Equal to the Sky
Degé Kangyur, vol. 79 (rgyud ’bum, ga), folios 199.a–202.a.
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
Warning: Readers are reminded that according to Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition there are restrictions and commitments concerning tantra. Practitioners who are not sure if they should read this translation are advised to consult the authorities of their lineage. The responsibility for reading this text or sharing it with others who may or may not fulfill the requirements lies in the hands of readers.
Equal to the Sky belongs to a series of texts known as the rali tantras, which are primarily associated with the Cakrasaṃvara system but incorporate themes that are also prominent in the Hevajra and Kālacakra systems. The tantra presents a discourse in which the Buddha addresses three types of ḍākinī, explains their true natures, and correlates them with the practitioner’s physical and subtle body. A primary concern of this text is to explain advanced yogic practices performed during the completion stage (Skt. utpannakrama/niṣpannakrama; Tib. rdzogs rim) in the Yoginī Tantras, but it also treats a wide range of topics including astrology, sacred geography, and tantric hermeneutics. The result is a text which, while very dense and quite difficult to engage with, rewards the reader by bringing together an astonishingly vast range of topics concerning both the theory and practice of Buddhist tantra.
This text was translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee under the supervision of Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. Daniel McNamara translated the text from Tibetan into English and wrote the introduction. Andreas Doctor compared the draft translation with the original Tibetan and edited the text. Daniel McNamara would like to thank Ven. Prof. Lobsang Norbu Shastri for reading through the entire text with him, and he also thanks Dr. Harunaga Isaacson and Tenzin Bhuchung for assistance in clarifying difficult points.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
Equal to the Sky is a commentarial tantra on the Cakrasaṃvara cycle of Yoginī Tantras, as evidenced by both its content and its location in the Kangyur. In the Kangyur the tantra is part of a cluster of texts known as the rali tantras (Tib. ra li; Toh 383–414) and, within that set, it is part of the class of “awakened mind tantras” (Tib. thugs kyi rgyud).1 According to its colophon, this text was translated by Drokmi Lotsāwa Śākya Yeshé and the Indian paṇḍita Gayādhara. These two were both active in the late eleventh century. Since the tantra seems to be informed by Kālacakra literature—which was in wide circulation in India by the early eleventh century2—it is reasonable to posit that this text also circulated in India by the mid-eleventh century and was translated into Tibetan soon after.
The text’s title, Equal to the Sky, likely derives from the mythic source text of the Cakrasaṃvara cycle. The Cakrasaṃvara Tantra is alternatively called the Laghusaṃvara, meaning “the light version of the Saṃvara,” because it is held to be a condensation of a much longer tantra that was not transmitted in full to the human realm. This mythic source text, which is said to be one hundred thousand verses in length, is only known by its title, the Khasama Tantra, the same title of the present work.3 By invoking this larger textual corpus, Equal to the Sky asserts itself as an authority for understanding the Cakrasaṃvara system as a whole, making it a very short text with very broad implications.
The central concern of Equal to the Sky is to explain the nature of three types of ḍākinī: the sky dweller (Skt. khecarī), earth dweller (Skt. bhūcarī), and subterranean dweller (Skt. pātālacāriṇī).4 These three ḍākinīs are also the main audience for the tantra and are introduced after a preamble common to the Yoginī Tantras in which the discourse is located in the bhaga of the vajra queen.5 Equal to the Sky first introduces the three types of ḍākinī together (verses 2–3) and then proceeds to elaborate on their individual attributes in terms of physiology and yogic practice.
Verses 3–17 describe the sky-dwelling ḍākinī, who corresponds to the division of winds in the subtle body (totaling twenty-one thousand six hundred),6 and their movements are discussed in terms derived from the first and second chapters of the Kālacakra Tantra. It is significant that this tantra references the Kālacakra system, suggesting an association—or, at the least, a theoretical alignment—between the rali tantras and the “three bodhisattva commentaries,”7 which interpret the Kālacakra, Hevajra, and Cakrasaṃvara tantras. These “bodhisattva commentaries” integrate the cycles of Hevajra and Cakrasaṃvara into the larger rubric of the Kālacakra system.
