The Dalai Lama has presided over three days of meditation, prayer, and rituals at the Verizon Center. This has included many hours of mantra recitation, complex visualization, intricate hand gestures, profound states of meditation, and ritual music and dance by monks in ceremonial costumes. These strenuous efforts by the Dalai Lama and the monks from Namgyal Monastery are believed to ritually cleanse the area of negativity while at the same time stake a claim on the locale so that the profound Kalachakra initiation can unfold in the most auspicious manner. In short, the Verizon Center—home to modern-day gladiator matches of hockey and basketball, with the enormous banners of Geico Insurance and Dunkin’ Donuts—is being transformed into the celestial abode of the enlightened deity known as Kalachakra. Tantric Buddhism has arrived to Washington DC!
Central to the bestowing of the Kalachakra initiation is the creation of a mandala. “Mandala” literally means “center and circumference” and in the tantric context connotes a circular diagram symbolizing a universe with a deity in the center of his or her palace complete with entourage, gatekeepers, and a surrounding environment. Mandalas are painted on cloth and temple walls, created from colored sand, or fashioned from wood, stone or colored threads.
Today, the Dalai Lama and his monks will begin creating the sand mandala out of colored sand and minerals. First, they will draw a precise and highly technical architectural plan on a platform the size of a queen bed. The platform was the focus of consecration ceremonies the last three days, and it will become the symbolic home of the Kalachakra deity. Once the design has been drawn, the mandala will begin to take shape from the center outward by painting with grains of sand. Monks will literally place one grain at a time, poured slowly out of metal cone-shaped tubes. A multi-tiered palace, deities, sacred syllables, animals, and mountains and rivers, will soon cover nearly the entire platform. It could be said that creating a sand mandala is the most meditative, and painstaking, exercise in color-by-numbers that man has invented! Monks will work nearly round the clock for four days, careful not to allow a breeze to disturb the sand, to create the two-dimensional mandala of Kalachakra. All of this will be able to be seen on Verizon’s jumbotron overhead as a mandala-cam has been installed directly above the platform.
A principal reason for constructing a mandala is to have a visual representation of a deity when preparing and conducting a tantric initiation. A tantric initiation gives permission to a practitioner to begin identifying themselves with the enlightened form and qualities of a deity through the practice of deity yoga. Training in deity yoga with its visualizations, mantra recitations, and meditation, the practitioner strives to merge his or her mind with the wisdom and enlightened qualities of the deity. Here in Washington DC, the practitioners will utilize the two-dimensional sand mandala as the bases for visualizing the three-dimensional universe of Kalachakra, complete with sounds, fragrances, physical sensations, tastes and mental feelings such as love and joy.
Once the sand mandala is completed, the Dalai Lama will bestowed the three-day Kalachakra initiation. Thereafter, the sand mandala will be destroyed. The Dalai Lama will return to the platform, reach towards the center, and draw his hand across the intricate sand designs. After the sand mandala is destroyed, the sand will be swept into vases and poured into the Potomac River in a symbolic gesture of spreading the blessing of the Kalachakra far and wide.
While the dismantling of the sand mandala emphasizes the core Buddhist teaching of impermanence, there is a much more profound symbolism that it represents. It is a reminder to the practitioner to return to that internal space of infinite possibility before anything is created by the mind. The practitioner ceases to think and create and rather rests in his or her own spacious awareness that knows no bounds.
Matteo Pistono, author of recently released “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet,” will be contributing to On Faith during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington D.C., and tweeting from the Verizon center (Twitter:@matteopistono).
For the full story on events during Kalachakra, read Post reporter Michelle Boorstein’s piece on what to expect and what it all means.
View a photo gallery of the Dalai Lama’s life and his global travels.
Read Buddhist author Matteo Pistono’s reflection on the question, Who is the Dalai Lama?
View a graphic explaining the Kalachakra ritual.
Test your knowledge of one of the world’s oldest faiths with a quick quiz on Buddhism.