SARNATH, INDIA -- Michael Sautman, a neatly coiffed 38-year-old project manager at the Congressional Human Rights Foundation in Washington, is passing the New Year on a straw mat beneath a multicolored tent, meditating for world peace with 100,000 Tibetan monks and Buddhist pilgrims.

He came to this dusty ancient city where the Buddha delivered his first sermon some 2,600 years ago in part because "we're all riding on that spaceship" called Earth -- and as the year turns, Sautman sees his planet careening toward a bloody war in the Persian Gulf. The week-long public meditation here, presided over by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader and recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, "has a lot to do with tranquilizing and pacifying hostile energies in the world," Sautman says.

Over his shoulder, row after row of exiled Tibetans, many of them shaved monks wearing burgundy robes, chant the guttural "ommmm" that is the chorus of enlightenment for practicing Buddhists. It sounds something like a Boeing jet getting ready to taxi.

On an ornate dais decked with saffron banners and flowers sits the Dalai Lama, graying, bespectacled and sometimes grinning puckishly. Just in front of him, sitting cross-legged in a special roped-off section, are about 500 Westerners, including dozens of Americans who have given up their vacations to travel thousands of miles in search of peace of mind.

The Dalai Lama has offered to deliver some during this holiday season by performing the kal chakhra, or wheel of time, a ritual of public meditation linked vaguely in Buddhist scripture to the onset of dark times on Earth. The meaning and purpose of the ritual are not easily explained, even by lifelong Buddhists. The Americans in the roped-off section describe it variously -- and in some cases inaccurately -- as an initiation, a blessing, an empowerment, a transfer of positive energy, an eradication of negative energy, a guarantee of reincarnation and a group meditation.

Chhime Rigzine, a Tibetan special assistant to the Dalai Lama, says it would take several years of reading and study to understand the wheel of time ritual fully.

Some of the middle-aged, middle-class Americans here describe themselves only as novice or prospective Buddhists. As they talk about war and peace, enlightenment and career, they sometimes sound like characters in a slightly exotic episode of "thirtysomething."

"There's a lot of ancient wisdom here. There's a lot of knowledge here that you can incorporate without changing your Western ways," says Jonathan Ritson, 33, a medical doctor who recently completed his residency. "You don't have to throw away your car and TV. You can still keep those too."

Ritson's fiancee, Carolyn Kasper, a 32-year-old medical social worker from Seattle, says she was drawn to the Dalai Lama's meditations in part because she feels "a real dissatisfaction with some of the materialism in the States and the lack of purpose you see."

A lapsed Catholic who seems serious about her career back home, Kasper sounds in some ways like a 1990s incarnation of the 1960s hippies who flocked to this and other holy cities in India seeking truth and altered states of being -- she is searching for something, she says, but to find it she is not prepared to leave home and career and material comfort indefinitely.

Carol Corradi, a 37-year-old mechanical engineer who works on the "supercollider" atom-smashing project at the University of California at Berkeley, says that during the rush of the Reagan years, she "went through a period where my career was very important. It had gotten me where I wanted to be, but I realized that just wasn't it. And I projected the next 10 years and it just seemed kind of empty."

Now she finds herself drawn increasingly toward Buddhism and to the Dalai Lama, who "puts you beyond everyday mundane existence and gives you an awareness or mindfulness of the spiritual. ... What I'm finding is that there are more people who are hitting their thirties and saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, the traditional way just isn't doing it.' "

Beyond career enlightenment and the meaning of existence, the Americans spending the New Year here find themselves thinking about issues of war and peace. One part of the wheel of time ritual is a symbolic planting of seeds with tens of thousands of gathered disciples. These seeds of peace and enlightenment -- of good vibes, as they used to call it -- are then carried back to faraway countries and spread among the uninitiated.

With war looming in the Persian Gulf, this idea, however vaguely it may be understood, has particular resonance for some of the Americans here. "This is a period of destruction. You look around and you see what is growing and what is being destroyed, and it's out of balance," says Ritson. "One of the things that upsets me in the States is that individuals there are easily manipulated by their emotions and the issues are missed. They can be easily manipulated into war fever by pushing their emotional button... . It's not George Bush and it's not Iraq, it's those feelings inside, it's a button that's being pushed."

In spontaneous words between meditative chants here and in public speeches in the region, the Dalai Lama has been talking openly about the prospect of war in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, this champion of nonviolent resistance to Chinese annexation of his homeland is against armed conflict. But his analysis of the relationship between Buddhist enlightenment and modern war is not simplistic.

"Even with war plans and military business ... {a} plan with human feelings is much less dangerous than one without," he told India's Theosophical Society in a speech last week. "The more mechanized {the war plan}, the more dangerous it is."

On history and issues at stake in the gulf crisis, the Dalai Lama emphasizes the culpability of Western nations and arms manufacturers who supplied Iraq with weapons of destruction during the 1980s. "Many people shout, 'How bad {is} Saddam Hussein. How bad is the invasion of Kuwait.' Of course it is very bad," he said in the speech. "But if we think more deeply about cause and effect ... that atmosphere spoiled Saddam Hussein. He got an army. He got equipment. He felt that he was the most powerful, he could do anything."

As the year turns, the Dalai Lama said, "I firmly believe you have to think in some different way, to analyze the real obstacles to peace. ... It is essential to recognize that we have the potential to solve human problems."

Sautman, the Washington human rights activist, says he isn't sure how much impact this week's public meditation will have in the Arabian sands a thousand miles away. Still, he says, "any time you gather 100,000 people together, there is a focal point of energy happening there. It allows the world to know that there are 100,000 people gathering to take an initiation for the cause of world peace.