The Mahakala Tantra — The Main Guardian of the Karma Kagyu Tradition

Wolfgang Keim
Artist, Musician, Translator and Poet, Stuttgart, Germany


The Risks and Dangers of Translating Tantra in the Modern World

Many tantric texts seem to be unintelligible, because of their very high psychological and mystical level and complexity. Tantra is a method, extremely complicated and hard to grasp for some, so the path may be considered dangerous. Traditional teachers will attempt to guide their students by having personal talks and so forth, while attempting to offer psychological guidance during this hazardous undertaking.

One must understand that the text refers to the problems of the day, during the times of the tantra itself. The mysterious texts and archetypal deities often become a source of misunderstanding etc., if they are not properly explained. For example, one might see a wrathful protector and assume it has the authorization to hurt everyone in its path. Unfortunately, such misunderstandings are quite frequent.

As guidance is often only scarcely provided from handbooks, the given deity's different personality is not fully developed to reveal their true individual character and total faculties. In order to avoid mental problems one requires translations that are more elaborate. It is a common fault to consider the Tibetan lama as an omnipotent person who can convey everything by his own like through his blessing, but in reality, what is required is the hard work of translation as in the Tibetan tradition.

Generally, the Sadhana is an art form of literature and actually of the "art of meditation" of the Buddhist tradition. Studying thoroughly the extreme diversity and beauty of these texts and Materials of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism becomes obvious. It is an art form similar to the arts in Europe. Aspects like architecture are included and it is interesting to wonder if the Greek temple traditions do derive from the influence of the visualized temples of the Mandalas.

Unfortunately, these texts are in the west mainly because of the exoticness of the culture and because of many unknown techniques of meditation with visual imagination hardly known to the public. These ideas with archetypal deities and skillfully arranged divers visualization-techniques partly joined with Yoga and breathing exercises make up an aspect of the depth psychological/religious advanced civilization of the secret charmed-path of Buddhism. Regrettably, as they are like many aspects in Buddhism that are arranged on a subtle and supersensory level, they appear to be strange and become unintelligible to the western coarse.

A major example for such an attitude is the reverence of Thangkas as a pure work of art and not as a pictorial pattern of imagination with the image of a deity designed by invitation during a meditative state. Studies of metaphysics for the understanding of such a condition may be flawed due to a lack of texts readily available. Notwithstanding, one may now ask what purpose does the ritual have?

Each archetype or each deity has a character adequate to the deposition of the practitioner. This relationship may develop from the profession of the person. A doctor might consider meditation for healing, or the scholar will practice Manjushri (the deity of learning), and so forth.

The written part of the ritual typically contains first, the ritual texts, explanations and special rituals for empowerment (a kind of introductory showing of the meditation) and then explanations of mystical and historical origination. Then comes the ritual. Sadly, many rituals that are translated at the moment are abbreviated, so that only learned specialists have the insights required to experience the actual presence and beauty of the practice. This illustrates why we need to fund translations of the ritual in full, by those properly studied and who have themselves performed the practices necessary to understand them.

Those who feel the art and culture of this religio-mystical and psychological tradition is especially adored and profound, might give thought to becoming a Tibetan Mongolian Museum Society "Patron of the Arts" and offer their generous financial support, so that practitioners, scholars, translators and art experts may all collaborate with unified benefit.

Along those lines, I have thus planned the translation of several texts that I wish to introduce to the world, and ask that if your are interested in learning more, to please visit my site: Art, music, translation, poetry, by Wolfgang Keim.


The research comprised now of more than 55 texts of the Kagyu and Nyingma schools (mainly Tibetan and some English secondary literature); a huge mass of texts from the bstan 'gyur thus probably of Indian origin (this including two Sanskrit texts, one with 11 manuscript versions in Newari script and one smaller similar one) and more than 250 photographs, yet remarkably the iconography is still incomplete.

The texts are arranged by different levels of difficulty and length. From this body of texts, the most significant are to be chosen and translated with the background study of the historical material and the secondary literature. Such is my modern account of the complexity and size of the tantra. It is here where the huge mass of work is further underscored by the impossibility of completion without financial sponsoring.

