Continuing to think about time, I’d like to consider the architecture of cosmic time according to the Kālachakra Tantra, and how this temporal schema was further codified by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen.
First, we must look where Dolpopa tells us to look. There, in the Lokadhātupaṭala or Chapter on World Systems in the extensive Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālachakra we find a clear description of four cosmic eons (yuga): (1) Kṛtayuga, (2) Tretayuga, (3) Dvāparayuga, and the (4) Kaliyuga.
Paraphrasing the Vimalaprabhā, Dolpopa writes in the opening verses of his work titled, The Great Calculation of the Teachings that has the Significance of a Fourth Council,
- The four great eons concern the quality a cosmic age,
- and the four lesser eons concern the quality of the teaching.
The first division [or great eon period] is 4,320,000 years,
a quarter of which is explained to be a “foot.”
One “foot,” two, three, and four are explained to be
sequentially the Kṛtayuga, Tretayuga, Dvāparayuga, and the Kaliyuga.
As for the lesser four eons that concern the quality of the teaching,
the duration of each of these four eons is a quarter of 21,600 human years.
The four great eons and the four lesser eons are divisions of the Kṛtayuga or “Golden Age.” Taking the total of these times to be the Kṛtayuga, the subsequent degeneration of this age are the Tretayuga, the Dvāparayuga, and the Kaliyuga. As Dolpopa states, the four great eons are divided according to the criteria of the quality of time, and the four lesser eons according to the quality of the teachings associated with each particular time.
The great eons are measured in quarters of 1,080,000 years, totaling 4,320,000 years. The lesser eons are measured in quarters of 5,400 years, totaling 21,600 years. Each quarter sub-division is called a “foot” (rkang pa), referring to the name of the metric unit. When 1 “foot” or a quarter period of the Kṛtayuga ― 1/2 of the total cosmic age ― has degenerated, that is the Tretayuga. When 3/4 of the Kṛtayuga has degenerated, that is the Dvāparayuga. When there is less than a quarter of the total cosmic age, then that is the Kaliyuga. This eclipsed period is referred to as “black time,” a dark age when barbarians rule the world and the Buddha’s message has become virtually extinct.
With this structure of the greater and lesser cosmological times, Dolpopa distinguishes the teachings of the Kṛtayuga in comparison to those teachings of the degenerate eons. As we will see, Dolpopa seeks to extrapolate and explicate the pure doctrine from the golden age of the Buddha’s teachings. In doing so, we will find the association of the Zhentong Madhyamaka teachings with what he calls the “Kṛtayuga tradition.”
Next, I’d like to discuss some of the historical elements in this narrative by detailing important Buddhist figures and texts that Dolpopa and later Jonangpas identify as being of the Kṛtayuga tradition, as well as those that did not make the cut.
1. Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan. Bka’ bsdu bzhi pa’i don bstan rtsis chen po, 6 (ya), 166. In Kun mkhyen Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang. For a translation of the full text see Stearns, Cyrus. The Buddha from Dolpo. Albany, SUNY Press, 1999.
2. Here it reads, “dus bzhi chen po bskal dus bzang ngan te / dus bzhi chung ba bstan pa’i bzang ngan yin / dang po’i lo ni sa ya phrag bzhi dang / sum ‘bum nyi khri’o de’i bzhi cha ni / rkang pa zhes gsungs rkang pa gcig dang gnyis / gsum dang bzhi la rim bzhin rtsod ldan dang / gnyis ldan gsum ldan rdzogs ldan zhes gsungs so / dus bzhi chung ba bstan pa’i bzang ngan ni / mi lo nyi khri gcig stong drug brgya’i bar / de yi bzhi cha dus bzhi so so’i tshad.”