KALACHAKRA – Toronto Christians ask for clarification.
By: Elaine M Robson. (Editor of TibetanResearch.org).
As I write this article Toronto is gearing up to welcome the 14th Dalai Lama to its city. Many people will gather to view a very intricate and brilliantly coloured structure made up entirely of grains of sands. Over 20,000 visitors are expected to come to share in this
“cultural experience”. An added attraction is that the creation of the sand mandala and its subsequent destruction is said to enhance world peace and compassion. Public teachings on Tibetan Buddhism will also be given and the listeners will be encouraged to become
recipients of an empowering tantric initiation.
The visit of the Dalai Lama coincides with a concerted effort being made by a large number of Toronto Christians to gather together for worship and to pray for the blessing of God to rest on their city. (Various events are being planned from April 24th until May 5th
2004.) After learning that the Tibetan Buddhist Kalachakra ceremony is taking place at the same time there has been a rise of concerned interest amongst a number of evangelical Christians. They want to know more about the meaning and implications of such a Buddhist
I am happy to respond to their request and try to explain something of the basic similarities and differences that separate Tibetan Buddhism from Christianity. For people who are unable to hear me speak I trust that this article will provide at least some answers to
their many questions. However I want to stress that this article merely addresses some of the basic doctrinal differences. It is not an attempt to describe Tibetan Buddhism at any great depth.
As my readers will be mainly from a Christian background and will have very little knowledge, if any, of Buddhism I will refrain from using technical Buddhist terms whenever possible. I will also try to answer the kind of questions they are asking.
I also welcome Tibetan Buddhist friends to read what I have written and warmly invite them to email me if they feel I have misunderstood any of their beliefs. However I would ask them to be tolerant. My article is not a “Dharma talk” and I have chosen to explain what I
understand of Tibetan Buddhism (up to this point in my life) in a way that I believe Christians will be able to grasp.
Question 1: Kalachakra – what or who is it?
Reply: A good question! Until recently this word was largely unheard of in the west.
Kalachakra is one of the most well known Tibetan Buddhist meditational deities of the “Highest Yoga Tantra”. The practices performed are said to relate to very subtle levels of consciousness and represent the most profound part (the highest point) of Tibetan Buddhist
practice. During the ceremonies a large Tibetan traditional painting (a thanka) will be on display and offerings and prostrations will be made during the various Kalachakra rituals.
Such activities naturally cause Christians concern. This is because they largely perceive such Buddhist rituals to be idolatrous[i] and feel concerned that instead of their city and country being blessed the opposite could happen! In the Bible idolatry, and the
unwillingness of God to bless those who practice it, always go hand in hand. In other words idolatry hinders the blessing of God and is always associated with a curse. Many of the verses in the Jewish Old Testament are specifically aimed at Jews who had begun to pay
homage to the gods of the surrounding areas. They were bowing down to their images instead of obeying God’s instruction in Exodus 20 vv. 3-6.
Question 2: Why are the appearances of some of the Tibetan Buddhist deities so hideous?
Reply: This is a valid question as many of the deities that are either painted, depicted in statues, or visualized in the mind by Buddhist meditators (practitioners) are extremely violent and sadistic. In order to understand this dilemma the Christian has to understand
that the traditional Tibetan Buddhist “worldview” is very different from that which is presented in the Bible. Judeo/Christian outlook and values have permeated Western culture for a long time and have remained virtually unchallenged until the 20th century. The worship
of Buddhist deities, (which include the wrathful manifestations of compassionate deities,) was introduced to Tibet by Indian Tantric “missionaries” in the 8th century. Within a relatively short time Buddhism displaced the existing (non Buddhist) Bon religion by
forcibly repressing it both physically and spiritually. Bon practices and beliefs were viewed as being inferior, and even to this day it is generally viewed as a second-class Tibetan religion.
Although Tibet has now been a Buddhist land for many centuries it is obvious when reading Tibetan history books that it was far from being a “zone of peace”. Frequent and sometimes intense battles resulted from “in house” fighting amongst the various denominations of
Tibetan Buddhism. [A pattern that sadly Christians also have experienced and consequently we too have nothing to boast about in this regard!]
In order to survive the persecution Bon assimilated a number of Buddhist ideas. It is thought by some scholars that the character of original Bon altered radically due to its assimilation of these new ideas. Tibetan Buddhism has remained the dominant religion in Tibet
for centuries and was completely unchallenged - until the mid 1950’s when the atheistic policies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began to be felt in the Tibetan hinterland.
An interesting situation has arisen in recent years – it began in the 1980’s and is continuing today. Just as the effects of Tibetan Buddhism are now starting to be felt in nominally Christian western countries and Christian ideas are being challenged as a result of
this, so too in Tibet change is occurring. A new generation of Tibetan young people, who have been educated in an entirely secular manner under the government of the People’s Republic of China, are beginning to engage with Tibetan Buddhism, approaching it from an
entirely pragmatic and analytical standpoint. Such open-minded research by lay people was virtually impossible in the old Tibet which for centuries remained under the tight control of the lamas.
(Note:- A lama is an important Tibetan Buddhist priest. Not all monks are lamas. A Rinpoche is a special kind of lama who is said to be an incarnation of an enlightened Buddhist deity).
Question 3: Do Tibetan Buddhists believe in God?
Reply: The simple answer is “No!” Tibetan Buddhists refute the very idea of an independently existent, uncaused, and Supreme Being who is not only the first cause of all that there is, but who also is the Sustainer of the Universe and holds all things in it together.
The Bible reveals that the world as we know it, would totally disintegrate if God withdrew his sustaining power.
