We absolutely love that more and more these days we have exchanges on email or Facebook that lead us to community members who have valuable experiences to share with all of us here on the site. Back in July, we received a reply on our newsletter list from Carolyn Wells, who was in Ladakh attending His Holiness’ Kalachakra initiation. We jumped at the chance to ask Carolyn to share her experience at the Kalachakra as a guest post and she has kindly agreed. Thanks so much, Carolyn! It’s so nice to get a flavor of what it was like, through her thoughtful and sensitive reflections on the teachings 🙂
The 2014 Kalachakra Initiation in Leh: A Personal Perspective
Guest post by Carolyn Wells
Preliminaries to the Kalachakra
July 1, 2014, Likker Monastery, Ladakh, far north India, elevation 11,500 feet.
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama sits on his teaching throne not 75 feet from me and I wonder how it feels for him to be so close to Tibet.
My friends and I are at the “Top of the World” sitting on the ground at Likkir monastery for a teaching on the Heart Sutra, three days before the beginning of the Kalachakra initiation. My group is multinational: Australia, Canada, Italy, Israel, Ladakh, India, Taiwan, Tibet, and the USA.
Looking around I see the stark spectacular snow capped mountains that make up part of the Tibetan Plateau, and I realize that although this is not Lhasa, it must surely remind His Holiness of Tibet. I breathe a deep sigh and quietly think of the Long Life Puja for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama:
In the land of snowy mountains
Is the source of all happiness and benefit,
Lord Chenrezig, Tenzin Gyatso
May you stand firm until samsara ends.
The surrounding landscape brings new context to this prayer and I know I will remember the feeling of this place for the rest of my life.
Ladakh, which translates as “land of high passes” and which is sometimes known as “Little Tibet,” is located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. For this trip my travel companions and I are staying in Leh, the largest city in Ladakh, approximately 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Choglamsar where the Jiwe-Tsal (“Shiwe Tsal”) or teaching grounds are located.
The teaching grounds are outside on a flat dirt area. In the photo above, you can see the teaching pavilion with a gold roof on the right, green cloth shades cover areas for foreign visitors on the far side, monks and nuns in front of the building, and vipʼs on the closest side of the building. The flat open area to the left is for general seating, and the gold roof of His Holinessʼ summer residence can be seen surrounded by trees further to the left.
Because of its proximity to the teaching grounds His Holiness often walked back and forth in order to greet the devotees. The silt filled summer waters of the Indus River run behind the venue.
The teaching pavilion contains His Holinessʼ teaching throne, cushion seating on the floor for the high Lamas and dignitaries, along with a floor to ceiling glassed-in area for the Kalachakra sand mandala.
After several days of cooler temperatures with intermittent rain squalls wetting down the teaching grounds, the rain clouds have dispersed and the high altitude desert heat is back. Summer rain is unusual in this high desert climate. Many thought it was an auspicious event prior to the teachings.
At the beginning of Kalachakra the Jiwe-Tsal hosts a moderate crowd, but as the start of the Kalachakra Initiation gets closer more and more people arrive and elbow room diminishes. Choglamsar and Leh are overflowing with people and cars increasing the road dust, diesel pollution, and population. Many wear face masks to help filter dust and diesel fumes.
DAY ONE OF THE KALACHAKRA INITIATION
July 10, 2014, Jiwe-Tsal (teaching grounds), Choglamsar, near Leh, Ladakh.
This is day one of three of the Kalachakra Initiation. Many people in the audience were present to take the initiation as a blessing and would not go on to practice. On the other hand, many had already taken the initiation – for one gentleman it was his fourth time – in order to reinforce their practice. All members of the audience were welcome to stay through the entire three days whether they were there as practitioners or to sit in His Holinessʼ audience and receive the Kalachakra blessing.
As of His Holinessʼ birthday on July 6, in opening remarks made by Mr. Richard Gere, 108,000 adults were registered for the Kalachakra. This figure did not include nonregistered children, those under the age of 16. He didnʼt mention if it included the hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. By the end of the teaching the attendance count swelled to between 160,000 – 200,000 total, depending on the source, with 73 countries represented, including mainland China and Taiwan. Language translations were available via short distance FM radio for Tibetan, Ladakhi, English, Korean, Italian, Vietnamese, Hindi, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, and French.
Over the past week, whether at the Heart Sutra teaching at Likkir Monastery or during His Holinessʼ commentaries on Nagarjunaʼs “Precious Garland” and “Letter to a Friend,” the audience was encouraged to study Emptiness and Dependent Arising, because they were “like two sides of the same coin.”
His Holiness on Respecting other Sects, Religions and Cultures
In addition His Holiness gently reminded His audiences to have respect for other religions and peoples without losing your own cultural faith. He noted that Christians help others more than Buddhists, something to work on, and that similarly, Christian and Buddhists monks and nuns lived simple, moderate lives.
In the Ladakhi region many religions live side by side peacefully including Muslims (47%), Buddhists (45%), Hindus (6 %), Sikhs (0.2%), and Christians (less than 0.2%; statistics per Wikipedia). When I asked a Ladakhi friend about the crime rate in the area he said “very little,” just maybe verbal arguments and public intoxication.
His Holiness also reminded those present to have respect for the different schools of thought within Tibetan Buddhism (Bon, Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya), encouraging the focus to be on what the traditions have in common rather than arguing about minor differences. His Holiness then made clear that it was a positive thing for students of Tibetan Buddhism to read, understand, and even take initiations under lineages other than your own.
