to objects of knowledge in general but still part of the same continuum, there is a distinction of the tantras as‘higher’ and ‘lower’ but still part of the same continuum. Alternatively, one may read:

[8]  See RHEINGANS 2011. Mi bskyod rdo rje, Karma pa VIII, Bcom ldan ’das dpal dus kyi ’khor lo , fol. 117b. As Rheingans suggests, it would also be necessary to evaluate Mi bskyod rdo rje’s commentary on Kālacakra, Bcom ldan ’das dang po’i sangs rgyas and tantric works of the Third Karma pa, Rang byung rdo rje (see also Schaeffer 1995) as well as Bu ston.


RHEINGANS   —2010. Rheingans, Jim. Narratives of reincarnation, politics of power and the emergence of a scholar: the very early years of Mi bskyod rdo rje and its sources. In L. Covill, U. Roesler, and S. Shaw (eds.) Lives Lived, Lives Imagined . Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies Series. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

 —2011, The Eighth Karmapa’s Answer to Gling drung pa: A Case Study. In Kapstein, Matthew T. and Roger R. Jackson (eds.), Mahāmudrā and the bKa´-brgyud Tradition. Proceedings of the 11th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies Bonn. IITBS GmbH: Halle, 345–386.

—2017, The Eighth Karmapa’s Life and his Interpretation of the Great Seal : A Religious Life and Instructional Texts in Historical and Doctrinal Contexts, Hamburg Buddhist Studies, Prokekt Verlag.

TOMLIN 2019     Tomlin, Adele, A Hundred Blazing Lights: A Commentary on Meaningful to See, by Jetsun Tāranātha (Dakini Publications, 2020).

WALLACE 2001           Wallace, Vesna, Inner Kālacakra Tantra, Oxford University Press.