Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, the Washington Wizards NBA Team, and… His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso – the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet?
What’s the commonality?
All drew sold-out crowds at the Verizon Center, an arena that holds over 20,000 people in the heart of Chinatown in Washington DC.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a title given to the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhists and traditionally the head of state of Tibet, recently spent nearly two weeks in Washington DC hosting an ancient and profound Tibetan ritual of Kalachakra (loosely translated as “Wheel of time”), a commitment of generating harmony of inner and outer peace as an infinitely valuable antidote to the forces of ill will. The Kalachakra for World Peace 2011 was an especially historic event as it was the first held in DC, a city where daily decisions affect the lives of billions throughout the world, where rejuvenating a positive environment for universal understanding is of utmost importance. While the Kalachakra is a Buddhist tradition, it encompasses the universal concept of harmonious co-existence, a goal that transcends among all people in the world and all faiths.
The opening for the Kalachakra programs coincided with the 76th birthday of His Holiness, and some fun festivities kicked off on July 6th, with well-wishers singing Happy Birthday to the Dalai Lama in a parade around downtown Washington DC. The next few days included mainly rituals and prayers by the ordained monks and nuns. During this time, a separate group began the intricate construction of a large sand mandala , which is an ornate work of art painstakingly created by delicately brushing particle by particle of different colored sand into place to form the beautiful pictures. While quite a marvel to look at (and the desire of museums worldwide), the mandala is always dissolved into water (in this case, the Potomac River) at the conclusion of the ritual, as it symbolizes one of the core concepts of Buddhism, that of impermanence.
Then, on the first Saturday, the Dalai Lama held a special event open to the public, a World Peace Talk on the lawn of the US Capitol, with Whoopi Goldberg as the emcee. There, thousands of people gathered under the sweltering sun to listen to His Holiness’s message on compassion for all humankind – his secular ethics. In a message that spans all religions, he noted that every person seeks the same basic goals of peace and happiness, and that to do so one must begin by looking within to his or her own heart.
While Dalai Lama praised free democracies, particularly the United States and India, he noted that governments and organizations, even religions, cannot mandate peace and happiness – only with one’s self mindfulness can this be achieved. Even enemies must be loved, for while you may rightly disagree with their actions, harboring actual malice toward a person only introduces hurt to your own heart. Hopefully, this message of seeking universal compassion can help bring change not only at an individual level, but one of peace across the world.
Echoing the message of harmony later in the week, the Archibishop of Washington DC, Cardinal Wuerl, appeared in the Verizon Center with the Dalai Lama, urging people of all backgrounds to heed this message. (Of note, the Dalai Lama received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for consistently opposing the use of violence in advocating mutual tolerance in the struggle to preserve the cultural heritage of Tibet and for “his philosophy of peace from a great reverence for all things living and upon the concept of universal responsibility embracing all mankind as well as nature”.)
After Saturday, the remaining week of the Kalachakra was dedicated to teachings of the Buddhist dharma and the empowerment ritual. The Buddhist empowerment involves an earnest wish for inspiration of compassion until all forms of suffering have ended. Foundational to this is cultivating in thought and action the most cherished form of human nature, that of loving kindness. Through mindfulness and awareness, meditation on the causes and conditions of phenomenon serves as a means of realizing negative attachments and liberation from suffering. As this article aims mainly to describe the festivities of the Kalachakra event, it will not delve into the actual Buddhist teachings and range of topics such as the relation between science, secularism, and modern Buddhism. However, those interested may find a wide selection of books and other online media by some of the experts in the field who spoke. The leading Buddhism speakers at this event included Dr. Alexander Berzin (a Harvard-educated scholar who has an extensive website of translations into Western languages including podcasts), Dr. Thupten Jinpa (a Cambridge University-educated scholar now part of the Dalai Lama’s initiatives at Stanford University to explore the interconnectivity between neuroscience and Buddhist practices, and who serves currently as the Dalai Lama’s personal translator), Venerable Thubten Chodron, Dr. Robert Thurman (a Harvard-educated Professor at Columbia University), Venerable Jhado Rinpoche, and HE Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche.
Of course, Washington D.C. is the city where much of the world’s future is shaped, and it would be remiss not to meet with the important American politicians who are responsible for much of this power. Continuing the strong and historic relationship between the Dalai Lama and the United States dating back as far as when President Franklin Roosevelt gave His Holiness a prized watch, the Dalai Lama met with congressional Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the Republican leader Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner to remind them of the human spirit of compassion and peace. “The bond between the Dalai Lama and the American people has been strong for so long that it’s no surprise that his visits are highly anticipated, and I think rightly so. Wherever he goes, the Dalai Lama makes his tireless dedications to the values that we all cherish. He makes them apparent and contagious. His example humbles nations such as ours that work to spread freedom, tolerance and respect for human dignity, and it sustains those who struggle to secure these universal values for themselves and for their families,” Boehner said. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Pelosi’s welcome was similarly warm, noting “President George Walker Bush in 2007 was present to present to His Holiness the Congressional Gold Medal. At that time he did so honoring the commitment of His Holiness to peace, to non-violence, to human rights and to religious understanding.”
On the concluding day of the Kalachakra, the Dalai Lama hurried the closing remarks as he left to go meet with President Obama at the White House . After the friendly meeting, the White House released, “The president reiterated his strong support for the preservation of the unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions of Tibet and the Tibetan people throughout the world.” The Dalai Lama, answering a reporter about the meeting, in return said that Obama is “President of the greatest democratic country, so naturally he is showing concern about basic human values, human rights, religious freedom…so naturally he shows genuine concern about the suffering in Tibet and also some other places.”
True, the Kalachakra for World Peace had some minor hitches – the free logo tote bags and program books ran out rapidly, the nightly lecture events had to be moved as thousands of people showed up when the capacity was for an only expected 800 person audience, and the lines to enter the Verizon Center through its security snaked around the block, but all in all, the Capital Area Tibetan Association did a fantastic job hosting the tens of thousands of people in this successful event. Considering the fact that the local Tibetan community has a small population of a few hundred and is a tiny ethnic group, the effort of the volunteers who helped the program run so smoothly with so many attendees from around the world was quite impressive.
Indeed, with the consent of the Office of Tibet, extra proceeds from this event were donated to various charity causes, including the local Booker T Washington public school which primarily serves a resource-challenged African-American neighborhood of DC. Seemingly unrelated to Tibetan Buddhism, this group was chosen as His Holiness stresses the importance of education for all, recognizing its essential importance as the foundation of well-functioning democratic societies.
Thus, while describing himself merely as “a simple Buddhist monk”, the Dalai Lama provided an inspiration to peace and compassion to people of all religions and cultures. Despite his numerous international accolades, honorary degrees, and meetings with presidents and leaders in 62 countries across the world, the Dalai Lama remains a humble beacon of steadfast kindness even in the face of unmitigated animosity. His three commitments – that of secular ethics and human values (compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline), that of religious harmony and understanding among the world’s major religious traditions, and that of safeguarding the welfare, on all levels, of the Tibetan people and culture – remain as noble causes that emanate beyond the capital of the free world and surely beyond the two weeks of the Kalachakra for World Peace 2011.
You can view the upcoming schedule, or stream videos or download podcasts of the Dalai Lama’s teachings at www.dalailama.com to learn more.