In order to introduce the tantra, what follows, is a translation-sketch of original descriptions from the history of the tantra and it might serve to illustrate the translators' dilemma, even more clearly.

Intome historical persons and additional facts:

  • Dombhi Heruka the great Indian Mahasiddha the visionary composer of the father-mother tantra (about 750A.D.).

  • Padmasambhava a great force of spread of the Buddhist tantric tradition in the first period of translation during the first millennium. The great Saint of Tibet with his huge collection of during political problems hidden treasure, the rin chen gter mdzod, nowadays he is considered as the founder of the rnying ma (he is said to have entered Tibet in 747 A.D.).

  • The translator Marpa who has influenced different orders (1012-1097 A.D).

  • The lineage of the historical Karmapas (starting 1110 A.D.) especially ka r+ma pak+Si the second Karmapa (1204-1283 A.D.) who is renown as the magician Marco Polo saw at the court of the Chinese emperor (probably Kublai at this time) and the lineage of the historical Situ (starting 1377 A.D.) and Shamar Rinpoches (starting 1283): These comprising mainly the representatives of the present day Karma Kagyu order that has further extensions as the smaller Kagyu orders.

  • The bstan 'gyur, the huge collection of Indian commentaries that had been translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan.

  • The maNDala of the tantra may be seen on the website choose item no. 215

  • As a scholar and historian my deceased friend pad ma rgyal mtshan working at the  Central Institute of higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath assisted me for the specific context.

From ka rma pak+Si's commentary to the ritual:


The listening-tradition-instruction without letters of the great accomplished ka r+ma pa k+Si having notes of the instruction and an oral guide of the mother-and- guardian-kissing-countenances / here generation-stage, different actions, the completion stage, the accomplishment of the ritual are completely present /[1]

na mo gu ru maha+'a ka+'a la+'a ya also from the tantra big black circle of life[2]:the glorious black guardian and / the black goddess not as two" and from the tantra superior jewel shoulder ornament[3]: "embracing on the left the mother's way / one's pure mind the deity's body / really having meditated this accomplished" and from the great secret-forceful-deity tantra[4]: "the three mantras of the kissing countenances of body speech and mind / the long mantra of the kissing countenance and the black print[5] the extensively taught tantra-meaning and / after having been prophesised to Do m+bi he ru ka by both mother and guardian by subsuming the intent of the eighteen tantras the thus arranged Indian scripture of the kissing countenances accomplishing method and the oral-instruction-wind-guide[6], the instruction of lord mar pa, the topic of the lho brag[7]guardian," all these, have been gathered into one and this according to the vision of the great accomplished pa kSi himself composed scripture, this is the root.

Regarding this, after having added the main bare father guardian of the ras chen[8] tradition to the main bare mother deities of the dus mkhyen[9] tradition into one ritual the meditaion as four staggered wheels[10] was composed by lord sky-


conduct[11]. Although mtshur phu's[12]'jam dbyangs pa[13] prohibited it the secret biography of lord sky-conduct says: It was taught that the great accomplished ones of India and Tibet, the empowerments' and winds'[14] instructions of sutras' and tantras' instructions and all personal deities were requested during real experience dream[15] and as it is unsure if he has produced it himself lord mthong ba don ldan[16] being a follower of sky-conduct has composed a sleepy guardian ritual.

Regarding this mi bskyod zhabs[17] ordered: "as there are some of my adherents that regarding the food wanted can't cope with studying write this one ritual guide condensing the guardian to a smaller form" and based on the order lord dkon mchog 'bangs[18] after having composed this present printed edition of three classes[19] he recorded it as a print.