Several years ago I attended a series of lectures (teaching sessions) in Kathmandu, Nepal. The Tibetan lama, who received much adulation in his role as an embodiment of Buddha, stated unequivocally that anyone who believes in such a God has not even “got his foot on
the first rung of the ladder to enlightenment”. I appreciated his candour.
Question 4: If Tibetan Buddhists refuse to acknowledge God why are they doing all these rituals? How can you have a religion that does not believe in God?
Reply: The focus of Tibetan Buddhism is never upon God – as we understand him from the Biblical revelation. Such a concept is considered to be heretical. It certainly does not conform to the Buddhist “right view”. In fact such an idea is viewed as being a mere “flight
of fancy”! Instead the Tibetan Buddhist focus is entirely upon the mind, both the ordinary mind that we all experience, and buddha mind or enlightened mind which from now on I will frequently refer to as the mega-mind. The way to access mega-mind is said to be through
the ordinary mind. That is why a human birth is said to be so special. Animal minds do not have the capacity to become enlightened. It is the ordinary human mind that is said to contain the potential for enlightenment and this potential is described as being similar to
a seed. If the potential is activated then access to mega-mind can become a reality. At first this is only experienced momentarily, but with the right meditational techniques, and as a result of extended study, including the receiving of teachings and empowerments from
high lamas, it is claimed that the practitioners are enabled to transcend the limitations of their ordinary minds. The ordinary mind always perceives things in a subject/object relationship.
In a state of “altered consciousness”, brought about by intensive meditation and breathing techniques, a Buddhist practitioner is said to be able to experience a non-dual reality. Such a reality is said to be beyond the experience of ordinary people and can never be
attained by those who just rely on their own unenlightened efforts. In Tibetan Buddhism it is impossible for enlightenment (i.e. becoming a Buddha) to take place without various empowerments, teachings, directions and intervention from the Tibetan lamas. It is
obligatory for a genuine Buddhist practitioner to “worship” his lama and to view him as being the very embodiment of the Dharma (Buddhist teaching) and therefore to view him as being a Buddha in a human form.
Prostrating before him, the Buddhist disciples offer their total and unquestioning obedience to their spiritual master (the lama) as their guide. These commitments are intricately bound up with intensive ritual. The lama who receives all this adulation does so, not in
the form of a mere “simple human Buddhist monk”, but as a living embodiment of mega-mind (i.e. Buddha-hood or enlightenment,) as it expresses itself in Buddha emanations.
Question 5: What would a Tibetan Buddhist think of the sentence in the Lord’s prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to say when speaking to God our heavenly father – “ May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…..”
Reply: They would see this as a most unenlightened statement! God’s will is irrelevant to Tibetan Buddhist practice. This is because the practitioner himself is seeking to transcend all his or her limitations and become “supreme” – i.e. (a) Buddha – one who is
enlightened and “sees” reality as it really is. For a Buddhist there is no higher reality than this.
Question 6: I find this is most confusing! I understand now that Tibetan Buddhists do not see themselves as beings made by a loving supreme creator God - a God who from John 17 v 3 we understand wants to share himself in relationship with us. But yet Tibetan Buddhists
still believe in deities (possessing both a peaceful and a wrathful side), and in gods and goddesses, as well as in evil spirits. How come?
Reply: Yes, I admit this is very confusing but here are a few keys that will help you understand more quickly. Tibetan Buddhists believe that there have been, are, and always will be many universes. In fact these multiple universes are understood to arise, abide for a
short time and then finally disintegrate. The process of continual arisings, abidings and disintergrations is accepted without question. It is just how things are and Buddhists consider it is a process that is without beginning. There is no starting point that relates
to a very first, or initial cause. Consequently Buddhism teaches that “sentient beings” (all living things) have had an infinite number of previous lives. In contrast, Christian thinking centres entirely upon the present universe and discounts any theory of multiple
universes having even a remote connection to our present life.
From the Bible Christians understand that God has always been God – before the universe came into existence God was! If the universe should totally fall apart today we would all disintegrate but God would remain! His existence is not dependent upon his creation. When
he created, he brought everything into existence out of nothing (ex-nihilo) - and not out of himself, or from some pre-existent matter! There was no pre-existent matter. There was only God.
I think Jesus’ words as he prays (these are recorded in John 17 v 3), are some of the most profound words in the Bible. “Now this is life eternal that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” They summarise the very essence of the
Christian Faith. In this respect Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity are “light worlds apart”!
Question 7: May I interrupt! Where does karma relate to all this?
Reply: Tibetan Buddhism likes to describe karma as an impersonal “natural law” that is inbuilt into the very nature of the universe(s) (which of course includes our everyday world). It is related to the process of cause and effect. Therefore what is happening to you
now is said to be a result of some action done in the past, frequently in a previous lifetime. A negative action will result in a bad consequence and vice versa. So you see – to be a Tibetan Buddhist you must accept the belief that not only is there no beginning to “
samsara” ( i.e. the wheel of life, death and rebirth) but you must also accept that rebirth undeniably occurs, and that it too has no beginning. Who you are, and what is happening to you today, is a result of actions (both positive and negative) carried out both in
this life and also in previous lives. It is not possible for one to be a Buddhist without accepting these basic dogmas.
Question 8: What about the deities and the gods and goddesses. Are they all the same?
Reply: No, there is a big difference, but since the words gods and deities are frequently used to refer to both categories it can be very confusing for non-Buddhists to understand the difference.