The second section of Equal to the Sky (verses 18–27) discusses the earth-dwelling ḍākinī, primarily in association with the practice of inner heat (Skt. caṇḍālī; Tib. gtum mo). Where the first section discussed winds, here the main focus is the seventy-two thousand channels8 of the subtle body. The third section (verses 27–37) discusses the attributes of the subterranean ḍākinī, focusing primarily on the white and red drops that are found at the crown and navel, respectively. Throughout these discussions, the text emphasizes the distinction between ordinary, karmic conditioned experience, on the one hand, and the pure unconditioned experience that comes about as a result of yogic practice.
The next section of the text (verses 38–43) treats the sixfold system for interpreting tantric texts. Sönam Tsemo (bsod nams rtse mo, 1142–82) draws on this set for its unique method of interpreting tantric literature. He glosses the six as “(1) symbolic syllable (implicit), (2) characteristic (explicit), (3) special contextual means of expression, (4) general purpose, (5) hidden purpose, and (6) ultimate intent.”9 This text introduces these six as a set before treating them individually. The gloss of ultimate intent seamlessly transforms into a brief discussion of the divisions of tantra, with the Yoginī Tantras at the apex (verses 44–46) of what is a unique classification scheme: Action Tantra, Actionless Yoga, Inner Yoga, and Yoginī Tantra. It proceeds to offer a somewhat cryptic discussion of yogic practice (verses 47–49) before opening up to a discussion of twenty-four “jewels” (Tib. rin chen), which connect with the twenty-four sacred sites.
The last major section of the tantra (verses 50–63) concerns the twenty-four sacred sites as presented in Cakrasaṃvara literature, describing them as places where the twenty-four ḍākinīs were entrusted with tantras associated with inner heat practice. Verses 63–65 conclude by admonishing the listener to serve the guru, and the final three lines of verse 65 admonish the audience (somewhat elliptically) to rely on the rali tantras together with the guru’s instructions. The text closes with a standard expression of the rejoicing of all who are present and concludes with a straightforward colophon.
There is no available Sanskrit witness of this text, nor are there extant commentaries.10 The text’s relationships with the Kālacakra and Cakrasaṃvara literature have assisted in interpreting some difficult verses in this terse and enigmatic tantra. The lack of commentarial literature presents a further difficulty in parsing precisely thematic sections and individual verses. While the Tibetan translation is consistent in using quatrains, these are often forced. It is likely that the Sanskrit text used more than one meter, probably involving different numbers of lines per stanza.
This English translation was based primarily on the Tibetan Degé edition in consultation with the Stok Palace Kangyur and the Comparative Edition (Tib. dpe bsdur ma) of the Degé Kangyur. This translation preserves the quatrain structure of the Tibetan text, but the reader should note that each stanza does not necessarily represent a single coherent idea. For example, major sections of the text describing the three ḍākinīs begin at the third, first, and fourth lines of their respective verses. The reader is therefore advised to attend to punctuation, as an attempt has been made to break themes and statements into discrete sentences.
Thus did I hear at one time. The Blessed One was dwelling in the bhaga of the vajra queen—the awakened body, speech, and mind of all thus-gone ones. At that time, present among the assembly were the sky-dwelling, earth-dwelling, and subterranean ḍākinīs. Smiling at these three, the Blessed One gave this teaching on the secret topic:
Following this discourse, all the gathered assemblies that were present rejoiced.
