One of my favorite themes in tantric Buddhism is the mandala. The replicated symmetry of a perfected space and the implicit dialogue between the deity and the various facets of its environment have always fascinated me.
Recently, I had a chance to look closely at one specific mandala of the Kālachakra, one that is unlike the typical depiction. This particular mandala was commissioned by Lhachok Sengé (1468-1535) from Ngor Evam Choden Monastery, and is one of the famous Ngor Mandalas associated with the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. I understand that Ngor Monastery was pretty much demolished during the Cultural Revolution and that the stupa that was known for its mandalas is no longer a place of rich artistic value. However, as we see through this mandala and other examples, the artistic tradition of Ngor was not in a vacuum but in fact was in exchange with many of its neighbors in Central Tibet, including the Jonangpas just a few valleys away.
Though its uncertain what exact iconographic descriptions this painting was originally based on or what inspired Lhachok Sengé to commission it, we know that by the late 14th century there were regular exchanges between the Ngor and Jonang Kālachakra esoteric transmission lineages as well as related tantric systems. For instance, we find in a short text on questions and responses about issues related to the Kālachakra by Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (1382-1456), the founder of Ngor Monastery, that the Jonang tradition was highly influential in the Ngor practice tradition of the sixfold vajrayoga completion stage process. He specifically mentions transmission from the line of the Jonang master Chogle Namgyal (1306-1386). This is most likely a reference to the Sakya master Sharchen Yeshe Gyaltsen (d. 1406) who was a disciple of Chogle Namgyal, and one of the teachers of Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo. We also find reference to students of Kunga Drolchok from Ngor, and we know that Tāranātha regularly received visitors and had students from Ngor.
With this in mind, what then becomes an interesting question in my mind is to what extent were specific styles of Kālachakra art associated with the Sakya, Jonang, and also the Zhalu traditions at that time? Though the cross-influence of these styles remains to be researched (and could be very fruitful), we do know that this Ngor Kālachakra mandala is almost identical to a mandala found in the Ngor Collection compiled by the modern Tibetan master Sonam Gyatso, a previous abbot of Ngor Monastery. In his description, he reveals that a rendition of this painting was based on the Compendium of Tantra Sections that was conceived by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), and compiled by his disciple Loter Wangpo (1847-1914). As noted in the colophon of Loter Wangpo’s work, this mandala was based on the descriptions of the master Tāranātha (1575-1634), suggesting either the iconographic and architectural schema of the mandala is derived from the Jonang Kālachakra tradition or that Tāranātha was preserving an earlier Ngor description. Either way of course, this mandala and a stylistically similar Cakrasaṃvara mandala from 15th century Nepal show that these were derived from models of Newar art centuries earlier, thought its interesting to note how Tibetan masters assimilated these mandalas into their specific artistic and contemplative traditions.
Description of the Mandala:
At the center, on his throne above a sixteen petaled lotus, the resplendent Kālachakra deity has a body that is blue in complexion with twenty-four arms, four faces with three eyes each, and two legs. Viśvamātā, his infinitely diverse consort, has a body of golden complexion with two arms, and one face with three eyes. Her left leg is extended parallel to his red leg while her right leg is bent inward over his thigh as they stand in enlightened embrace.
The interior architecture of this maṇḍala is designed like a wheel (cakra, ‘khor lo) with seven progressively larger rings that circulate the principle deity from the center to the periphery of the mandala. There are then eight spokes that radiate from the center, each spoke originates from and oscillates around Kālachakra at the hub. At the cardinal points, each wheel of deities is occupied by a blazing goddess, then there are complimentary blazing goddesses on each inter-cardinal point. These goddesses are each single with two arms and one face with three eyes. In the spaces between these goddesses are eight skull-cups filled with ambrosia on lotus petals.
Emanating outward from the hub, each of the successive wheels is occupied by a unique ḍākinī in union with her ḍāka. As is typical within Kālachakra design, each wheel is constituted by one of the elements and is progressively subtler as it reaches the periphery. Consecutively, the second wheel is the mandala of pristine wisdom from which the elemental mandalas generate, the third is the mandala of earth, the fourth is the mandala of water, the fifth is the mandala of fire, the sixth is the mandala of ether, the seventh is the mandala of space. Eight portals are located at the perimeter of each spoke with serpentine protectors together with their consorts at guard. Sixteen cremation grounds are seamlessly linked to encompass the entire mandala, surrounded by a protective ring of fire.
In total, the ḍākinī and ḍāka deities of these seven wheels on each of their eight spokes are counted as seventy-two. Kālachakra in union with Viśvamātā is counted as the seventy-third, giving this piece the name, “The Seventy-Three Deity Mahāsaṁvara Kālachakra Mandala.”
1. This post is revised from my forthcoming article titled, A Radial Ngor Kālachakra Mandala to be published in Mandala: The Perfect Circle catalog by the Rubin Museum of Art, 2009. This mandala is found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. See also the description of this mandala on the Himalayan Art Resources site, and note that the lineage from Droton up through Changsem Gyalwa Yeshe is Jonang.
2. On the Ngor tradition, see Jackson, David. Sources on the Chronology and Succession of the Abbots of Ngor E-waṃ-chos-ldan. Berliner Indologische Studien. Band 4/5: 49-93, 1989.
3. In Sa bzang bsod nams dpal gyi dris lan, 4, 663. On the exchanges between the Jonang and Ngor on the Vajravali mandala, see Huntington, John C. and Dina Bangdel. The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. Columbus Museum of Art and Serindia Publications, 317-320, 2004.
4. See Bsod nams rgya mtsho. The Ngor Mandalas of Tibet. 1-2. Tokyo: The Center for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1991. On the reference, see Blo gter dbang po, ‘Jam dbyangs and Mkhyen brtse’i dbang po. Rgyud sde kun btus: Texts Explaining the Significance, Techniques, and Initiations of a Collection of One Hundred and Thirty Two Mandalas of the Sa skya pa Tradition. Dehli: Gyaltsen and Lungtok, 1971-1972.