In Tibetan Buddhism generally gods and goddesses are called lha and lhamo. They are viewed as being part of the birth, death and rebirth process that Buddhists associate with cyclic existence. The Buddhist wheel of life is an ancient diagram that depicts various stages
of rebirth a person may encounter after death. It is important to realize that every time a living being is reborn it will, sooner or later, have to die. This event will be followed by another rebirth, which will be either:
- back into the same realm as the previous existence,
- or into a higher or lower realm depending upon whether one has acquired positive or negative karma. This cycle of infinite rebirths (which as had no beginning) is called samsara. The wrathful figure holding the circle in its grip and not letting go is called Yama
(Shinje in Tibetan) – this deity that is said to control death. This is in contrast to the words of Jesus in Revelation 1 v 18, “Don’t be afraid! I am the first and the last. I am the living one who died. Look, I am alive forever and ever. And I hold the keys of death
and the grave (Hades)”.
The realms of the gods and goddesses depicted within the Buddhist wheel are realms into which beings may be born temporarily but eventually die. These realms of the gods are part of the cycle of suffering, i.e. birth, life, death and rebirth. A god or goddess will have
to be reborn as a human to have any hope of attaining liberation from cyclic existence and enlightenment
The word deity or deities, generally (but not exclusively) is applied to enlightened beings who are no longer subject to samsara but are said to have been (after many many aeons) finally liberated from the endless cycle of re-birth.
[Note:- This is in contrast to the gods and goddesses that are still trapped in the samsaric cyclic wheel.]
At this point not only has the Buddhist practitioner been liberated from the cycle of rebirth (which is the ultimate goal of all practitioners in Theravadan Buddhism) but in Tibetan Buddhism there is the aspiration to become fully enlightened just as the Buddha is said
to have become enlightened. In fact it is taught that within every person lies the potential to become Buddha (i.e. enlightened) and consequently become omniscient!
Question 9: I thought Buddha lived and died somewhere in the middle of the first millennium before Christ was born. How can anyone today think that they can become Buddha?
Reply: Again I admit such a concept is very hard for Christians to understand. One reason for this is that we never aspire to become the actual object that we worship, namely God himself – the eternal, self-existent and un-caused Supreme Being.
As I explained earlier, for a Tibetan Buddhist the idea of such a God is totally unacceptable. They believe everything that exists in the short term, and also ultimately, is the result of a cause and effect process. They see no reason to postulate a “God theory” when
the law of cause and effect can explain everything. Consequently, unlike Christians, Buddhists refuse to engage in what they call “idle speculative chatter” concerning a first cause and how everything began. Instead the practitioner’s attention is made to focus on the
present reality of our suffering existence. The Buddhist graded path, said to enable a person to finally be set free from the samsaric wheel, is summarised in what is known as “the four noble truths”. The 4th truth contains the “eightfold path”.
The aspiration of a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner is to transcend, over-ride and destroy his or her natural mind. This is because the natural mind is said to perceive things in a totally distorted way and is therefore completely untrustworthy. Instead, people are
presented with Buddhist teaching that challenges them to become awakened to their own mind’s true nature.
Mega-mind is said to be impersonal, non-differentiated and omniscient in perceiving the true nature of all reality, (how things actually are/exist), both conventionally and ultimately. (The conventional world may be equated with our everyday world.) I have already
mentioned that it is said that the way to attain this Buddha mind – the mind of enlightenment – can only be accessed via a person’s own natural mind. The potential is said to lie there untapped and dormant like a seed. (This is a Gelukpa interpretation.) I understand
that Buddhists believe it can be activated by activities such as (e.g.) seeing a sand mandala, hearing some Buddhist teachings from a lama, receiving a protective “blessed” cord from him, and so forth. This is one reason why lamas and other Buddhist practitioners
actively encourage Christians (including children) to engage actively in Buddhist meditation. They assure those who show an interest that they need not change their religion and that they can meditate using Buddhist techniques but focus on Christian icons (to begin
However a genuine problem arises for the person who is seeking to be a Biblical Christian. To use an analogy (but this only applies in a very superficial sense) Christians do not believe that human beings possess an untapped “hidden pure mind”, the same kind of mind
that we might imagine the first man and woman might have possessed before they sinned by disobeying God.
However Christians do accept that our present minds can be renewed, and also that it is possible to have the mind of Christ so that we can think according to his will. But we do not find the concept of mega-mind (Buddha-hood) in the Bible. You will recall I explained
earlier that in Buddhist thinking there is no place for God. This is a really difficult point for Christians to grasp as it goes counter to everything we have ever learnt and experienced of God in our personal lives.
It will help if you remember that ultimate reality for a Buddhist is the “enlightened mega-mind” and not God! This enlightened “Buddha-mind” is understood to be essentially empty by its very nature.
Question 10: Are you talking about nirvana?
Yes and no! Tibetan Buddhists say there are three types of nirvana. It is the third type, the one that is called non-abiding nirvana (or Buddha’s nirvana) that refers to the state that is said to have transcended both extremes of a conditioned (dependent) cyclic existence and the isolated peace of nirvana.
The Tibetan term for nirvana - myang’das (nyangde) - literally means, “the state beyond sorrow.”
The Sanskrit word – nirvana – literally means to “blow out” or “to extinguish.”
Nirvana is said to be a cessation of suffering. The “negative energies” that caused continual rebirth have been snuffed out and now liberation (or a setting free from the round of rebirths) can occur.
Question 11: This is becoming too technical for me! I didn’t understand when you said that the enlightened or buddha mind is, by nature, empty. Can you explain this emptiness?
Reply: This is a huge subject. Numerous books have been written on it over the past 2000 years, both in India where the concept originated, and also in Tibet. It is almost impossible for me to give an explanation, let alone a brief description about what “emptiness”
is. However I will attempt to do so as it is central to an understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. But one should be aware that there is a real lack of unity even amongst Buddhist scholars themselves concerning aspects of this basic Buddhist doctrine.
Existence in Tibetan terms means empty of inherent existence, i.e. not existing independently (or inherently) without being dependent on the process of cause and effect. As Christians we worship a God who is precisely all that Buddhist logic rejects, i.e. a God who is
uncaused, unchangeable, not dependent on causes and conditions, and who is permanent.