This completes the glorious king of tantras “Equal to the Sky,” which has the nature of [F.202.a] awakened body, speech, and mind.
dpal nam mkha’ dang mnyam pa’i rgyud kyi rgyal po. Toh 386, Degé Kangyur, vol. 79 (rgyud ’bum, ga), folios 199.a–202.a.
dpal nam mkha’ dang mnyam pa’i rgyud kyi rgyal po. bka’ ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma). [Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–9, vol. 79, pp. 572–79.
dpal nam mkha’ dang mnyam pa’i rgyud kyi rgyal po. S 348, Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 93 (rgyud, kha), folios 465.b–469.a.
kye’i rdo rje’i rgyud (Hevajratantra). Toh 417, Degé Kangyur vol. 80 (rgyud, nga), folios 1.a–13.b.
’khor lo sdom pa’i gsang ba bsam gyis mi khyab pa’i rgyud (Cakrasaṃvaraguhyācintyatantra). Toh 385, Degé Kangyur vol. 79 (rgyud, ga), folios 196.a–199.a.
mchog gi dang po’i sangs rgyas las phyung ba rgyud kyi rgyal po dpal dus kyi ’khor lo (Kālacakratantra). Toh 362, Degé Kangyur vol. 77 (rgyud, ka), folios 22.a–128.b.
nam mkha’ dang mnyam pa (Yathālabdhakhasama). Toh 441, Degé Kangyur vol. 81 (rgyud, ca), folios 86.b–89.b.
dpal gsang ba thams cad gcod pa’i rgyud kyi rgyal po (Śrīguhyasarvacchindatantrarāja). Toh 384, Degé Kangyur vol. 79 (rgyud ’bum, ga), folios 187.a–195.b. English translation in Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2012.
Kalkī Puṇḍarīka. bsdus pa’i rgyud kyi rgyal po dus kyi ’khor lo’i ’grel bshad rtsa ba’i rgyud kyi rjes su ’jug pa stong phrag bcu gnyis pa dri ma med pa’i ’od (Vimalaprabhāmūlatantrānusāriṇīdvādaśasāhasrikālaghukālacakratantrarājaṭīkā). Toh 1347, Degé Tengyur vol. 11 (rgyud ’grel, tha). folios 107.b–277.a; vol. 12 (rgyud ’grel, da), folios 1.b–297.a.
Ratnākaraśānti. nam mkha’ dang mnyam pa zhes bya ba’i rgya cher ’grel pa (Khasamanāmaṭīkā). Toh 1424, Degé Tengyur vol. 21 (rgyud ’grel, wa), folios 153.a–171.a.
Vajragarbha. kye’i rdo rje bsdus pa’i don gyi rgya cher ’grel pa (Hevajrapiṇḍārthaṭīkā). Toh 1180, Degé Tengyur vol. 2 (rgyud ’grel, ka), folios 1.b–126.a.
Vajrapāṇi. mngon par brjod pa ’bum pa las phyung ba nyung ngu’i rgyud kyi bsdus pa’i don rnam par bshad pa (Lakṣābhidhānāduddhṛitalaghutantrapiṇḍārthavivaraṇa). Toh 1402, Degé Tengyur vol. 16 (rgyud ’grel, ba), folios 78.b–141.a.
Beer, Robert. Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Boulder: Shambala, 2003.
Dharmachakra Translation Committee, trans. The Glorious King of Tantras That Resolves All Secrets (Śrīguhyasarvacchindatantrarāja, Toh 384). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2012.
Davidson, Ronald M. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Gray, David B. The Cakrasamvara Tantra: The Discourse of Śrī Heruka. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
———. “Disclosing the Empty Secret: Textuality and Embodiment in the Cakrasamvara Tantra.” Numen 52, no. 4 (2005): 417–44.
Hatley, Shaman. “Converting the Ḍākinī: Goddess Cults and Tantras of the Yoginīs between Buddhism and Śaivism.” In Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation, ed. David B. Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé, Jamgön. The Treasury of Knowledge: Systems of Buddhist Tantra. Translated by Elio Guarisco and Ingrid McLeod. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2005.
———. The Treasury of Knowledge: Esoteric Instructions. Translated by Sarah Harding. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2007.
Newman, John. “The Epoch of the Kālacakra Tantra.” Indo-Iranian Journal 41 (1998): 319–49.
