The Six Yogas of the Kālachakra

Read a brief of Kālachakra Mandala: The Jonang Tradition by Edward Henning’s and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Wisdom Publications.

By Edward Henning

Constance Kassor’s review from the Spring 2024 Buddhadharma:

Practices related to the Kalachakra tantra have made their way to wider audiences. The Dalai Lama now gives Kalachakra initiations to tens of thousands of devotees every few years, and it has become one of the more well-known tantric traditions among Tibetan Buddhists and others. An important component of Kalachakra practice is the Kalachakra Mandala, which is the focus of Edward Henning’s Kālachakra Mandala: The Jonang Tradition. This book offers a meticulously detailed account of the context, symbolism, and iconography of the Kalachakra mandala according to the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The book contains diagrams, charts, and images of the Kalachakra mandala in two and three dimensions, and describes the theories, systems, and meditations that inform its construction. Henning’s is one of the most comprehensive overviews of the Kalachakra mandala available, of interest to dedicated practitioners and appreciators of Buddhist art alike. [Please note that the text from which this excerpt derives makes use of diacritical; these are not represented in this excerpt.]

The Excerpt: “The Six Yogas of the Kālachakra Perfection Process”

Structure of the six yogas

Before going into any detail of the theory of the six yogas, it would be useful first to describe something of their overall structure and the nature of the practices they entail. I find it more useful to refer to each of the yogas by their Sanskrit names, but in the following initial list I also give English translations after their Tibetan names:

  1. Pratyahara (so sor sdud pa): withdrawal
  2. Dhyana (bsam gtan): mental focus
  3. Pranayama (srog rtsol): wind control
  4. Dharana (’dzin pa): retention
  5. Anusmrti (rjes dran): consummation
  6. Samadhi (ting nge ’dzin): absorption

1. The first yoga, pratyahara, is a nonconceptual meditation, completely free from any mental activity. Mostly performed in complete darkness, this practice is a very powerful method for developing a meditation of great peace, together with an unshakable presence of mind, or mindfulness. Once this has been properly developed and a certain degree of genuine nonconceptual awareness has arisen, images start to appear to the mind, completely naturally and without prompting. These are known as empty forms (Tib. stong gzugs, Skt. sunyabimba), because they are not external and are clearly empty of any independent existence. They are natural manifestations from the mind. These empty-forms are classified into ten different types, known as the ten signs (rtags bcu).

These ten signs are very important within the Kāla- chakra system; in fact, the eight goddesses immediately surrounding Kalachakra in the mandala have the names of eight of the signs, the other two being considered inherent in Kalachakra’s consort, Vishvamata. The signs, as just detailed in the fifth chapter, are listed in the Kalachakra Tantra (chapter 5, v. 115): “Out of emptiness one comes to see smoke, mirages, pure and spotless fireflies, lamps, and, blazings (yellow blazing, Kālāgni) and the moon (white blazing) and sun (red blazing), vajra (black blazing, Rāhu), ultimate flashes, and drops.”

The practice of pratyahara is divided into two parts: night yoga, which is performed in complete darkness, and day yoga, performed in a wide-open, desolate place, in view of a large expanse of sky. The first four signs in the above quotation are those associated with night yoga, and the other six are day yoga. The names in parentheses are alternative names to those originally given in the tantra.

In his excellent discussion of these (Bg6yspyi), Banda Gelek makes the point that the names of the signs are not intended to describe the forms of the images that will appear, rather the manner of their appearance. For example, the sign of smoke could well take the form of the image of a building or person, but the image will be smoky in form, flowing, floating upward, “like newly formed rain clouds.”

Similarly, the mirage-like sign could take the same form of a building or person, but would shimmer like flowing water or “drizzling rain blown about by the wind.” Banda Gelek gives similar but more extensive descriptions of all of these signs and associates each of them with the dissolution into the central channel of the winds of the five elements in the right and left channels.

Taranatha (Kayolt) makes an interesting comment on the nature of these signs: “The word sign here should not be understood just as a sign of the path, but a sign of the nature of reality. For example, if you are traveling a long way at night and see in the distance a real light, this is a sign that when you reach the light it will be able to warm you up and remove the feeling of cold. Similarly, an empty form should be understood as a genuine expression of reality and a sign of the existence of that reality, tathagatagarbha, and a sign of the quick realization of enlightenment.”

Another point worth mentioning about pratyahara is that this type of practice is said to have its origins in the Prajnaparamita Many writers, including Anupamarakshita, give the following quotation from the 8,000-verse Prajnaparamita:

The king of gods, Shakra, said to Subhuti the Elder: “Holy Subhuti, if someone wishes to practise this perfection of wisdom, what should he practise, and in what manner should he practise?”