Tibetan Buddhists say that the way people live their lives is very detrimental because people erroneously assume that they possess something within them that is inherently existent and non-changing. This misconception (which is said to lead to delusion, attachment and
anger) is said to be a fundamental cause of suffering in the world. They tell us when we use the words, I, me or mine we think that somehow we have an unchanging essence inside of us – a self or an ego that is permanent, unchanging and indestructible.
Buddhist practitioners will therefore spend hours, months, and in fact years trying to overcome the natural functioning of what they believe to be their falsely perceived personal “I” or ego. They say that the way unenlightened people perceive their natural everyday
world is not in accordance with how it really exists. Their aspiration therefore is to be able to “experience”, by means of direct perception, the true nature of reality which they say can never be understood by the natural mind.
Therefore Buddhist practitioners aspire to view reality (i.e. the way that things actually exist) as having no independent or uncaused existence. Buddhists believe that the true nature of everything, including all buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities, as well as all
phenomena encountered in everyday life are empty of any inherent (independent) existence.
In other words Buddhists believe there is nothing that has not been produced by cause and effect – all things without exception are considered to be inter-dependent by nature.
Question 12: This sounds like nihilism. Are Buddhists saying that actually nothing at all exists?
Reply: No, nihilism is strongly rejected by Tibetan Buddhists. They accept the relative existence of our everyday world but reject the idea that it exists ultimately in an independent, unchanging and permanent way – in other words it does exist (now) but its ultimate
nature is empty [of any intrinsic “pure” (non-dependent) nature). Everything is described as just being a mere collection of parts. This description is also applied to persons. A Buddhist may say,
“Show me the “self” that you keep on referring to? Actually you have no “I” because there is no “I”! You are just a mere collection of constantly changing psycho-physical parts (or aggregates)”!
Question 13: Please slow down !! As a Christian I don’t see myself as having something inside of me that is solid and unchanging - a “thing” that I call my “self”.
Reply: I think it is difficult for Christians to be able to relate to what the Buddhist is saying. One reason for this is that the Buddha was born into a Brahmanical structured society in the north western part of the Indian sub continent. However although according to
the legend he was a “prince” he actually did not belong to the highest social group – the Brahmans. He was therefore excluded from much of the religious interaction that took place between members of the Brahman priestly class. Instead he associated more with the
forest dwellers and the wandering sanyasi
(“Hindu” medicants) who lived in the forests trying to attain knowledge through spiritual experiences arising from “altered states of consciousness” that apparently occurred as a result of prolonged meditation and often extreme asceticism.
Following an experience arising from a prolonged period of non-ascetic meditation the Buddha claimed to have finally “seen” the true nature of how things really are (i.e. the ultimate nature of everything which is “emptiness”).
He later began to teach others about his new understanding of the Brahmanical (“Hindu”) doctrine of “liberation” and instructed his followers about this new doctrine of enlightenment.
He strongly refuted the Brahmanical idea that within everything there is an unchanging and permanent essence (atman/soul) that passes from one form to another in the endless process of rebirth. Instead he claimed that he had now “seen reality” (i.e. experienced it
directly) in a way that not even the “Hindu” gods had “seen” it.
The Brahmans taught that atman (soul) is part of Brahman.
Now it really gets confusing! Try to remember that a Brahmin is a high caste person. Brahmans is the plural form of Brahmin. But Brahman is the impersonal essence (or “ground of being”) that is said to be universal and is viewed as being trapped in all things. In other
words, “all is said to be Brahman and Brahman is all”.
All the various forms (human bodies are only one example) in which the universal essence Brahman is said to be entrapped (and referred to as atman/soul) are actually considered to be illusory. The Buddha strongly disagreed with this Brahmanical idea of an impersonal
permanent “essence” being inside everything. Consequently he refuted the idea of the existence of an ego (a self or soul). In doing this he was rejecting the Brahmanical concept of the impersonal essence being present in all things.
As Christians, we do not accept the Brahmanical view either. However in the Middle Ages some Church practices were a little strange to say the least! People were sometimes weighed before they died and then again after death. If the body was lighter it was said their
soul had gone to heaven and the relatives felt relieved!
Question 14. But don’t Christians have a soul?
Reply. This is a huge subject and you really need a Biblical theologian to expound the whole subject of body, soul and spirit. It is not my place to write about this here. Instead I will just share a few personal observations.
In dialogue with Buddhists I actually prefer not to use the word “soul” as it is too easy to equate the word with the Hindu concept of a permanent, non changing impersonal essence described above. Instead I prefer to use a term such as “self awareness”. As Christians
whose spiritual capacity (our spirit) has been made alive in Christ we readily accept the revelation of God in Scripture (i.e. the Bible). Christians believe that we are created beings – and that we and everything else comes about as a result of a process of cause and effect.
However in contrast to Buddhists, we accept that there is an initiating cause to the universe and to the whole cause and effect process. Christians and Jewish believers accept that God is that first cause, and that he brought everything into existence - not using any
pre-existent eternal material (as there was none), but by creating it out of nothing. Therefore Christians do not see themselves as having some kind of impersonal essence - a little bit - of God trapped inside of them. Rather they see themselves as having been made
alive in Christ, spiritually, and made responsive to God, able to experience his presence in their daily lives. Christians believe that human beings are made for relationship, first and foremost with God our creator, and secondly with one another.
In order to illustrate this we can imagine ourselves talking to a friend. We find that we can relate to that person without having any part of that person’s genetic code within us. Relationship occurs without their actual “essence” being inside us.