Norsang Gyatso, Khedrup. Ornament of Stainless Light. Translated by Gavin Kilty. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.
Snellgrove, David. The Hevajra Tantra: A Critical Study. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Stearns, Cyrus. Luminous Lives: The Story of the Early Masters of the Lam ’bras Tradition in Tibet. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.
Tsemo, Sönam. The Yogini’s Eye: Comprehensive Introduction to Buddhist Tantra. Vol. 1. Translated by Ngor Thartse Khenpo Sonam Gyatso and Wayne Verrill. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2012.
White, David. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
- bya ba’i rgyud
A class of tantric scripture that generally features elaborate rites directed toward both mundane goals—such as health, prosperity, and protection—and to the ultimate goal of liberation. In this class of tantra, the practitioners do not identify themselves with the deity as in other classes of tantra, but rather seek their power, assistance, and intervention in pursuit of their goals. The Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa and Amoghapāśakalparāja exemplify this class of tantra.
Āli and kāli
- A li kA li
- āli kāli
The vowels (āli) and consonants (kāli) of the Sanskrit alphabet.
- dngos grub
This can be a general term for realization, but it refers more specifically to a set of supranormal powers, such as longevity and clairvoyance.
- byang chub sems
Conventionally, this refers to a pure compassion; ultimately it refers to empty awareness. It can also refer to drops in completion stage practice.
- bha ga
In this context, the vagina. A number of Buddhist esoteric scriptures are set within the bhaga of a female deity from the Buddhist pantheon. As the root term from which the Sanskrit word bhagavat, “Blessed One,” is derived, the term bhaga also means “good fortune.” See “Blessed One.”
- bcom ldan ’das
In Buddhist literature, an epithet applied to buddhas, most often to Śākyamuni. The Sanskrit term generally means “possessing fortune,” but in specifically Buddhist contexts this term implies that a buddha is in possession of six auspicious qualities (bhaga) associated with complete awakening. The Tibetan term—where bcom is said to refer to “subduing” the four māras, ldan to “possessing” the great qualities of buddhahood, and ’das to “going beyond” saṃsāra and nirvāṇa—possibly reflects the commentarial tradition where the Sanskrit bhagavat is interpreted, in addition, as “one who destroys the four māras.” This is achieved either by reading bhagavat as bhagnavat (“one who broke”) or by tracing the word bhaga to the root √bhañj, “to break.”
- dbu ma
Main subtle channel running roughly in front of the spine.
These are the veins of the subtle body, through which vital winds flow. While they can be divided into up to seventy-two thousand, the most important are the central, left, and right.
- ’pho ba
In the context of the subtle body, a “circulation” consists of one thousand three hundred fifty breaths over ninety minutes
- mkha’ ’gro
A class of powerful non-human female beings who play a variety of roles in Indic literature in general and Buddhist literature specifically. Essentially synonymous with yoginīs, ḍākinīs are liminal and often dangerous beings who can be propitiated to acquire both mundane and transcendent spiritual accomplishments. In the higher Buddhist tantras, ḍākinīs are often considered embodiments of awakening and feature prominently in tantric maṇḍalas. In this text, they are divided according to three types: sky dweller (Skt. khecarī), earth dweller (Skt. bhūcarī), and subterranean dweller (Skt. pātālacāriṇī).
- dbyug gu
A measure used for astrological movements. This generally refers to a time span of approximately twenty-two and a half minutes or three hundred sixty breaths. This tantra correlates that with the sixty-four channels of the yogic subtle body.
Direct sensory perception
- dbang po mngon sum
The bare experience of sensory phenomena, without conceptual overlay.
- mtshan nyid
The defining quality of a thing, such as the wetness of water and the heat of fire.
