Category Archives: Kalachakra

Impressions of the Dalai Lama

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I think it is remarkable that the sound I most associate with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is laughter. I would guess that most people would not immediately think of laughter when asked to ponder on world religious leaders. Does Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, make you think of laughter? Or Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury? But when it comes to this Dalai Lama, I immediately think of laughter.

I have been privileged to see the Dalai Lama in person twice—at the Kalachakra for World Peace in July 2011 in Washington, DC, and at an empowerment in Long Beach, California, last month. Both encounters seemed otherworldly to me. He radiates a palpable energy that enraptures the audience. Perhaps the most winning thing about him is his readiness to laugh, especially at himself.

Early in the Kalachakra he spoke directly to the native Tibetan speakers in the audience…in English. After speaking for several minutes, he realized the fruitlessness of speaking in English to persons who understood only Tibetan and erupted in laughter. In Long Beach, he began chanting in Tibetan, only to halt after a few lines to confess, in English, that he was chanting the wrong prayer. He laughed uproariously at his mistake.

It was a marvelously joyous sound both times, a laugh you might expect to hear from someone hearing a joke for the first time in his life and not quite knowing what to make of the sensation. It swept through the crowd, infecting everyone who heard it, so that all were laughing with unrestrained joy.

That willingness to laugh at himself, to not take himself too seriously despite the very serious business he has to accomplish, sets the Dalai Lama apart. He is greatly revered by many, yet his brand of humility makes him seem accessible rather than lofty.

Personally, he awakens my awareness of the Buddha-nature inside of me. I don’t know that it ever seems more tangible to me, more capable of emerging, than when I am in the Dalai Lama’s presence. I would liken it to a pilot light in a stove, always on though barely flickering—until the Dalai Lama turns up the gas and it bursts into flame. Listening to his recorded talks, reading his books, the flame comes alive. In his presence, it’s a roaring inferno.

That experience prompts me to seek two things. One, to kindle that flame in my daily life so that the Buddha-nature in me shines forth and guides my path. Two, to recognize and become enflamed by that same Buddha-nature in everyone I encounter. Because it is present in everyone, at all times, in you, in me, always now, and not just in the Dalai Lama.

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What a Difference a Year Makes

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A little less than a year ago I wrote here about how I learned a life lesson about disappointment. I had traveled across the country to see the Dalai Lama for the first time and to participate in an initiation he was conducting. His physicians asked him to rest an extra day before traveling from Tokyo to California and as a result he missed the event. I spent one night angry, sad, and disappointed, and then spent the next day begin taught about humility, compassion, and real suffering and disappointment.

I knew right away what an important event that was, and one year later I can confirm that it was life-changing. For one thing, my practice shifted in tone and pace. I stopped being in a hurry to reach enlightenment. I began to focus on the present moment and where I was on the path at that time, rather than craning my neck to see what was coming up around the bend. I learned to appreciate what I was doing and experiencing at any given moment, instead of counting up the things I’d done or the things I wanted to do. I stopped trying to accumulate experiences and knowledge (though, to be honest, I haven’t stopped collecting books—my love of reading and learning continue to overpower my will and overtax my shelves).

I also started to get over myself. As deeply spiritual as my life has been at many times, both as a Christian and a Buddhist, I think I sometimes have been a tad too impressed with myself. Despite feeling somewhat lost exploring my path as a Buddhist, I still managed to inflate my spiritual self-importance. I was a bit too proud of the new spirituality I was developing, of the experiences and knowledge I was collecting like baseball cards and comic books (I should write sometime about The Green Lama).

A few months later, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC, to attend the Dalai Lama’s conducting of the Kalachakra. I had difficulty trying to decide whether to go, so soon after the humbling I received in California. Was I succumbing again to the temptation to hit a spiritual home run? I seriously doubted my motivations at the time. In the end, I went, and it was a phenomenal decision.

When I received word late last year that His Holiness would be returning to Long Beach to “make up” the initiation he missed, and was invited by the event host to return free of charge, I wasn’t sure if I should go. The experience of the Kalachakra  would be very hard to top. And although Gaden Shartse Thubten Dargye Ling would be comping me the event tickets, I’d still have to pay for the flight, hotel, meals, rental car, and so on. I was ready to pass. Then my boss asked me to attend a conference that he and I alternate going to; this was supposed to be his year. The conference was in Las Vegas, practically all the way to California, it was the same week as the Dalai Lama’s return to Long Beach, and my employer would be paying for the flight out to Vegas. I realized I was being led back to California; who was I to kick against the goads.