So too we are enabled to relate to God as he reveals himself to us (via our “spirit”) by means of his Spirit – the Holy Spirit. He quickens the spiritual part of us (i.e. our spiritual capacity) so that we can respond to him. “Unless you are born again”, the Lord
Jesus told Nicodemus, “you will never (be able) to “see” the Kingdom of God”.
(John 3 v 3-12). Jesus was not talking about a physical rebirth but a spiritual one.
Perhaps you will now begin to see why, when discussing Christianity with my Buddhist friends and colleagues, I prefer to use a term like our “self awareness factor” that survives death and which will be re-united with our resurrected bodies at some time in the future.
[John 5. vv 28-29 and Acts 24.v15]
Question 15: Do Buddhists accept the resurrection of the body?
Reply: No, such a view is definitely classified as a very “wrong view”. Buddhists believe in re-birth and view this process as having gone on from time immemorial. They also believe rebirth has occurred within innumerable multiple universes that have come and gone, and
which (I understand according to many Buddhists) will continue to do so for ever. Therefore one can understand that the very thought of trying to link up an individual “self awareness factor” with every single variant form it has ever been associated with would be
ludicrous! Similarly Christians would find such an idea ridiculous too!
However Christians do believe that the “self-awareness factor” will supersede death. The body it is integrally part of now will, after death, be destroyed by decay or fire. But at some future time that same body will be resurrected as a spiritual body and be re-united
with its “self awareness factor”. This is explained more fully by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. Thus a Biblical belief in the resurrection of the body coupled with the belief in the doctrine of a series of rebirths is incompatible.
A Buddhist would not agree with the idea of what I have labelled a ‘self awareness factor’ passing from one life form into another and so on. As Christians we don’t accept this either. This is because in the New Testament book of Hebrews it states clearly that we only
have one life and after it has ended we will be judged. The Buddhist however accepts cyclic existence and rebirth as a foundational doctrine. This doctrine is just as important to them as knowing God is for the Christian. [[[Wikipedia:Hebrews|Hebrews]]. 9 v27]
I have already mentioned that the Buddhist refutes (denies) the concept that an atman (soul) is transmitted from life to life in the rebirth process. Instead they prefer to say a kind of ‘impression’ passes from one form to another. There is nothing substantial about
this ‘impression’. Sometimes the illustration of a boot is used. Imagine a boot representing a living form. Now see that boot stepping on some muddy ground. We can picture the tread of the boot left behind and visible in the mud. The Buddhist believes the previous life
(represented by the boot) does not actually have a direct bearing on a future life in terms of a soul (atman) being passed from one form to another. The impact is said to be much less obvious and occurs as a result of a kind of ‘impression’ (that is said to carry the ‘
karmic potential’) being transferred from the old form into a new form.
Remember Buddhists are not talking about one single individual passing from life form to life form until they are finally enlightened. Buddhists talk rather about a ‘potential’ that is carried forward, somewhat like the imprint that the boot leaves behind, or like a
flame passing from one candle to the next. In other words we are not talking about an unchanging individual self, or ego, that transmigrates itself as a self contained entity from one rebirth to the next until that self is ultimately enlightened. It is actually
incorrect to say, “ In my last rebirth ‘I’ was…, and in my next one ‘I’ will be…”. Remember Buddhists state that there is no ‘I’ to pass from one life to the next life, there is only potentiality in the form of a kind of imprint that enables karmic consequences of a
previous life to be carried forward.
Question 16: I find it difficult to understand what enlightened deities actually are. You have explained that the ‘lower’ gods and goddesses in samsara are destined to eventually die and be reborn. Can you tell me more about how the enlightened deities or gods function?
Reply: Using non-Buddhist language I think the illustration of a mirage in a desert is helpful. We know that a mirage of an oasis for example, really does seem to have a kind of reality but in actual fact there is no substance to it at all.
We have already looked at the concept of mega-mind. Now try to imagine such a construct. Remember the mega mind has no ‘thinker’ attached to it. It is entirely impersonal and non-dual. By that I mean there is no differentiation into subjects and objects. Buddhists
claim that such a differentiation only occurs as a result of distorted natural thinking. The mind that is unenlightened can only think in this divided way. The enlightened mind does not. Thus, according to Buddhist teaching, it is necessary to de-construct the normal
patterns of thinking that are part and parcel of the unenlightened mind, and in a sense ‘re-programme it’. Its destruction is brought about by the use of various (yoga) meditations and visualization techniques. A Buddhist may not like the term ‘re-programme’ but in
fact that is what is happening. Deconstruction of the natural mind’s thought processes are followed by a re-programming that could be described as a form of self induced ‘brain washing’.
A Buddhist would prefer to describe the experience as an uncovering of the potential for enlightenment. They consider such potential lies dormant and untapped within all ordinary (natural) human minds. (In saying this I am describing a Gelukpa viewpoint).
Other Tibetan Buddhist schools would have a somewhat different interpretation and view everyone as already being enlightened. They would claim that this is the true nature of one’s mind (i.e. its enlightenment) but it cannot be recognized until all the conceptual
clutter of the ordinary mind is cleared away.
Enlightened deities are said to be manifestations that arise from the enlightened mega-mind, they abide for a short while and then disintegrate. Perhaps one can think of them as ‘apparition-like’. The Buddhist term is emanation/s. These emanations can take multiple
forms, - for example, a deity that appears to be compassionate and peaceful; a wrathful angry deity; an inanimate object such as a bridge and so on. The number and variety of these ‘apparitional’ emanations is said to be infinite.
