Dalai Lama followers gather for start of peace festival

July 6, 2011

Buddhist monks robed in red and gold meandered on the floor of Verizon Center. Tibetan families dressed in colorful silk brocade filled the stadium seats, sitting next to men and women dressed like they were about to head to the office. Some came from around the world and others from across the street, but all were seeking something similar: a bit more peace.

They’d come for the 2011 Kalachakra for World Peace, which began Wednesday with chanting, meditation and speeches in the first portion of the 11-day ceremony led by the Dalai Lama. The spiritual leader, who stepped down in March as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, also celebrated his 76th birthday.

Addressing his retirement, the Dalai Lama said he had come to see the “hypocrisy” of his advocating for the separation of church and state while claiming leadership in both realms. “Now I can tell people religious institutions and political institutions must be separate,” he said. “My statement is now honest.”

He shared the stage for part of the day with two other well-known peace advocates: Martin Luther King III, whose father helped lead the 1960s civil rights movement, and Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who helped gain Indian independence decades ago. Both talked about the importance of nonviolence, compassion andworld peace.

Lobsang Sangay, prime minister-elect of the government-in-exile, also participated in the event, pausing occasionally to take photos with Tibetan families. “We hope that some people learn something from this philosophy. . . . That includes very influential people in Washington D.C.,” he said. “We are very excited, and we are here to make a little bit of positive karma.”

By 7 a.m., a crowd of a few hundred people had gathered, listening to about a dozen monks onstage chanting in low, meditative voices, headed by the Dalai Lama, whose back faced the crowd. Some onlookers bowed their heads while others sat and watched. A few got up from their seats and swayed to the chant’s rhythm.

Wilson Hurley, a Fairfax County resident and volunteer, said the meditations often give him a feeling of kinship with those around him. A psychotherapist who runs a small Buddhist center out of his house, Hurley participated in a previous Kalachakra in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1991.

“When I took it in New York with His Holiness, even the tough guys, the ushers at Madison Square Garden . . . were lightening up and smiling and being joyful,” he said. “It has that effect on everybody.”

Hurley is housing three monks, two from a monastery in South India, who are also part of the event.

Lobsang Thardo is one of them. The 70-year-old monk has been through a lot, from escaping through the Himalayas during the Chinese invasion of Tibet to founding the Sera Mey monastery in South India out of an old prison building. Through the monastery, he has helped preserve Buddhist teachings and scriptures. He has attended previous Kalachakras and said through a translator that focus is key to gaining the benefits of meditation.

Meditators who do not listen closely to the Dalai Lama’s instructions may not gain the enlightenment or peacefulness they seek, Hurley said, and their minds may wander or “space out.” It is as if they are “watching movie,” Thardo added, laughing.

Not all were in it for the long run. Meghan Jugder and her husband, Bold, decided to drop in just for the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration .

“He’s turning 76, first of all, and it’s the opening day,” the Arlington County resident said, waiting outside the entrance for the 10 a.m. celebrations to start. “And that’s what makes it special. . . . He gives off an aura of peacefulness and calm.”

Sally Krimmel, Jugder’s mother, is a Christian who meditates often. She said she holds the Dalai Lama in high regard. “I don’t know if it’s reverence or respect for him, but it’s an overwhelming feeling of calm and quiet,” Krimmel said.

Monks and other practitioners will spend the first few days purifying the space, with prayers and teachings from the morning into the afternoon.

The center may remain calm and quiet, but Hurley, the psychotherapist, hopes the ceremony will give the city a whole new energy. “Around Madison Square Garden, people were spontaneously singing, and it was a lot of joy that spread out into the streets,” he said. “I’m hoping that will happen here, too.”

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