Regarding this one ritual to be recited: like the ras chen tradtion, the bare father accomplishing tradition, like the tradition of dus mkhyen, the bare mother accomplishing tradition, like the father-law of ka rma pa k+Si, the black-print accomplishing method, like mar pa's tradition, the limitless different channel-wind-practice means of applying[20] and so forth, thus the volume concerning lord dbang phyug rdo rjes's[21] small block print and so forth, the volume that has all these arranged by dkon mchog 'bangs into one direction, some former old scriptures of numerous different classes i have seen and si tu chos kyi rgyal mtshan pa[22] and dpal khang lo tsa' ba's origin-law[23] then if well examining the two quite big volumes of the mother and guardian tantra all seems to be entirely complete in this present printed edition, thus in this regard uncommon to others the instruction that the great accomplished pa k+Si declared, this being quite profound and in the scripture not a mere root-word scattered, therefore as the master's guide only is important, like this.  

A further similar description:

This is the black-mantra[24]-text elucidating gaps, missing or unclear parts for the clearly arranged visualisation steps of the fulfilling and restoring ritual of the glorious brothers-sisters-guardian of primordial knowledge with a black cloak[25]

na mo ma ha+'a sa r+va j+ny+'ada r+kSa dha r+ma+'a ka ra ya[26] / Here the visualisation steps of the fulfilling and restoring ritual of "the glorious big black guardian of primordial knowledge with the black cloak" and the meaning of the words[27] will be explained a bit. Generally it has been taught that this guardian comes from "the naked one with the copper knife" of "the thunderbolt tent tantra"[28] and from the accomplishing methods  of the guardians starting from the two armed up to the sixteen armed of the before arisen guardian tantra[29].


Nowadays in his lordship's hands[30] in an early not translated tantra of the guardian in the Indian text there are even many of such accomplishing methods[31] and after having been entrusted to the great master of the glorious heruka[32] the padma-arisen[33] the tantra arisal of accomplishment[34] and the small twenty one tantras[35] etc. were transmitted by treasure[36] or instruction[37] whichever fitting. From a powerful lineage being endowed with a fruition not deluded about the two types of accomplishment revealed from the expanse of visions of some naturally realised heroes and yoginis having held the ways of mantra here in Tibet, also the text and instruction of the three actions of recitation accomplishment[38] of this guardian appear to be taught whichever fitting.

The single father guardian from the entourage of "mixing wind"[39]  by lho brag mar pa lo tsa' ba[40]is asserted to be based on "the Dakini thunderbolt"[41]tantra. This and what is called the single guardian of g+ha ya d+ha ra seems to be an identical form[42].

The present Sakya tradition tent guardian[43] with the sa ga position[44], this, and what is known as the eight deities[45] ,this also, has been hidden as a treasure by master pad ma for the sake of the sa s+kya pa teaching and then been taken out by the earth treasure teacher pa dma dbang phyug in gangs 'khar hole and then passed to the great lord rgya gar ba[46] and regarding the pu Ta s[47] this one was invited by lha btsun byang chub 'od from bsam yas, then entrusted to rje bla ma dam pa[48] and is right this strong and powerful blessing comprising treasure[49] and oral transmission[50].

Accomplishment methods like these, because being the tantras present here in Tibet and because being the ones which were not taught anywhere in the Indian texts, for these exactly "treasures" is very much correct and so forth as bzlog blo gros rgyal mthsan has also explained like that well. I have seen some being later renown as learned explaining this wrongly.

The bare father surrounded by the guardians of the ten directions[51], this, is known as the tradition of 'gro dgon ras chen. This appears to be given from master Do m+bi pa[52]to mal lo blo gros grags pa[53] and then it seems to be transmitted up to 'gro dgon ras chen. It is asserted that this mal jo lo 'tsa' is identical with zangs dkar lo tsa', and also my reverend[54] asserts him to be mal glo gros grags. Thus the story that this origin is slob dpon pa dma Do m+bi he ru ka is there in the plain-letter[55] and, being interlinked thus, it is only certain that master pa dma[56] has handed it to mal lo. So it is explained that based on the ten directions' guardians ging kara tantra[57] master pa d+ma has done it. 

What is reknown as "kissing countenances" (the deity in union with the consort), this, ka rma pa k+Si's father-law[58] master pa d+ma[59] has hidden it in a treasure for god's son mu khri[60] and then when not yet having conquered the four borders[61] of Tibet[62] god's son took out this profound natural law from the treasure.

