Filed in Vajrayana

Tantric Art: Maps of Enlightenment

An Interview With Jeff Watt

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Kalachakra: the wheel of time


This exquisite Sakya thangka [opposite] depicts Kalachakra surrounded by several deities, including Kalachakra's wrathful protector aspect, Vajravega, at theCollection of the Rubin Museum Art bottom center. Kalachakra stands in sexual union with his consort Vishvamata upon a lotus and three flattened discs of the white moon, the red sun, and the blue "eclipse planet" Rahu. These discs represent the three main energy channels of the "subtle body": the white left "lunar," the red right "solar," and the blue central channel. Kalachakra has four faces, three throats, six shoulders, twenty-four arms and two legs. His torso is deep blue in color, his right leg is red, and his left leg is white. These three colors symbolize the purities of the deity's mind, speech and body as the essences of the three channels. With his feet he tramples upon the hearts of the red-and-white four-armed Hindu gods Kamadeva and Rundra, while their white consorts try to lift his heels. These gods represent Kalachakra's suppression of the two extremes of samsara and nirvana, and his annihilation of the four "demonic obstructions" and "emotional defilements."

Kalachakra's main face is black and angry; his right face red and passionate; his left face white and peaceful, and his rear face yellow and meditative. Respectively these four faces represent his mind, speech, body, and wisdom aspects; and his "four activities" of wrath, subjugation, pacification, and enrichment. Each face has three eyes that gaze over the three realms and times, with all twelve eyes protecting the twelve sun signs. His three throats and six pairs of shoulders are colord black, red and, white, symbolizing the three "qualities" of inertia, activity, and equilibrium. His twenty-four arms extend into eight black lower, eight red middle, and eight white upper arms, with hand holding a symbolic implement or weapon. Collectively these arms sent the twenty-four fortnights of the lunar year.

Each finger of his hands is colored yellow, white, red, black, and green from the thumb outwards, with their knuckle joints colored black, red, and white from the palms outward. The 15 joints of his twenty-four hands make a total of 360, symbolizing the 360 days of the lunar year and the 360 bones of the human body.  He wears a long silk "vajra-scarf," a loosened tiger-skin loincloth, and as symbols of the "six perfections" the six jewel ornaments of a bodhisattva.

Vishvamata has four faces, eight arms, and two legs. She is naked and passionately presses her body against Kalachakra, with symbolizing the female solar aspect of her "vajra-awareness." Her eight extended arms represent the three "qualities" and the five sense faculties, with each hand holding a specific attribute. She wears the five "male or method" perfections, while she herself embodies the sixth "female" perfection of wisdom.

–Abridged from a text by Robert Beer and Edward Henning.

Image 1: Mandala of Avalokiteshvara, Tibet 1500-1599, ground mineral pigment on cotton, 26 × 24.75 inches; courtesy of the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art.
Image 2: Avalokiteshvara-Sahasrabhujalokeshvara, Tibet 1700-1799, ground mineral pigment on cotton, 53.5 × 36 inches; courtesy of the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art.
Image 3: Kalachakra, Tibet 1600-1699, ground mineral pigment on cotton; courtesy of the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art.

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