The Dalai Lama has been in Washington, D.C. this week participating in the Kalachakra for World Peace, a ritual empowerment event that prepares practitioners to engage in the highest tantric meditations. While the practice of tantra is traditionally reserved for religious specialists, in recent years the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan teachers have been holding Kalachakra initiation ceremonies for large groups in the West, with all-levels of practitioners attending. The Kalachakra for World Peace 2011 initiation began on July 6, the Dalai Lama’s 76th birthday, and will end on July 16.

The Kalachakra empowerment is unique among tantric initiations because such a large number of people attend. According to Alexander Berzin, author of Introduction to the Kalachakra Initiation (Snow Lion, 2010), a Buddhist legend provides precedent for this:

Although empowerments for other tantras are intended for only a small number of disciples at a time, there is a historical tradition of conferring the Kalachakra initiation to large crowds of people. Buddha first gave it to the king of Shambhala and his entourage of ninety-six minor rulers. In time, their decedents conferred it upon the entire population of Shambhala in order to unite them against the threat of possible invasion and avert annihilation. This is the origin of the association of the Kalachakra empowerment with world peace and the tradition of conferring it upon large number of participants.

Berzin also points out that not all Kalachakra attendees are active participants—that is, people are also in DC as interested observers. Take these awesome Zen monks, for example, chanting in front of the Dalai Lama. (Click on the image for a YouTube video of the chanting.)

Tantra is complex, heavy material and the Kalachakra is no exception. Yesterday, I spent some time with Berzin’s Introduction searching for a “nutshell” explanation for both myself and all of you. Of course, there is none, but one unifying thread is time. Specifically, it’s about three different types—or cycles—of time: external, internal, and alternative. External time decribes the cycles of things outside of the body—the movements of planets, day and night, etc. Internal time refers to cycles that occur inside of the body—menstrual cycles, mental and emotional cycles, etc. As with everything in Tibetan Buddhism, it seems that there are infintely subtle levels to both external and internal cycles. But to put it simply, external and internal cycles of time are what we experience while living our daily lives—they constitute samsara, or cyclical existence. It is the third type of time, however, that the Kalachakra is concerned with—the alternative cycles, which provide us with practices for gaining liberation from these former two.

That makes sense. But how does the alternative cycle of time work? What are the practices? I decided to ask the gregarious, American-born lama, Lama Surya Das, to elucidate. He says:

The Kalachakra is an esoteric Vajrayana tantric teaching from Highest Yoga Tantra, an empowering initiation which introduces disciples to the Deity Yoga practice of the Kalachakra Buddha. Kalachakra means “The Infinite Wheel of Time,” and it includes chanting, mantras, visualizations, samadhi, energy work, clear light meditation and the like. It is considered a blessing for world peace, harmony, and extraordinarily efficacious for developing the wisdom of enlightenment in our era.

Are there really thousands of Americans that want to take part in such an elaborate empowerment ritual? Enough to fill up the Verizon Center in the nation’s captial? Lama Surya suggests that it’s the Dalai Lama’s lenient approach to leading the Kalachakra that encourages people to take part.

He often says, perhaps only slightly in jest, that he gives these renowned mystical and advanced initiations as a pretext so people will come and thus allow him to spend time presenting the basic Buddhist teachings he feels we really need to hear and take to heart.

Yesterday I sat in front of the Dalai Lama and heard him talk about the union of wisdom and compassionate action, and how being an honest and caring person is more important than mere external religiosity and platitudes. He said: “We must be twenty-first century Buddhists, not just ritual faith and belief Buddhists—and live our values in our daily lives, combining the development of modern scientific knowledge with timeless wisdom understanding. Self-discipline is the real answer to bringing about as better society and more peaceful world.”

While Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo might challenge the Dalai Lama to catch up with Western social values, he’s always been up-to-speed with modern science. Lama Surya mentions a moment when the Dalai Lama said something along the lines of, “We have so many different ritual hats in Tibetan Buddhism, which, by the way, Buddha himself never wore nor recommended: yellow hats, red hats, black hats. I think I might start wearing a green hat! And I think we should tell all the Tibetan lamas to be more active on behalf of the global environment.”

Speaking of different colored hats, meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg, has enjoyed the different colors of robes flowing in the streets of our nation’s capital.

The streets of D.C. are filled with monks and nuns, wearing maroon, saffron, grey and black robes. It’s fantastic. If you glance in the window of a Starbucks or frozen yoghurt shop near the Verizon Center, it looks like a moving diorama of Buddhist history and migration. Representatives of Buddhism from Korea, Tibet, Bhutan, Japan, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Canada, Cuba, Argentina, and possibly every state in the United States.

It is said that the Kalachakra ritual cleanses the area of negativity, so I think it is amazing to have it happen in D.C. And to have it happen right now, as the rancor and discord seem to be escalating.

Indeed, Lama Surya Das echoes Salzberg’s delight that the Kalachakra is happening in D.C. “This is a very significant and auspicious event for several reasons, including that it’s in the nation’s capital during these decadent times—as Tibetans call the current age.”

Salzberg adds: “Tonight I walked to the White House and stood outside and did lovingkindness meditation.”

For more Kalachakra coverage check out The Washington Post’s On Faith blog. Though’s Buddhism blogger Barbara O’Brien points out that The WaPo’s coverage for the event is “hit-and miss,” they should be commended for recruiting two compelling guest bloggers. In addition to Gabriel Riera, member of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington and co-founder of BuddhaFest, who offers his roaming, personal thoughts on the Kalachakra and general reflections on Buddhism in the West, you can find Matteo Pistono, author of In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet, who reports on the event from a more critical distance, giving us historical and informational background on the Kalachakra.

UPDATE: I just recieved a note from meditation teacher Allan Lokos about money and the Kalachakra that contains an interesting anecdote. Allan writes:

I was fascinated and moved by the fact that this eleven day event which cost more than four million dollars to present produced a surplus of about 1.5 million dollars. In a time when our nation has been financially devastated by greed, hatred, and delusion, this event for world peace was so generously supported that there is money left for worthy causes. Can we draw a simple conclusion that peace is economically healthier than war?

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