From stag nam mka'i lha bzung up to ka r+ma pak+Si it became a successive lineage among the heads of monastic supervisors. This, the guardian to be meditated as oneself, is the tradition that is to be accomplished like the primordial knowledge.

This self arisen godess[63] is here in Tibet concerning rdo rje phur pa from the oral tradition[64] and gzhin rje dmar nag[65] and regarding phur srung re ma Ti[66] from this it is the part ma mo tantra scipture ocean[67] of what is reknown as the the ma bshin phur gsum[68] and Master pa dma[69], having a bit a connection to it, has handed it to pu rang's[70] zhang btsun da r+ma rin chen. Many the like transmitted oral traditions[71] of the goddess re ma Ti[72]  have been gathered at dus gsum khyen pa[73] and thus regarding the guardian the three main ones have been made kissing countenances, and by this, this ritual joined into one was made by lord mighty-sky-conduct[74] after he the guardian himself gave him the order and in addition to that ka r+ma pa mthong ba don ldan has elucidated and extended it.

In this way after just mentioning names the scripture has to be entered[75]. Furthermore in case the self generation is done by dgyes rdor[76] phag mo[77] rgyal ba rgya mtsho[78] the tantra guardian with the copper knife[79] the entourage of the guardian is to be aroused in front: it is accomplished like the guardians of law[80] that means it is accomplished as the worldly guardian[81] and if after one has meditated the self generation as legs ldan[82] together with the protecting circle one has to visualise in front the supreme son the black one with a cloak. This has then been accomplished as the action guardian[83] and if oneself and in front both have to be accomplished as father-mother kissing countenances then this has been accomplished as primordial knowledge guardian[84]. From these the fastest blessing, strength and great power is right the last tradition.