The aggressive or wrathful emanation and the non-aggressive or peaceful emanation are described as being two different aspects of the same deity. It is said they are both an expression of non-differentiated dharmakaya. Previously I have been referring to this as
impersonal ‘enlightened’ mega-mind. According to Tibetan Buddhism the non-duality or oneness of mega-mind means there is no such thing, ultimately, as good and evil. The peaceful and the wrathful manifestation are not intrinsically different at all but are merely
manifestations of ‘enlightened oneness’. There is no duality (subject/object distinction) in dharmakaya – mega mind.
Question 17 : So when you said that Kalachakra is a wrathful deity does that mean that he was a figure in human history.?
Reply: As I have not made a study of all the many deities in Tibetan Buddhism I am unable to speak with any authority on this point but my understanding, (as far as I can ascertain at this present time) is that is that there seem to be:-
a] Enlightened deities that previously were unenlightened beings but gradually, over many aeons, became enlightened – that is they reached the point where all samsaric connections were severed. When lay Buddhists hear about Jesus Christ they would generally
understand him in these terms. The more informed Buddhists would be puzzled because Jesus did and said some very un-Buddhists things during his life time on earth. Most would therefore decide he was lower than a Buddha. Perhaps he could have been a Bodhisattva. But
even so they would still have problems fitting him into that honourable class of beings. They would never accept the Christian belief that Jesus only had one life and that he was not a product of an infinite series of causally generated rebirths. The fact that he died
such a horrendous death would in a Buddhist understanding point to some very bad karma somewhere in the past.
b] Then there are deity emanations that seem not to have had any connection to known history as far as I am aware but appear to be more mythical. (However, technically, according to Buddhist logic, they too must have been unenlightened at some stage). But you
need someone more informed than myself to explain all the nuances related to this particular subject.
However in order to give the reader a general feel for this part of Tibetan Buddhism it is perhaps helpful if I illustrate it by referring to the game world of virtual reality. I understand that people when playing a virtual reality game can react with tremendous fear
when faced with a ‘created’ horror fantasy figure, even though there is absolutely no substantiality to it at all!
Although Buddhists may object to my applying such an illustration to describe their (peaceful/wrathful) deities in this way it does seem to me to be an appropriate analogy. Deities are described as being able to manifest into a huge variety of duplicate deities even
simultaneously, in addition to being able to appear in an innumerable variety of changing forms. Therefore it seems to me that this kind of scenario has a closer affinity to the world of ‘virtual reality’ than to anything we experience in our daily lives.
As we are being asked to accept an enlightened mega-mind that is said to be able to manifest in any number of in-animate forms, in addition to all the individual deity forms being able to manifest simultaneously into a 1000 or more identical deities - only to be re-
absorbed back into dharmakaya (or mega-mind) - then I think it is fair to say that we are really moving into a realm of imagination that has no correspondence to our present reality.
My personal view therefore is that Christians should not be involved in any Tibetan Buddhist meditations or rituals because the realm of fantasy that I have described above is a realm in which every genuine Buddhist practitioner must eventually participate.
However this does not mean that there is no place for inter-religious dialogue between a Christian and a Tibetan Buddhist. There most certainly is and I find there is a great deal of pleasure to be gained from respectful and informed encounters between the
practitioners of the two religions.
Question 18: If mega mind is said to be non-dual why do Buddhists place so much emphasis on wrathful manifestations such as Kalachakra?
Reply: Buddhists associate great energy with their wrathful deities. They believe that skilled Buddhist practitioners can manipulate these deities. Such a manipulator is claimed to be able to bring about the destruction not only of those who hold doctrinally ‘incorrect
views’ but also of those whom they perceive as being opponents of the Buddhist Dharma (Buddhist teaching). They also believe that the energy attributed to the wrathful deities is effective in destroying all negativity associated with the ego, as well as the universally
‘all-pervasive ignorance’ that is the cause of people having ‘wrong views’.
However, in order for the latter to happen (i.e. destruction of negativity), it is necessary for the meditating practitioners to conjure up in their minds an image of a particular wrathful (or peaceful) deity. The practitioner then visualizes the deity as being in
front of them. As the self-induced visualization progresses the practitioner visualizes the deity entering his or her own body. The end result is a unity where the practitioner sees himself as having become the actual deity itself. The line that separates subject from
object no longer exists. It has disappeared. The two have become one. It is claimed that such a practice produces great energy that can be effective in causing much negative karma in the practitioner’s life to be nullified. A similar visualization process is employed
in becoming a peaceful deity. Most deities are depicted as male but a few are female. The main point to grasp here is that the practitioner’s body becomes the actual body of the deity that he or she is meditating upon.
Christians would be concerned that although individual Buddhist practitioners may be very sincere in their practice, such visualizations could have the potential for opening oneself up to spiritual influences that lie beyond the understanding and control of the even
the most highly skilled Buddhist deity manipulator, such as a Dalai Lama.
Effective visualization practices are said to be possible only after a person has received various empowerments or initiations from high Buddhist lamas (trulkus). These lamas are considered to be emanations of a deity (deities) in a human form. They are not therefore
considered to be ordinary human beings such as you and I. In appearance they may appear fully human but actually they are believed to be different from us. This explains why students of Buddhism engage in repeated full-length body prostrations before their Dharma
(Buddhist) teachers. If the lamas are considered to be incarnate lamas the student must view them as emanations of Buddha, and consequently the student is in no way free to disagree with their teachings or question their actions, even if these seem contradictory
according to our norms of everyday life.
Homage is also shown to ordinary monks and lamas as an expression of respect for the Dharma (the Buddhist teaching) that they are said to represent.
Question 19: How do you as a Christian relate to all these manifestations?
Reply: If you are a Christian then it is imperative that your world-view is fashioned by what is revealed in Scripture (the Bible). A Christian should not, in my view, try to deal with evil and evil influences according to a Tibetan world-view. The reason I say this is
that God (as the Bible reveals him) is a totally unknown reality for Tibetan Buddhists. Their philosophy denies his very existence and their understanding of omniscience totally excludes him. Consequently their ‘recipe’ for dealing with evil is non-Biblical. I believe
this is a most important subject but time does not allow me to engage with it here.
