There were no coughs, no whispers, and even the ushers seemed to float noiselessly in the aisles. Several hundred people sat motionless, their hands folded neatly in their laps. Before them, the stage of Lisner Auditorium had been transfered into what resembled an Eastern religious shrine. Eight golden banners, a row of yellow chrysanthemums, orange pillows, rugs and a deep blue backdrop framed at splendid throne covered in an ornate brocade material. The stage was set, quite literally, for the Ceremony of the Vajra Crown.

The ceremony was held last night, to coincide with the visit of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa of Tidbet. The Karamapa, leader of the Kagyu Order of Tidbetan Buddhism (a religious rank equal to the Dalai Lama), is currently touring this country as a guest of the U.S. government.

The ritual, which dates back to the 15th century, is a sacred ceremony, in which the Karmapa assumes the form of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva (awakened being) of compassion. Wearing the Vajra (indestructible) Crown, which is said to have the power of transmitting enlightenment, he communicates the intelligence of "the enlightened state of mind."

While much of the religious significance was not readily apparent to the uninitiated eye (or mind), the ceremony was nonetheless a thing of strange yet compelling beauty. The silence was dashed by a fanfare of trilling Tibetan horns. The crowd imediately rose to its feet and bowed as the Karamapa made his entrance, accompanied by crimsom-robed monks. With a monumental slowness, which underscored the timelessness of the proceedings, the procession approached the throne while the monks began a low, guttural chant.

The Karamapa sat absolutely still, his face frozen, expressionless, while two monks offered plates of rice, which signified the entire universe. After a time, he removed his gold ceremonial headdress and the black crown was presented. He chanted at mantra quietly while holding a crystal rosary, his voice melding with those of the monks. When the crown was removed, "protection cord" (a red piece of string) was placed on their beads.

For many, the feeling invoked by the ceremony were difficult to articulate. Frances Reed, a typesettr from Washington, said, "It was very personal, I would say 'real' -- not a dead ritual at all." David Sable, director of Dharmadhatu, a Buddhist meditation center that sponsored the event, tried to be more specific. "I think it places your feet firmly on the ground," he explained, "while it also clears the mind. It is like a meeting of the earth and the sky."