Learning from the Dalai Lama: Attending The Sacred Kalachakra Initiation
By Barbara Sansone
The Kalachakra Initiation is the largest and most important Buddhist ritual conferred by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is traditionally given to groups of people assembled from around the world, and therefore, is associated with the promotion of world peace. The Kalachakra Initiation is considered a special blessing for all who participate and for the environment in which it is given. Of the thousands of Tibetans, Indians and other Buddhists who attend the Kalachakra, only 200 or fewer are Westerners.
The California-based travel company, Spirit of India, escorts travelers to the Spiti Valley, a remote region of the Indian Himalaya bordering Tibet, to participate in the sacred Kalachakra Initiation at the 12th century Ki Monastery. This ceremony at the Ki Monastery was deemed especially significant as it is the closest the Dalai Lama has been to Tibet since his exile.
Kalachakra means “Wheel of Time” which refers to the presentation of cycles of time within the Kalachakra Tantra, and is also the name of one of the Buddhist deities that represents particular aspects of the Enlightened Mind. The word tantra means “an everlasting stream of continuity.” It forms a part of a system of teachings and practice conferred by the Buddha to his disciples.
Traditionally the Kalachakra teachings have been a closely guarded secret with the viewing of the sand mandala as the culmination of a twelve-day initiation ritual. However, the Dalai Lama, recognizing the many misconceptions surrounding Tibetan Buddhist practice, began presentations of the Kalachakra sand mandala to the general public as a cultural offering.
Each morning we arose from our tents at 4:30 am, ate a quick bite and hopped in our jeeps for the 45-minute drive up the precariously narrow, winding mountain road toward Ki Monastery (also spelled Key and Kee). Two-thirds of the way there, we would disembark and walk the remaining way up, as only VIP cars could drive all the way to the entrance.
The morning walks were a glorious time. All the most devoted pilgrims were on the path with us–husbands and wives with small children on their backs, elders walking tall and strong, giggling young teenage girls. We were greeted with wide smiles and the traditional Tibetan greeting, Tashi Delek!
By 6 am, we arrived at the Ki Monastery to lay claim to coveted spots as close to His Holiness as possible. It was truly amazing to sit near him in such an intimately Buddhist setting–literally on the mountain top, prayer flags fluttering, scorching sun beating on us. We did not even mind that the program usually began at about 1 pm.
As people quickly filled the courtyard space, we were surrounded from all sides by Buddhist pilgrims from every part of India and Nepal–several thousand bodies deep. Throughout the hours of sitting before the Dalai Lama appeared, we huddled on mats under the shade of shared umbrellas as an ongoing exchange of food took place with our neighbors. The baby next to me was crying, so I gave him my boxed juice; his mother gratefully accepted and later, I was passed an apple. I brought extra photos I had made the year before of Ki Monastery and gave them to Tibetans who did not have their own cameras to record the memory of this event. Each bowed a thank you, touched the photo to their forehead and then held it up to the sky.
When H.H. the Dalai Lama appeared on the small stage above us, a hush came over the crowd as we all rose in unison and held our hands in prayer. Many began doing prostrations, a physical movement that looks a bit like the yoga sun salutations. His Holiness greeted us with a bow, hands also in prayer; his famous smile and twinkling eyes appeared to greet each and every one of us.
H.H. the Dalai Lama spoke in the Tibetan language with translations available via transistor radio in English, French, German, Italian and Hindi. From time to time, monks would come through the crowd of about 10,000 to distribute tea and various props pertaining to the rituals, such as protection string, a red band of cloth to signify blinders, a lotus flower and two stalks of Kuscha grass to enhance dreaming. There were times when we would repeat Tibetan chants with the crowd which were punctuated by the playing of Tibetan horns, drums and the Dalai Lama’s chuckles.
We followed along as best we could, watching the monks and more experienced practitioners. Some of the group members had brought along a book, “Kalachakra: A Rite of Initiation.” The book was valuable in explaining in great detail the meaning of each ritual and helped us keep up with where we were in the ceremony each day.
For a Buddhist practitioner, taking the initiation confers permission to begin study and practice of the Kalachakra Tantra with the motivation to free all beings from suffering and actualize realizations of the path to enlightenment. For the non-Buddhist, who does not wish to take the empowerment, the initiation can be taken as a blessing. For each individual who participates — Buddhist or not–it is also a renewal of commitment to one’s inner spiritual path.
New Yorker Alison Murphy states, “I learned a lot about myself in India, really from all the love and affection I felt from everyone in the group. The Kalachakra topped it off, but the people in our party really touched me. I don’t think I’ll be living my life the way I was before the trip…”
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