[1] grub chen ka rma pakSi'i man ngag yi ge med pa'i snyan brgyud ma mgon zhal sbyor sgrub pa'i man ngag zin bris ngag khrid yod / 'di la bsked rim las tshogs rdzogs rim chog sgrub cha tshang lags so /
[2] nag po chen po srog gi 'khor lo'i rgyud
[3] 'phags pa rin chen dpung rgyan  gyi rgyud
[4] drag po'i lha rgyud gsang ba chen po
[5] refers to a printed text
[6] snyan brgyud rlung khrid,
[7] a part of mar pa's name which consists of the respective place-name
[8] 'gro dgon ras chen, 1088-1158 A.D., is considered to be the first of the 3 reincarnations previous to the first Si tu pa. He was a teacher of the first ka r+ma pa
[9] the first ka rma pa, 1110-1093 A.D.
[10] alludes to the arrangement of the mandala, before there was a smaller arrangement
[11] rje mkha' spyod pa, the 2. shwa dmar pa, 1350-1405 A.D..
[12]  the name of the main monastery of the kagyu tradition
[13] a bla ma of the place
[14] oral reading transmission
[15] dngos nyams rmi lam; a vision that is a dream really perceiving seeing and hearing
[16]  the 6. ka r+ma pa, 1416-1453 A.D.
[17] the 8.  ka rma pa mi bskyod rdo rje,1507-1554 A.D
[18] prob. The 5. shwa dmar pa, 1525-15-83 A.D. had this book made in order to increase wealth etc. by the method easily
[19] pad ma rgyal mtshan says: three types of printed books
[20] rtsa rlung nyams len
[21] the 9. ka r+ma pa, 1556-1603 A.D.
[22] the 5. si tu pa, 1586-1657 A.D.
[23] pad ma rgyal mtshan said that this is a text relating the mystical history of the deities and the tantra
[24] name of the author being practitioner of mantra
[25] / dpal ye shes kyi mgon po ber nag can lcam dral gyi bskang gso'i cho ga'i dmigs rim gsal bar bkod pa sngags nag kha yi hong gtam zhes bya ba bzhug so //
[26] the name refers according to pad ma rgyal mtshan to a disciple of the 8. si tu pa, chos kyi 'byung gnas, 1700-1754 A.D.
[27]  of the ritual text for reciting etc.
[28] rdo rje gur gyi rgyud, rdo rje gur: Skrt: AryaDAkinIvajrapanJjaramahAtantrarAjakalpa; pad ma rgyal mtshan says that rdo rje gur is the name of one particular commentary of hevajra
[29] this seems to refer to the texts of the bstan 'gyur which have been partly described and researched regarding mainly the remaining Sanskrit originals by William George Stablein
[30] prob. The si tu pa above
[31]  thus probably texts from the collection of  the present Sanskrit originals
[32] the deity: chems chogs he ru ka
[33] padmasambhava; pa d+ma 'byung gnas
[34] dngos grub 'byung rgyud; for: dngos grub 'byung ba'i gter, Skrt: siddhisaMbhavanidhi. pad ma rgyal mtshan says it's from the collection: rnying ma rgyud 'bum
[35] rgyud chung nyer gcig
[36] gter ma
[37] bka' ma
[38] bsnyen bsgrub las gsum
[39] rlung bsre
[40] mar pa, the translator
[41] mkha' 'gro rdo rje gur gyi rgyud; Skrt.:DakinIvajrapanJara
[42] this paragraph seems to refer to a special tradition of gtum mo from the commentary of karma pak+Si and a text in ka r+ma pa mkha' khyab rdo rje's collection on the mentioned tradition which still uses the naked deity close to the one from bstan 'gyur in the visualisation
[43] gur dgon; Skrt: panYjaranAth
[44] standing, with both feet spread a bit
[45] lha brgyad; Skrt: aSTadeva panYjaranAth
[46] bdag chen rgya gar ba; a sa s+kya bla ma
[47] pad ma rgyal mtshan says it is probably Skrt: putra, - son, here a spiritual son
[48] pad ma rgyal mtshan: an eleventh century bla ma
[49] gter ma
[50] bka' ma
[51] these are the deities of the second wheel here
[52] slob dpon Do m+bi pa
[53] a translator or "lo tswa ba"
[54] bla ma
[55] thang yig; referring to a text in the pa d+ma bka' thang by padmasambhava
[56] Do m+bi he ru ka; slob dpon pa dma
[57] phyogs bcu'i dgon po ging ka ra'i rgyud, pad ma rgal mtshan in;Tib:  king ka ra; Skrt: kiMkara - doing what?
[58] yab chos - a practice transmitted "from father to sons" in the own order
[59] here: padmasambhava Tib. slob dpon pa dma
[60] lha sras mu khri, the son of king khri srong de'u btsan one of the kings of the early spread of dharma in Tibet
[61] up to all borders
[62] pad ma rgyal mtshan says: he afterwards conquered all Tibet
[63] lha mo rang byung ma, Skrt: svayaMbhu devI
[64] Tib. phur pa bka' ma, rdo rje phur pa of the bka' ma tradition; Skrt: vajrakIlaya
[65] pad ma rgyal mtshan says this could be similar to the Skrt:  kRSNayamAritantram
[66] same as below: ma bshin phur gsum 
[67] ma mo rgyud gzhung rgya mtsho; ma mo meaning: grandmother, mother and godess
[68] an abbreviation of ma mo, gshin rje and rdo rje phur pa
[69] padmasambhava
[70] a placename
[71] could also be written texts
[72] lha mo re ma Ti
[73] the first ka rma pa
[74] rje mka' spyod dbang po; 2. shwa dmar pa, 1350-1405 A.D.
[75] refering the to the lineage prayer of the ritual
[76] Skrt: hevajra
[77] Skrt: vajravArAhI,
[78] Skrt: avalokiteshvara jinasAgara
[79] rgyud mgon gcer bu zangs gri can; or: mgon po bcer bu bzang gri can; Skrt: tAmrasvaD,gagna mahAkAla
[80] chos skyong
[81] 'jig rten gyi mgon po
[82] Skrt: bhagavanmahAkAla
[83] las kyi mgon po
[84] ye shes kyi mgon po

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