Drokmi Lotsāwa Śākya Yeshé
- ’brog mi lo tsA ba shAkya ye shes
- shAkya ye shes
Śākya Yeshé, commonly known by the title Drokmi Lotsāwa, was a Tibetan translator and important figure in the Lamdré (Tib. lam ’bras) lineage. Drokmi’s dates are uncertain, but Tibetan literature offers a range of possible dates beginning in 990 and ending in 1074.
For a hagiography of Drokmi, see Stearns 2010, pp. 83–101. For an academic appraisal of his life and works, see Davidson 2005, pp. 161–209.
- ga ya dha ra
Indian (possibly Bengali) paṇḍita (994–1043) who visited Tibet three times; teacher of Drokmi Śākya Yeshé; a complex personality and a key figure in the transmission to Tibet of the Hevajra materials later incorporated in the Lamdré (Tib. lam ’bras) tradition.
Glorious Great Blissful One
- dpal bde chen po
In the tantric context, a common epithet that can refer to several awakened deities.
- chu tshod
In this context, a technical term for a measure of astrological movements and human breaths
- gtum mo
Blissful heat cultivated in the completion stage of tantric practice.
- rkyang ma
One of subtle body’s three primary channels, most often described as either white or red, depending on the system of practice.
- ri rab
In Buddhist cosmology, the sacred mountain at the center of the world.
- bems po’i rlung
The subtle wind which, when dividing between physical and mental, refers to the former and is connected with material experience.
- man ngag
Instructions passed down orally by a qualified master that enable a reader to penetrate the full meaning of esoteric scriptures such as this.
- dang po’i sgra
The sounds indicated by the Sanskrit vowels and consonants (Skt. ālikāli), or possibly specifically the syllable oṁ or āḥ.
- ro ma
One of the yogic subtle body’s three primary channels, most often described as either white or red, depending on the system of practice.
- dam tshig
The pledges taken by a tantric practitioner in the course of initiation.
- rang rig
The nonconceptual wakefulness that is both the basis for and the result of tantric sādhana practice.
- mkha’ spyod
The ḍākinī associated with the winds of the subtle body
- sa ’og spyod ma
The ḍākinī associated with the drops of the subtle body.
- chos nyid
The nature of phenomena.
- shu kra
Resplendent or clear liquid; here, referring specifically to the seminal drop residing at the crown of all human bodies.
- de bzhin gshegs pa
A frequently used synonym for buddha. According to different explanations, it can be read as tathā-gata, literally meaning “one who has thus gone,” or as tathā-āgata, “one who has thus come.” Gata, though literally meaning “gone,” is a past passive participle used to describe a state or condition of existence. Tatha(tā), often rendered as “suchness” or “thusness,” is the quality or condition of things as they really are, which cannot be conveyed in conceptual, dualistic terms. Therefore, this epithet is interpreted in different ways, but in general it implies one who has departed in the wake of the buddhas of the past, or one who has manifested the supreme awakening dependent on the reality that does not abide in the two extremes of existence and quiescence.
Twenty-four sacred sites
- gnas nyi shu rtsa bzhi
Twenty-four sites on the Indian subcontinent that are considered particularly powerful for the practices of the Yoginī Tantras. These map to twenty-four places on the human body in conjunction with the yogic practices of the perfection stage.
- rdo rje btsun mo
- rdo rje sems dpa’
Used as a proper name, Vajrasattva is one of the principle deities of the esoteric Buddhist pantheon, regarded as both a source of the Buddhist tantras and the exemplar of the awakened state. As an adjective, the term vajrasattva, literally “vajra being,” can also be applied to other esoteric Buddhist deities, particularly Vajrapāṇi.
- brtul zhugs
A prescribed mode of behavior, typically time-delimited, that is observed in connection with specific rites and practices. In the Yoginī Tantras, these often include transgressive practices such as engaging with impure substances.
- rnal ’byor ma’i gyud
A class of Buddhist tantra focused upon the figure of the yoginī and the meditative manipulation of the subtle energetic anatomy of the physical body. This genre is typified by the Hevajratantra, Cakrasaṃvaratantra, and Mahāmāyātantra.