All I would say is that it seems to me that Tibetan Buddhists, and I say this politely, have yet to discern the existence of:
a] The unknown, inherently existent infinite God.
b] The reality of the causally produced and finite enemy, whom Christians understand to be the real source of evil in our world.
Tibetan Buddhists recognize neither God nor Satan.
Now let me return to the question regarding how I relate to Buddhist deity manifestations. I choose to view them in the same way that a philosophical Buddhist describes them, namely as being empty of any inherent existence. As I explained above, a Christian’s
worldview must be in line with Biblical revelation. God describes all objects made by human hands - that are said to represent gods - as being lifeless and unacceptable to him. Time and time again he warned the people of Israel not to bow down to, or fear such empty
man created objects.
Philosophical Buddhists accept the inherent emptiness of such objects. This understanding is based on their own philosophical reasoning. However the unenlightened ordinary Tibetan Buddhist person relates to idolatrous objects as though they are real and does not view
them as mere lifeless objects. Educated lamas are generally content to condone idolatry in Tibetan Buddhism. They see it as a useful power symbol for the unenlightened, (i.e. for those whose capacity to understand emptiness is limited due their ignorance and inherited
negative karmic consequences). Thus the lamas are happy and encourage people to give offerings and homage both to themselves as deity emanations (or Dharma bearers) and also to inherently non-existent statues / idols.
The lama would probably say he does not demand offerings from people and in a sense this is true. However the way in which the religious system is set up means that the ordinary people believe it is only by the giving of offerings to the lama, and to the deity statues
(idols), that their prospect for good fortune in this life and a better rebirth in the future can be enhanced. The lamas perpetuate such ideas by continuing to receive peoples’ offerings and also by giving their blessings to people who come to see them.
In the Bible the practice of idolatry is not only associated with negative results but in 1 Corinthians 10 v 20 it states, “the sacrifices offered [to idols] are offered to demons not to God”.
I once had an interesting conversation in Tibet. A friendly person with whom I was having tea offered to show me his ‘choshom’ room. It was a room that contained his highly valued Buddhist altar as well as many valuable thankas (religious paintings) and expensive idols
of various Tibetan deities. I felt honoured by the compliment of being invited to view something that was very precious to my host, but I had to politely refrain, explaining that as a Christian, when I prayed, it was by the help of the Holy Spirit to the one self
existent Konchok (God). Therefore for me to give honour to any object made by a human being was not helpful, nor was it necessary.
My Tibetan host became thoughtful and then made the interesting remark. He said he had once heard a lama say that to be able to pray like that was a very advanced form of ‘prayer’ but that most people cannot do it and therefore need to have to have some material
object to focus upon.
In the absence of the knowledge of God and the help of the Holy Spirit who enables one to pray ‘in the spirit’ then the lama’s statement would appear to make sense to a Buddhist practitioner.
Question 20: Can you briefly explain a little about the Kalachakra ritual that is planned to take place in Toronto?
Reply: A number of books have been written on this subject in recent years and since I have not read them all I will not attempt to give a detailed explanation. I feel that if one can have a general understanding of this subject it will be sufficient. Also there are
aspects to the ritual that I believe are incompatible with Christian values, both from a Biblical point of view and also in regard to the way in which Christians are challenged to develop their thought life based on Philippians chapter 4 verse 8.
None of us can claim to have had a pure thought life of the standard that Jesus describes in Matthew 5 v 28. As Christians we all have an ongoing need for sanctification. The mistakes and errors made in our past due to ignorance or rebellion are not only forgiven in
Christ, but now we actively participate in allowing and fostering new behaviour patterns to be laid down within us. This is the essence of sanctification and it is an ongoing process for all of us. However Tantric rituals, which by their very nature are not pure,
would be unable to contribute to this very necessary and often painful ongoing process of change that must go on in the lives of Christians.
From what I have shared previously you now understand the ‘apparition like’ nature of enlightened Buddhist deities. The sand mandala to be built in your city is a pictorial representation of a celestial ‘divine’ Buddha palace. It has no connection to the Biblical
heaven. The monks construct the mandala over a number of days, using coloured sand to build up a three dimensional series of concentric rings. They are very careful to follow a strict recipe - taking care not to make any error as the wrathful, angry aspect of the
emanating deity may take revenge on them. Once the mandala is complete elaborate rituals continue and the Kalachakra deity and his consort will then be invited to inhabit it, along with other deities and their associated female consorts.
The Kalachakra ritual is said to have originated in the 10th century. The Dalai Lama who will preside over the ritual is viewed as having complete mastery over the various deities. He carries out the rituals seeing himself as an emanation of Dharmakaya and not as a ‘
simple celibate (human) Buddhist monk’. Buddhist practitioners also view him as an embodiment of several deities.
Christians will obviously have to disagree with Tibetan Buddhists on this matter. They will be unable to condone an idea that would elevate him (or any other person) to a status that would make him “more than human” – that is to view him as being essentially different
from all other human beings.
However having said this there is no need for us to disagree rudely or aggressively. Just as we respect other men who are learned professors in their area of expertise – for example the NASA scientists - so one may have similar respect for Professor Tenzin Gyalstso in
his role as a Buddhist philosopher.
This does not mean one is necessarily agreeing with all his ideas and opinions, nor does it mean that one is accepting his teachings and the frequent advice he gives in his writings and talks that are aimed at Christians. But it does serve to help Christians retain a
gracious-ness towards those with whom we fundamentally disagree because our ‘God-view’ is radically different from theirs. (1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 18 to chapter 2 verse 16.)