Subhuti the Elder said to the king of gods, Shakra: “Kaushika, someone wishing to practise this perfection of wisdom should practise with the sky. Kaushika, someone wishing to practise this perfection of wisdom should learn the practice in a roofless place.”

This is considered to be the origin of the day yoga practice, performed in an open place.

2. In the second yoga, dhyana, one settles the mind one-pointedly on these empty forms. Most importantly, the mind focuses on the equality and inseparable nature of mind and forms. There are several steps in this pro- cess of coming to perceive these empty-forms, understand them, and control them.

These first two aspects of the practice have the effect of calming the motion of the action-winds through the right and left rasana (ro ma) and lalana (rkyang ma) channels, developing the ability in the next practices to bring the winds into the central channel.

3. In pranayama, one combines the prana-wind (srog rlung) and apana-wind (thur sel gyi rlung) into one entity in the central channel through suppressing the movements in the rasanā and lalana channels. This is mainly accomplished by means of vajra repetition (rdo rje’i bzlas pa) meditations, observing the coming and going of the breath, and other breath-manipulation exercises.

4. Dharana is concerned with the winds in the central channel that in pranayama originated from the ten aspects of the right and left winds. Here, these prana- and apana-winds that have been combined into one entity are made stable by means of breathing exercises, particularly various types of vase breathing (bum can rlung), and are merged into the indestructible drops in the central channel. This is the dissolution, or fading, of the coming and going of the winds—their dissolution back into the drops from which they originated.

5. In anusmṛti the practitioner’s body is substituted by the mahamudra of empty form. This means that the practitioner’s body is naturally perceived as appearing as Kalachakra in union with the consort Vishvamata. When the practice is performed properly, it should appear naturally as an empty form and not as a contrived image.

Naturally, relative beginners practising anusmrti may well need to imagine themselves in the form of Kalachakra in union with the consort, but when the ability has been more fully developed, the experience will be more one of observing oneself as the deity, an empty form, rather than a contrived “visualization.” The process of developing this ability starts with the practice of pratyahara, allowing empty forms to arise spontaneously in nonconceptual meditation. Any attempt at any form of contrived visualization would be completely to miss the point.

Through the union of the male and female divine empty forms, based on the blazing-melting of the white and red elements of the practitioner’s physical body, one repeatedly cultivates and perfects the four joys (dga’ ba bzhi) in both progression and regression. This refers to the movement of the red and white elements up and down the central channel, and this increases the experience of bliss and also the experience of empty forms— one perceives more of them. Having brought the movement of the winds under control, the practitioner now starts to practice with the drops and winds and the forces that operate between them. This mainly entails tummo (gtum mo) meditation and similar practices.

6. With the sixth yoga, samadhi, the sexual desire of the empty form of the personal deity is transformed to create unchanging bliss. That desire is transformed into great bliss and compassion toward all beings. This has the nature of both method and wisdom, and is free from subject and object. This is explained as the equality of empty form and bliss. As the emptiness aspect of the practice has now been well developed through the ear- lier yogas, the emphasis now fully falls on the development of great bliss.

The structure here is straightforward, and the six yogas are clearly arranged into three pairs: pratyahara and dhyana are yogas of the channels, and by means of these practices the channels are purified, enabling control to be developed later over the winds. With prāṇāyāma and dharana the movements of the winds are reduced to nothing—the winds being returned to the drops from which they originate. Finally, anusmrti and samadhi are yogas of the drops.

Other classifications of the yogas are given, and one or two of these will be described later. It is worth pointing out here that a full description of the six yogas would normally include a sixfold breakdown of each one, derived from the tradition of Kalachakrapāda. For each yoga, this would be the meaning of the name of the yoga; time for the practice; the characteristics of the practice; the confirmation, that is, signs of success in the practice; the type of purification achieved by the practice; and the final result of the practice. Space does not permit more than a mention of these here.

One point that should immediately be clear from the short description above is that there is a natural causal process through the six yogas, with each yoga building on what has previously been developed and creating the ability to perform the following yogas. This causal structure is much more obvious with these six yogas than with the famous six dharmas of Nāropa (nā ro chos drug, often misleadingly translated as the six yogas of Nāropa). Although the first of the six dharmas, tummo, is clearly the basis for the other practices, the causal relationship between the others is not clear. With the six yogas, that relationship is essential.

From Kālachakra Mandala: The Jonang Tradition by Edward Henning. We thank Wisdom Publications for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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Edward Henning

Edward Henning (1949–2016) was a leading Western authority on Kālachakra, having studied for decades with Tibetan masters of the Jonang tradition in particular. A mathematician by profession with an interest in computer programming and journalism, Henning applied his expertise to Tibetan calendrical systems with Kālacakra and the Tibetan Calendar (AIBS, 2007). Some of his essays on Kālachakra and related topics remain available at his website,