“Wheel of Time” I

Lately, I’ve been thinking about time. Time in the cliché sense of that which “does not stop for anyone.” Historical time. Real time. Blinks and breathes and heart-beats. The wax and wane of moons, the expansion of universes, the radiant pulses of quasars. That basic conceptual structure that flows as the space-time continuum… The ticks and nanoticks that sequentially measure the magnitude and momentum of our lives.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the Jonangpa master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen thought about time. How his concept of time has contributed to a re-visioning of Buddhist history, and from where his concept derived.[1]

Dolpopa was concerned with framing his realizations in accord with the Kālachakra Tantra, and the lineage of his realizations within the framework of the cosmological schema described by the tantra. In fact, I’d like to suggest that Dolpopa’s understanding of time according to the Kālachakra was so central to his realizations that we must seek to understand this concept of time if we are to think seriously about the larger zhentong paradigm.

What makes this especially interesting is that time is what the Kālachakra is all about. The word Kālachakra actually means “Wheel of Time,” and its title is referring to the esoteric meaning that the tantra conveys. In elaborating on this meaning, the 19th century Jonang Kālachakra master Bamda Gelek quotes the Vimalaprabhā commentary,[2]

    • This is how the meaning of the Kālachakra [Tibetan: dus kyi ‘khor lo] is explained:

‘Time’ (dus) refers to that which is free from the infinitude of defilement, the wisdom of immutable bliss that realizes the very actuality of all phenomena.

‘Wheel’ (‘khor lo) refers to that which goes completely beyond the limits of the cycle of what can be known within the three worlds. This is wisdom endowed with the very identity of every facet of what can be known without exception, and is referred to as ’emptiness.’ This is the expression of emptiness: the vajra-dimension.[3] In this way, the enlightened dimension is endowed with every facet of the cycle of what can be known.

Time exists due to the wisdom of great immutable bliss: the wisdom-dimension.

So, that which is associated with what is known as ‘time’ indicates the single identity of the nature of this twofold enlightened dimension [vajra and wisdom]. Likewise, this is the identity of the indivisibility of bliss and emptiness.

That’s why it is called, ‘Wheel of Time.'[4]

With this definition in mind, I’ll use upcoming posts to explore the architecture of cosmic time as described within the Kālachakra, and to discuss how the concept of time found within the tantra was further elaborated by Dolpopa.


1. Since this is a topic of considerable complexity and depth, I’ll be dedicating a series of short posts to this discussion on time with the hope that it will develop into further conversations on related themes. For further discussion, see also Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory, 106-119. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2000.

2. ‘Ba’ mda’ dge legs rgya mtsho. Dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i rdzogs rim sbyor ba yan lag drug gi spyi don legs par bshad pa rdo rje bdud rtsi’i chu gter, 14, 1-550. In ‘Ba’ mda’ bla ma’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang.

3. The term being translated here as “expression of emptiness” is śūnyatā-biṃba (Tibetan: stong pa nyid kyi gzugs brnyan or stong gzugs). This is a key term in the Kālachakra. It has also been translated as “empty form” and “empty image.” The actual term that is often condensed in Tibetan is “gzugs brnyan,” meaning reflection, expression, or manifestation. It is referring to an experience of emptiness that is visceral and somatic, not simply visible or tangible.

4. Here it reads, “khyod la dus kyi ‘khor lo’i don bshad du yod de / dus ni dri ma mtha’ dag dang bral zhing chos thams cad kyi de kho na nyid rtogs pa’i ‘gyur med bde ba’i ye shes yin zhing / ‘khor lo ni khams gsum gyi shes bya’i ‘khor lo mtha’ yas pa’i rnam par ‘gro ba ste shes bya’i rnam pa ma lus pa’i bdag nyid can gyi shes rab stong pa nyid ces bya ba stong gzugs rdo rje’i sku de yin la / de ‘dre’i shes bya’i ‘khor lo’i rnam pa kun dang ldan pa’i sku de ni dus mi ‘gyur ba’i bde ba chen po’i ye shes las grub pa’i ye shes sku yin pas de dang sku gnyis ngo bo bdag gcig pa’i ‘brel ba ston pa la dus kyi zhes drug sgra sbyar ba yin pa gang zhig / de ‘dra’i bde stong dbyer med pa’i bdag nyid yin pas khyod la dus kyi ‘khor lo zhes brjod pa’i phyir / ‘grel chen las.

Blog Category: Research Articles


  1. James Rutke on June 6, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Sorry, Michael, I still cannot agree with your translation. Expression of emptiness leaves out the key meaning of bimba as expressed in the Monier-Williams entry, p.731c: the object compared (as opposed to pratibimba, the counterpart to which it is compared). Bimba is not an expression of emptiness, it is that which is compared to emptiness.