I got chills when I drove into downtown Long Beach Thursday evening, past the convention center where the Dalai Lama was supposed to appear last year, by the Westin where the humble Khen Rinpoche shamed me for my “disappointment” and the wise Robert Thurman put my feelings into perspective. When I checked in at the Courtyard, the desk clerk said he was switching my room to move me away from a large group of noisy young boys. My new room number was 619, which looks an awful lot like a yin-and-yang to me. I took it to be auspicious.

Two days later, as I type this, I am still processing the experience of see His Holiness again and participating in the initiation. I’ll write about it soon. In the  meantime, here are a few fuzzy photos I took with my phone. Hopefully, there are some better ones on my camera.

Namaste. Peace be yours.

Kalachakra, July 14 & 15, 2011

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It has taken me a week to process just the merest fraction of my experiences in Washington, DC, attending the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra for World Peace. I suspect events like these are called “life experiences” because it takes a lifetime to fully experience them. The Kalachakra, though an event itself, was just the beginning of a life guided by the vows taken over the three days.

So, I don’t exactly have anything earth shattering to share at the moment, other than a few more general impressions. For the first of these, I thank Taylor McKenney, a member of this blog’s companion virtual sangha on Facebook, also called Dharma Beginner. Taylor posted, “the Kalachakra was amazing! totally missing being surrounded by like minded people!” She marvelously summed up my feelings over the past week, a mood I couldn’t myself translate into words. Turns out, I was suffering from sangha withdrawal!

The best antidote, I have found, has been sharing the Kalachakra experience with the brothers and sisters of my virtual sangha. The response to the news, links, and photos I shared has been overwhelming. It didn’t occur to me how much such a small act on my part would be appreciated. I feel very blessed to have vicariously included so many people who couldn’t be there in person.

I continue to marvel at the holiness and presence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I have been fortunate to have met some very holy and spiritual people, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bishop Paul Moore, and Bishop Walter Dennis. Each possessed qualities that served to draw you in and painlessly imbue in you their morality and values and prayerfulness, quite without your realizing what was happening. Each was supremely human as well, people who could be cranky, tired, impatient. People who loved to laugh, to spend time with friends, to do many things that everyday folks like to do. People who could be deep and meaningful at one moment, and childlike and playful the next, yet exude spirit and love and grounding in both moments.

The Dalai Lama is very much like this—to the power of 10. I hung on nearly every word he spoke, though half of them were in Tibetan, and I don’t speak Tibetan. I might not have understood all of the words, but I keenly felt their meaning—when they were serious, when they were instructive, cautionary, joking. His facial expressions spoke volumes. He often seemed to walk a fine line between solemnity and hilarity, many times leaping headfirst into the latter. He was particularly quick to laugh at himself, such as when he described his cough as sounding like someone blowing through a conch shell.

A scene at the end of the Kalachakra epitomized how he simultaneously planted one foot in the somber and one in the silly. Shortly after His Holiness began the concluding chants, a man staggered to the front of the stage, waving a red, white, and blue top hat in the direction of the Dalai Lama. Security swooped in and began to lead him away, but not before the Dalai Lama saw the man and, particularly, his hat, and beckoned him to the stage. The chanting continued, but the Dalai Lama seemed to have just one thing on his mind now—the Uncle Sam hat. When the hat was finally brought to His Holiness, he promptly plopped it on his head. An immensely silly thing, one might think, for so holy a man to do. Yet, it did not seem out of character for him in the least. No, it is exactly the kind of thing that makes me love him so much.

The Bodhisattva and tantric vows taken during the Kalachakra can seem daunting. There are so many of them, for one thing. But taken in the presence of the Dalai Lama, they appeared light and simple and effortless. I felt that, for him, I could do anything. I expressed the feeling to a friend by paraphrasing Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets: He makes me want to be a better person. No, she said, he makes you want to be yourself.

I’m sure I’ll have more to share as time goes by and what I witnessed continues to reveal itself to me. In the meantime, I hope you’ll join our little virtual sangha on Facebook or walk the path with me on Twitter @DharmaBeginner.