The Dalai Lama returns to Washington on Tuesday for an agenda packed with chanting and meditating, part of a ritual aimed at leading tens of thousands of followers on a spiritual journey to peace.
It is quite a different schedule than his last visit in February 2010, before the 76-year-old leader of exiled Tibetans retired from politics, when a meeting with President Obama set off a political firestorm with China.
In his first major public event since stepping down as head of state in March, the spiritual leader will guide one of the most complex rituals in Tibetan Buddhism, a 10-day teaching called a Kalachakra. He’s one of few people considered skilled enough to do so, and he’s held only four others in the United States.
The event is expected to attract as many as 100,000 people to the Verizon Center between Wednesday and July 16, when a massive, intricate sand drawing created during the festivities will be dispersed into the Anacostia River to signify the temporary nature of all things.
The Dalai Lama had been saying for about a decade that he wanted to step aside from politics and focus on his role as a spiritual leader. While a new prime-minister-in-exile was elected in April, the Nobel Peace Prize winner remains the face of national Tibetan identity. Since March, he has kept his usual globe-trotting schedule, lecturing about Buddhism. He still has high-level political meetings planned in Washington, but they are expected to be low-profile.
People close to him say he looks forward to coming to the global center of power politics as more of an observer. “He’s more free. He’ll be with a more jolly attitude than ever,” said Robert Thurman, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism and longtime friend of the Dalai Lama.
But many still see huge significance in his picking the capital of the world’s superpower as the place for a ritual about how to reconcile disunity. Some believe the Kalachakra’s hopeful explanation about how to deal with differences literally will spread through meditators to area bigwigs coping with national debt, wars, environmental disasters and terrorism.
“The most significant thing about this is the time and place, 10 years after 9/11, and in a place where big decisions are being made about the planet,” said Clark Strand, former editor of Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine.
A statement from the Capital Area Tibetan Association, which is putting on the event, also stressed the significance of having it in Washington: “If there is a seed of spirituality in this very city, that seed when it grows is bound to have an effect.”
The Dalai Lama has transformed the Kalachakra from an arcane ritual into a huge peace festival. That is typical of the way he has popularized Buddhism in the West. With his 76th birthday falling on the ceremony’s first day, many wonder what will come after him.
But for now, the faithful are gearing up for one of Buddhism’s most celebrated events. Houses around the region are filling with meditative crashers and monks on blowup beds.
“For me, it’s like Old Home Week,” said Thurman.
Betty Rogers, 60, a Tenleytown consultant and a veteran of six previous Kalachakras, called the event a gathering of the “who’s who of lamas.” She said the power of it is the coming together of so many high-level meditators, all focusing under an epic teacher.
“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.
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.