    As for your reluctance to settle upon a visual word like image or reflection, I suggest that you read Sferra on the Sadanga Yoga text of Anupamarakshita where he concludes that after experiencing the last of the ten signs, all of them visual, “the yogin can see and then meditate on a last apparition in the middle of it, which is technically called the ‘universal image’ (vishvabimba; Tib., sna tshogs gzugs). This text does not mention a ‘Buddha’s image’ (buddhabimba; Tib., sangs rgyas gzugs) and ‘void image’ or ‘image of the void’ (shunyabimba; Tib., stong pa’i gzugs), which appear in the same context in other sources….” (p.23)

    Do you know Sanskrit?

    • Michael R. Sheehy on June 9, 2008 at 3:16 am

      stong gzugs
      The point that I’m emphasizing in the above note is not based on the Sanskrit term but on the Tibetan term as it is understood within the Tibetan Kālachakra traditions.

      The reason why I mention this is that most Tibetan lamas who never left Tibet, have not studied Sanskrit, and the living knowledge of these terms is derived from generations of experience and oral instructions. My translation choice is based on this Tibetan understanding, as it was explained to me. Arguably, Tāranātha was the last great translator from Sanskrit into Tibetan (and that was over 370 years ago!).

      The full form of the term is “stong pa nyid kyi gzugs brnyan.” The term “gzugs brnyan” has the semantic range in the Tibetan language of reflection, expression, manifestation, as well as image and picture. Though the term often does carry the connotation of some kind of visual reference ― since the visual experience is so often dominant, that’s not exactly the meaning being stressed in this context of the Kālachakra six-fold vajrayoga terminology (as I understand it). These are manifestations of absolute emptiness sublimely endowed with all aspects of lucidity, bliss, etc., not ordinary awareness, and not solely seen.

      I have studied Sanskrit. Thanks for your comments.

      • James Rutke on June 9, 2008 at 6:53 pm

        Yes, Michael, I see that gzugs brnyan is glossed in nitartha.org’s online dictionary with the words expression and manifestation. So I can understand your choice. I prefer the Sanskrit original, however, on the grounds that the range of the language used to translate is always broader and can yield results worse than imprecision. As we all know from the experiences of public figures, there can be some real howlers in the language of the translation. Yet I ahould also mention that a look at Goldstein’s Modern Tibetan dictionary shows brnyan to be used in overwhelmingly visual contexts, including television and video.

      • James Rutke on June 11, 2008 at 3:12 pm

        Jamgon Kongtrul was famous for his Sanskrit in the 19th century. He made his living and much of his reputation teaching Sanskrit and he and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo even wrote Sanskrit letters to each other. More importantly, they made examination of the original Sanskrit texts a core practice of their Impartialism (ri-me). The summaries of monastic yig chas gave way to primary sources.

        As you know Kongtrul and Khyentse were the prime movers in getting the Jonang teachings out of exile and into wider circulation. They also spent a considerable amount of time with the Kalachakra Tantra. Khyentse made the connection to the Mayajvala teachings and in particular to Manjushri. The full expression of shunyabimba as stong pa’i gzugs brnyan is found in his Manjushri Lion of Speech stotra which takes each word of the Sanskrit mantra as the starting point for his lines of poetry. In Kongrul’s autobiography, he mentions studying and teaching in dzam thang.

        Sanskrit learning was there right at the beginning of the Jonang revival and continued on as a part of all those traditions associated with the Ri-me. Also, it did not stop with Taranatha. Recently I began looking at the Kalachakra writings of Katok Rinzin Tsewang Norbu (1698-1755) and noticed that the Tibetan title of his major work was acompanied by a Sanskrit title. Perhaps Cyrus Stearns knows more about the role of Sanskrit in the transmission to Tai Situ and others he describes in Buddha from Dolpo, pp.74ff. He also notes how Tsewang Norbu was the precursor of the Ri-me.

        So those are a few of the reasons why it is so important to take guidance from the original Sanskrit text of the Kalachakra and the surviving sadanga yoga texts like that of Anupamarakshita. Such practice follows closely upon the practice of the continuators of the Jonang and many other traditions.

        • Michael R. Sheehy on June 11, 2008 at 6:00 pm

          Honor the Sanskrit
          Yes, of course, we must honor the Sanskrit when available. No doubt. However, there is also the living knowledge of these terms that cannot be found in a dictionary. I would like to suggest that we need both.

          Jamgon Kongtrul is a good example of someone who honored the Sanskrit texts. There are several examples after the time of Tāranātha. For instance, Mipham compiled his own Sanskrit-Tibetan glossary, etc. Though there are these and other examples of Tibetans learned in Sanskrit, no great translators come to mind.

          At some point, I’ll write a post on the Jonangpa influence on Rimé eclecticism, including a discussion on Kongtrul and Khyentse’s appropriation and variation of zhentong. There are some fascinating relationships and developments to be told there.

    • Johnson on October 24, 2009 at 9:17 pm

      By the looks of things in
      By the looks of things in the picture, time is a maze that we slowly drift through until we find our purpose in life. Well, that’s my view anyway. provillusearth4energygrow taller 4 idiotsmagic of making uphow to stop acnehomemade energyprovillus review

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