Kalachakra is also known as the ‘time god’ because it is associated with an eschatological vision that one day the whole world will become a Buddhist paradise called Shambhala. This is a place where all enemies of the Dharma will have been destroyed. I’m told that
Muslims are considered to be the greatest enemies, but Jews and Christians are not excluded from the destruction that will be carried out by the Shambhala warriors. I’ve read that all those who receive Kalachakra initiations feel confident that one day they will be
reborn in the Shambhala paradise as warriors.
While some Buddhists understand the descriptions of Shambhala to be purely mythical others do take it literally.
Question 21: Christians look forward to a time when the ‘glory of God will cover the earth - like the waters cover the sea’. What is the difference between the Tibetan Buddhist aspiration that one day there will be a purely Buddhist “paradise on earth” and the
Christian understanding of “ultimate world peace”.
Such a question requires a detailed response and I am unable to give one here. A general comment may be of interest however. I think there is a difference in the way Christians and Tibetan Buddhists evangelise.
The Tibetan Buddhists’ reason for constructing numerous mandalas around North America, as well as carry out other Buddhist ceremonies across the continent, is to take control over the local spirits that may try to prevent the Dharma (Buddhist teaching) from taking root
in America. The building of a mandala for instance and the inviting of so many non-Buddhists to come and see it is more than a desire to show off an amazing artistic and cultural form of art. It is also to enable as many people as possible to ‘come into contact with
the Dharma’. The positive karma gained as a result of the ‘contact’ will add to the possibility that one day the person who has looked even casually at the mandala will, in the future (either in this life or in another rebirth), begin to practice and meditate according
to the Buddhist world-view.
Because of the belief in an infinite series of rebirths time is not such an issue for Tibetan Buddhists and they frequently ‘evangelise’ amongst non-Buddhist peoples by using a more indirect appeal of a ‘cultural presentation’ rather than a straightforward ‘
evangelistic campaign’. Buddhists do not preach as such but impart their ideas through the giving of public teachings to which non-Buddhists are invited to attend.
Multi-party democracy allows for the free sharing of one’s beliefs. Most faiths are active in wanting others to understand what they believe. Everyone is free to use literature and to teach /preach and present their teachings in varying formats in order to promote
their own ideas. Tibetan Buddhists and Christians both engage in evangelism. It would be wrong to assume it is only Christians who want to share their ideas with others!
To be a committed Buddhist one must vow to become enlightened in order to be of benefit to others. This is the essence of bodhicitta. Being of benefit to others means to be instrumental in helping others to practice the Buddhist Dharma. World peace can only truly come
about when the Dharma is practiced by all.
My understanding is that in the Shambhala paradise those who are reborn there will be the agents of judgement (and destruction) of all non-Buddhists, and in particular I am told, of those who are monotheists since they are viewed as being enemies of Buddhist Dharma.
Question 22: I understand that many Tibetan monks take a vow of celibacy. But I am puzzled as there are also rumours of ‘tantric sex’ being practiced by some of them them. Is this merely symbolic or does it actually occur?
Reply: Tantra is not a new phenomenon. Various forms of it can be traced back over a long time – in fact well before the historical Buddha was born. Buddhists say that people who have not received special empowerments should not even try to practice it. Buddhist
practitioners of Tantra are also very reluctant to talk about it with non-Buddhists. It is said that those who are unenlightened cannot understand practices that are associated with enlightenment. Tantric practitioners are also required to take very serious vows that
prevent them from sharing details with uninitiated Buddhists and with outsiders.
Yes, it is true that the practices involve both visualized sexual intercourse and also its actual physical expression. It is not appropriate for me to try and describe the nature of the rituals in this essay. But I do think that the practice of Tantric Buddhism
(Vajrayana) is one of the areas where there can be no common ground because by its very nature Tantra is incompatible with Christianity. The Tantric Kalachakra rituals that are planned to take place in Toronto will have two aspects – the open or public initiations, and
the secret or esoteric rituals that the public will know nothing about.
Buddhists would be very angry if I tried to write about their secret rituals. Because I have chosen not to receive any of the initiations offered by the lamas, nor do I practice Tibetan Buddhist meditations I am viewed by them as being an ‘outsider’.
However this does not mean that I do not have Buddhists who are good friends and whom I respect. Open and friendly discussions with my friends and colleagues have often caused me to think about my own faith in new ways and I have found this beneficial and encouraging.
There is much scope in ongoing inter-religious dialogue between Tibetan Buddhists and Christians. My personal preference is for us to discuss with one another questions concerning selected areas of faith and practice. However I do not feel comfortable attending inter-
faith services, or sitting together and practicing shared meditation.
A Scottish Buddhist was interviewed several years ago by the well-known Buddhist magazine, Tricycle. I came across a copy of the interview recently while ‘surfing the net’. I will include a link to it in case you wish to read what she said.
Perhaps you feel I have been rather harsh in some of my comments. I have deliberately been so in some areas where I think there has previously been confusion – not amongst Buddhists - but amongst Christians! This is because I think that the basis for healthy and
meaningful dialogue is for both parties to show a real respect for one another despite of the fact that there are issues that we will never be able to agree upon.
May I close by suggesting that you read my other article on this web page entitled, Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity – what can we learn?
[i] Exodus 20 vv. 1-4. And God spoke all these words. “I am the Lord your God who rescued you from slavery in Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Do not worship any other gods besides me. Do not make idols of any kind, whether in the shape of birds, animals or fish.
You must never worship or bow down to them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not share your affection with any other god! I do not leave unpunished the sins of those who hate me, but I punish the children for the sins of their parents to the third
and fourth generations. But I lavish my love on those who love me and obey my commands, even for a thousand generations.