For 20 Years, an Unbroken Chain of Prayer
Vigil to Ease Suffering Is Called the Heartbeat of Buddhist Temple in Poolesville

By Julie Rasicot
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, September 8, 2005

The bare feet of Ani Hesper, a Buddhist nun, made no sound as she crossed the plush carpet before sitting cross-legged behind a fire engine-red prayer bench.

Around her, golden Buddha statues stared unseeing as large crystals of varying hues glowed and a recorded voice chanted softly inside the large, bright prayer room at Kunzang Palyul Choling, a Buddhist temple inhabiting a former Colonial home on River Road in Poolesville.

On the prayer bench Hesper set a bell, a hand drum and a binder containing the prayers, or Buddhist practices, that she would chant for the next two hours to fill her shift in the temple's 24-hour prayer vigil.

Hesper takes the 10 a.m. to noon shift most days. Other temple members fill the remaining 22 hours, making sure the vigil remains unbroken, as it has for 20 years.

Since April 1985, when a handful of the temple's original members began the vigil in the recreation room of a Kensington home, members have been praying continuously to alleviate suffering in the world. A second 24-hour vigil was begun in 1999 at KPC's Prayer Center in Sedona, Ariz.

Other religions hold similar prayer vigils, often focusing on world or religious events, but KPC's is unique as an uninterrupted stream of prayer for 20 years.

"We consider the prayer vigil to be the heartbeat of our organization," said Ani Rinchen Khandro, 58, one of four nuns who live in the temple.

The vigil's concept is simple: to pacify negativity with positive energy and prayers focused on kindness and compassion. Serving a shift also offers students of Buddhism a way to increase their spirituality and move toward enlightenment, the goal of Buddhism.

"There is no one who gets dissed or ignored or whose suffering is invalid in some way," Rinchen Khandro said. "To me, that's really potent, that's powerful stuff."

The prayer vigil was the idea of Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, the temple's spiritual director and the first Western woman recognized and enthroned as a reincarnated lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In the early years, Jetsunma, who had been conducting teachings along the lines of Buddhism in her home at the time the vigil began, and a small group of followers managed to maintain the stream of prayer in two-hour shifts.

"It's hard to get up in the middle of the night and go out in the cold and take your two-hour turn," recalled Rinchen Khandro, a member of the original group.

Jetsunma, who now lives at the group's prayer center in Arizona, had told her congregation that as a young woman she was often moved to find a place to pray for the world, but church doors were locked if services weren't being held, temple members said.

"She made a vow when she was very young to make a place to go pray" where people of all faiths could pray anytime, said Ani Alana Elgin, a 57-year-old grandmother and Buddhist nun who divides her time between Poolesville and Sedona.

In 1986, the temple found a permanent home with its purchase of the River Road house. The prayer room, set up to resemble a Tibetan Buddhist temple, occupies a central spot. Inside, the walls are lined with low tables covered by red cloth bearing large, lighted crystals. Perpendicular to the altar where the largest Buddha statues sit, a wall is covered with shelves holding hand-size statues and small bowls of water.

"Everything is set up this way to support energetically the prayer practice in here," Hesper said.

In a nearby room hangs a large, multicolored chart where members sign up for prayer shifts. A team of caretakers is responsible for making sure that all slots are covered either by other members or themselves.

For Miki Johanison, participating in the prayer vigil helps cement her commitment to practicing, or praying. Last year, her Buddhist beliefs led her to leave her 20-year military career and begin training to become an acupuncturist.

"Practice is fundamental to Buddhism. In my opinion, you can't really become a Buddhist without practice," said Johanison, 40, of Gaithersburg, a mother of two and a former Army major.

"In the West, we operate by schedules and routines. When you're at the temple, you automatically have a sense that 'I'm here. I'm going to take two hours out of my day to think about everybody else but myself,' " she said.

The prayer vigil is open to people of all faiths. Temple members and visitors can enter prayer requests in a book at the temple or submit requests online.

Buddhists believe that there is no separation between one form of life and another and that all life is sacred. Therefore, when Buddhists pray, "prayer is not something that one person is sending out to everyone else," Elgin said.

"The world is like one big pot of soup, so if we're adding prayer to the pot of soup, the whole soup becomes more nourishing," she said.

Rinchen Khandro said participants in the prayer vigil have maintained a strong faith in their efforts through such events as the Iraq war and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In recent days, participants also have been praying for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"There's lots of tragedy in the world and, no, we haven't ended it yet, but we don't know either what it would be like if we stopped," she said. "When you think that there are over 6 billion people on the planet and there are a maximum of 60 people at the most here praying for all of us, the odds are it's going to go a little slow."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company