Seventy-six years ago, a son was born to a farming family in a small hamlet in northeastern Tibet. Named Tenzin Gyatso, the boy was soon recognized as the incarnation of a Boddhisatva. According to Buddhist teachings, Boddhisatvas are beings who have attained enlightenment and have been liberated from the karmic wheel of life and death. They are free to exist in a state known as nirvana. As an act of compassion and some might say, sacrifice, Boddhisatvas postpone their own nirvana, choosing to be born again into the suffering of the world in order to serve humanity.
The Boddhisatva known as Tenzin Gyatso was also destined to be recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader. He assumed the office as a young boy at a time in history when Tibet’s cultural and spiritual heritage would undergo a brutal disruption at the hands of the Communist Chinese government. He was eventually forced to escape from his homeland and set up a government in exile in India.
In an intriguing reversal, the Chinese government’s attempts to suppress the Dalai Lama’s power has paved the way for his global recognition. Instead of remaining a remote voice in a little-known country, he is now arguably the best known Buddhist figure in the world. Persevering against considerable forces, the man who calls himself “a simple monk,” is now a familiar face on the world stage, widely regarded as a symbol of peace and compassion. Today is his birthday.
I am one of thousands at the Verizon Center. We have all gathered here to take part in the Kalachakra. On this first day of the 11-day event, we are also celebrating the birthday of this simple monk.
I will be blogging about what I see and hear. My perspective is that of an interested and reasonably informed participant, though not an expert on the topic of Buddhism. I have a meditation practice that I work at, struggle with, abandon, and cling to in seemingly endless cycles throughout my life. I cultivate a sense of curiosity and open mind about all forms of spiritual expression. Buddhism is what I resonate most strongly with. I am one of the creators and producers of BuddhaFest, a festival of Buddhist films plus talks and meditation, which just wrapped up its second year here in the D.C. area. I also produce other spiritually-focused public events and serve on the board of directors of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. I hope to be your eyes and ears as we together enter the Kalachakra.
As an “empowerment” or initiation, the Kalachakra is an unusual event. Most such empowerments are held in much smaller groups, sometimes quite privately. A public empowerment on a mass scale such as this one is of another order entirely. It is considered a blessing that the Dalai Lama has chosen to hold the Kalachakra in Washington, DC. The eleven days are a mix of endeavors that invoke the ancient formula “as above, so below,” to engage the inner and outer being, the micro and the macro.
On the one hand, the Kalachakra can be seen as a peace rally, a significant gathering in our nation’s capital where decisions are made that affect the entire world. Hundreds of deeply dedicated nuns, monks and lay people will spend days together under the guidance of a powerful spiritual leader; their minds and hearts oriented like needles on a cosmic compass, in the direction of peace. Such concentrated attention and goodwill can only be of benefit to all beings, especially those of us who live in this area. Many people may experience the Kalachakra as just that--a blessing. And that’s good. But there is also the other part.
Taken as an actual initiation, one enters into the spiritual lineage from which all this has arisen. Depending on his level of commitment, a “student” may assume a lifelong devotion to a daily practice and pledge to uphold the teachings. Aligned astrologically with this location and this present moment, the event addresses cycles of time pertaining to the universe as well as one’s own body, lifetime and experience. It is mystical and ritualistic; the physical space is painstakingly prepared and consecrated, the Dalai Lama is said to actually generate the Kalachakra deity in his own body, transmitting energy which cuts through old conditioning and brings one closer to a higher state of consciousness. Participants are instructed to pay special attention to their dreams during this period. This is heady stuff.
Many pilgrims travel great distances, going through financial and personal hardship in order to attend a Kalachakra. Incredibly, it is now appearing in my own backyard. A few years ago, I too would have had to travel to arrive at this place. We often hear that things happen for a reason. Like the celestial bodies above us, I have my own trajectory--a series of events which unexpectedly led me here to a celebration of Tenzin Gyatso’s 76th birthday on the first day of the Kalachakra initiation. What, if anything, does it all mean?
One of the things I like about Buddhism is that we are encouraged to investigate and explore. The Buddha taught and I paraphrase: don’t believe what I say just because I said it. Find out for yourself what truth is. See if any of this works for you.
I hope you’ll follow me as I explore the Kalachakra over the next few days.