“It’s like this feast,” she said. “There’s nothing else in my life that’s ever been this penetrating and long lasting.”
While many will drop in for a lecture or meditation here or there, some will attempt to pursue the entire Kalachakra, which takes intense focus and meditative skill.
Among those attempting this journey will be Mary Aubry, 57, a longtime meditator and Justice Department prosecutor. Aubry, who spends an hour or two a day meditating, has been reading about the Kalachakra and twirling a special prayer wheel — Kalachakra means “wheel of time” — to prepare.
Buddhist meditation, she said, saved her during earlier life crises: two divorces and her youngest child leaving for college. Its core message about the temporary nature of things, including grief, brought her out of “a black hole” and helped her envision a more hopeful future. “If there’s anything I can do to clean up my own act and spread some goodness, I want to do what I can,” she said.
The first three days of the ritual involve prayers and chanting, meant to purify the Verizon Center symbolically from obstacles — concrete or ethereal. During the next three days, the Dalai Lama gives basic teachings about Buddhist thought. During the final three days the Dalai Lama leads participants in visualizing a massive palace of light that is home to 722 deities, as well as other items and beings. Those most skilled in the Kalachakra are supposed to be able to see all of this in their minds at once.
‘A visionary world’
The most familiar image of the Kalachakra is the mandala, the colorful sand drawing that monks create during the ceremony as a map of the mythical palace described in the text. “You go into a visionary world that you see in your meditative mind,” Thurman explained. “Presumably a few monks have that ability. I never really managed this.”
Some of those most trained in the Kalachakra are the monks of the Dalai Lama’s monastery in India. As children, they begin memorizing its 100-plus pages and meditate and chant its words as part of their regular practice. Some prostrate hundreds of thousands of times to focus their minds and prepare for the actual ceremony.
Among them is Kunga Gyatso, who traveled to the Washington area from the Indian monastery a month early to prepare various items for the Dalai Lama to use during the ceremony. One afternoon last week, he and a fellow monk sat on the living room floor of a borrowed apartment in Falls Church, where they spent hours at a time, making tiny sculptures from butter. Tins of ghee — clarified butter often used in Indian cooking — had been driven from a New York farm and sat in the corner, while the men rolled tiny pieces they’d already dyed and pressed into the pieces of wood used as a canvas.
Gyatso, a bureaucrat at the monastery as well as a Kalachakra artist, flipped between sculpting the butter and taking calls about logistics on his cell phone. Like many learned Buddhists who have done the Kalachakra, it wasn’t easy for him to explain his experience.
“We try to self-generate into being a deity. You know what is ‘self-generate?’” he asked, jumping up to answer another cell phone ring.
Not everyone will be able to afford to explore the experience. With Verizon Center tickets ranging from $35 a day to $475 for the full program, the largest crowd likely will be at the free talk by the Dalai Lama Saturday morning on the West lawn of the Capitol.
After the Kalachakra, the Dalai Lama heads back to India briefly, before jetting off for France and more teachings on Buddhism.