Ever since coming into contact with Tibetan Buddhism, I had become extremely intrigued by its rich philosophy and its pantheon of powerful deities. Nothing inspires the imagination more than a deity with multiple faces, hands and implements that is one fire.
There quite a number of such deities and one I had come across over and over again is Heruka Cakramsamvara. My initial impression on Heruka was one that is powerful but somewhat indistinguishable from the other multi-armed deities. It would take me another year or so in Dharma before I start to distinguish the deities and come to understand that each deity is the center of an entire meditative and textual tradition as well. This is where the nerd-scholar (wannabe) in me kicks in and I am presenting a little of what I have picked up from Rinpoche’s explanations and books over the years. They are in no way definitive explanations as I am not even a practitioner.
Tantra or tantrism represents an entire esoteric body of philosophical and meditative systems that was prevalent in ancient India that the Buddha had incorporated into his growing body of teachings. It is said that the Buddha himself miraculously appeared on several locations and in mystical aspects (as the blue-hued Buddha Vajradhara) in order to expound various teachings on Tantra. The central theme of the Tantra is to take the fruit as the path and thus the meditative tradition stresses on deity yoga or the generation (via meditative visualization) as the deity in order to achieve enlightenment directly or indirectly.
In the meditative tradition of Buddhist tantra, there are 4 classes of tantra that are arranged in ascending order – Kriya, Carya, Yoga and Annuttara Yoga Tantra. The lower tantras consists of the Kriya, Carya and Yoga tantras and they are mainly classification of meditational practices (sadhanas) of various deities that alter the physical/mental constituents in preparation for higher tantra such as Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Tara and so forth. Higher Tantra on the other hand consists of meditative practices that bring about full enlightenment via the 2 stages (generation and completion) of manipulating and gathering the psychic channel within the central channel. The Cakrasamvara Tantra belongs to the higher tantra class and contains all the necessary instructions to bring one to realize the union of bliss and emptiness (enlightenment).
The name Cakrasamvara or Khorlo Demchog in Tibetan literally means Wheel of Great Bliss. The attainment of clear light is the central methodology of this tantric system and hence, it belongs to the Mother Tantra. Mother or Father Tantra does not refer to gender nor to our biological parents but to the attainment of clear light (mother) or illusory body (father), both of which are mental states when psychic winds have been successfully gathered in the central channel. Cakrasamvara belongs to mother tantra class.
Scripturally, the Cakrasamvara Tantra dates from around the late 8th to the 9th Century CE by scholars. According to scriptural sources, the original Cakrasamvara Tantra were in two editions, in 300,000 verses and in 100,000 verses. Just like many other tantras, these two editions were never translated and is no longer extent. Fortunately, there is an abbreviated root tantra that was translated and the entire text is divided into 51 chapters. Interestingly, in the chapters 47 and 48 explains about the yogini tantra of Vajrayogini. There were other Sanskrit tantric texts but they were supplimentary explanations on Cakrasamvara.
In terms of meditative practice, there are three prevalent lineages of Cakramsamvara that stem all the way back to three great Indian Mahasiddhas – Luipa, Ghantapa and Krishnacarya. The 62-deity Luipa Cakrasamvara is the most complex in its presentation of the external mandala of Heruka Cakrasamvara and the one is the usually practiced within Gelug monasteries today. The 5-deity Ghantapa body mandala is a unique lineage in which the initiation is given based on a mandala generated within the body of the lama instead of an external palace mandala. Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche was said to have recommended this lineage. The Krishnacarya lineage of Cakrasamvara is not proliferated but his extensive explanatory writings on Cakrasamvara Root Tantra is highly regarded for its clarity and accessibility.
The Cakrasamvara deity has a decidedly exotic origins and the this story is told in the Indian texts. The following is an account given in the text that is popularly told by Tibetan lamas. In Tibet, Shiva called Maha Ishvara, and his consort Uma reside on top of Mount Meru, and they have emanations in the twenty-four sacred places. As a worldly god, he had a lot of power and constantly revelled in sexual pleasure. His worshippers were all eating human flesh, drinking human blood and acting in all sorts of strange and lustful ways.
It was decided that its time subdue him, Vajradhara emanates in the form of Chakrasamvara, looking exactly in the same manner as Shiva looked – he had ashes smeared all over his body, crescent moon in his piled up hair and so forth. Using his psychic powers, he examined his mysterious opponent and realized that he was no match against the Buddha. Hence, he surrendered and subdued. Shiva offered himself as mere cushion for his feet. Cakrasamvara along with his retinue of dakas and dakinis took over the 24 sacred places
Cakrasamvara typically is depicted with a blue-coloured body, four faces – white, yellow, red and blue faces, twelve arms, and embracing his consort, Vajrayogini in union. Twelve of his arms – two hold up an elephant skin held to his back, two hold a vajra and bell with hands crossed at his chest, another one holds a damaru, khatvanaga, skullcup filled with blood, a vajra noose, severed head of Brahma, a trident, a drigug chopper and vajra hook.
All twelve limbs correspond to Heruka’s power to subdue each of the 12 interdependent limbs that compels all beings to take rebirth repeatedly. Naturally, there are a number of lineages with differing limbs and appearances. Cakrasaṃvara and Vajrayogini is not quite the husband and wife or two different deities. They are in reality, the same being manifesting as two deities in union to represent the union of great bliss and emptiness. Thus, Heruka Cakrasamvara remains one the ‘crown jewel’ of Tibetan Buddhism for its popularity, efficacy and practitioners. To this day, it is the main practice of numerous lamas and meditators all over, especially those with the Gelug tradition.