The Kalachakra Master and Disciple Relationship
His Holiness then made a Torma offering, to remove obstacles and negative forces from the Jiwe-Tsal. He also requested those who practice Shugdun not to take the initiation and to please leave the grounds. He then noted, to those taking the initiation, that “up until now we have been talking person to person, and now, [as the Kalachakra Preliminary Teaching and Initiation begin], that relationship will change to one of master and disciple.”
His Holiness went on to talk about Vajrayana, the Secret Mantra Vajra Vehicle. A mantra is “that which protects the mind” from ordinary perception. Vajra means invincable or immovable. The practice of deity yoga, such as Kalachakra, requires working towards generating emptiness and compassion together in order to perceive the deity in a sacred manner. The practice is considered secret because it is done in private, more internally than externally.
Vajrayana is at the heart of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, which espouses the wish to attain Buddhahood – complete enlightenment – in order to help others do the same. His Holiness stresses that the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is not about all the trappings of the fancy rituals and ceremonies. Rather, Tibetan Buddhism is about training and transforming the mind.
His Holiness then offers and progresses through confering Lay vows, Refuge, and Bodhichitta vows, for those who wish to take them for the first time, or renew their vows. Taking refuge distinguishes a practitioner as a Buddhist, and the aspiration to achieve Bodhichitta is the core of Mahayana Buddhism.
During the session volunteers were quietly making their way through the audience handing out Kusha grass, one short stalk and one long stalk, in addition to a red string. We were instructed by His Holiness, tonight before sleep, to place one Kusha stem under our mattress at torso level, to remove unclear thoughts from the mind, and one Kusha stem under our pillow, to bring clear dreams that night. We were instructed to monitor our dreams, especially the dream closest to the dawn. The red string could be worn or kept in a pocket or wallet to remind us to be kind and as a reminder of the blessing of the Kalachakra.
DAY TWO OF THE KALACHAKRA INITIATION
July 11, 2014
His Holiness on Dreams and the Subtle Mind
After a restful night sleep with no dream to report, we were back at the teaching grounds. Regarding our dreams, His Holiness says not to worry or be too attached whether the dream was auspicious, inausapicious or there was no dream remembered. His Holiness goes on to talk about the five external senses being active during the waking state, while during the dream state we are able to access subtler states of mind.
He tells a story of a manʼs mother who slept for a week and was able to tell of events and details of places she could not have known. His Holiness also notes that not dreaming is another type of subtle mind, as is fainting, and, as the elements of the mind and body dissolve the state of clear light may be attained. Clear light is always present in the mind stream and is not subject to delusion, and it is through clear light that emptiness may be realized. The purpose of deity yoga is to allow the mind to access the subtler levels of mind, or consciousness.
The Bodhisattva Vow
His Holiness then offered the Bodhisattva vow, instruction on the Five Buddha Families, and Tantric vows for those who wished to take them. We are reminded to keep practicing, and that even He Himself is a bit lazy and has not yet achieved Shamata (single pointed concentration).
His Holiness also reminds the audience that working for the sake of others can bring happiness because bodhicitta, the enlightened mind, allows us to progress along the path to enlightenment. If we remain selfish and self centered we will not be able to progress on the path. His Holiness uses the example that even a person provoking you can help teach you patience. Again, His Holiness encouraged study and reflection on emptiness and dependent arising, quoting from Aryadeva’s 400 Verses, “What arises through dependent arising has no autonomy.” “The self,” His Holiness says, “is not autonomous.”
In preparation to enter the Kalachakra mandala, through visualization, His Holiness instructed the members of the audience to place a red blindfold over their foreheads, representing the location of the third eye, to symbolize that they were not spiritually prepared to “see” the mandala. In addition, dried lotus blossoms symbolizing flower garlands were at hand. The flower garlands were offerings to the deities within the mandala, ready to be placed on top of the head at the appropriate moment. The audience was encouraged to keep both the blindfold and the lotus blossom as a remembrance of the blessing of the Kalachakra experience.
The Kalachakra Sand Mandala
The Kalachakra sand mandala is housed within a floor to ceiling enclosure to protect it from the elements. Namgyal monks are tasked with making the approximate twelve foot diameter Kalachakra sand mandala over the many days of the teachings. Sand mandalas are two dimensional symbols of a three dimensional place.
The following regarding the symbolism and artistry of a sand mandala is attributed to Tibetan scholar Robert Thurman (reference not cited):
The actual mandala itself, underlying all practices and performances, is a complete three-dimensional environment, an alternative universe, a world centered on a divine mansion that contains buddha archetype-deities with specific types of bodies, surrounded by gardens and charnal (cemetery) grounds, replete with mountains, lakes, trees, and various divine, legendary, and historical beings. The borders of this world are sealed against all negative influences by rings of fire and diamond-thunderbolt (vajra) energies which, when desirable, can be made permeable to absorb beings from ordinary worlds to bless and transform them.
After a sand mandala is complete it is ritually destroyed. The sand is swept up and deposited into a body of water to bless the surrounding environment.
His Holiness Offers the Kalachakra Initiation and Tantric Vows
His Holiness sprinkles scented water and recites a mantra to remove any obstacles and the members of the audience accompany the Vajra Master (His Holiness) into emptiness. Within the emptiness the students are generated as Kalachakra with two hands embracing the consort Vishvamata. With all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas as witnesses His Holiness offers the bodhisattva vows, followed by the Kalachakra Initiation and Tantric vows.
Initiates are also required to follow rules of conduct including no killing, stealing, gambling, sexual misconduct, harming others, and more. In addition, the students were cautioned about talking about the initiation to the uninitiated, because this could be construed as bragging.
Although initiates are encouraged not to speak of the Kalachakra initiation, His Holiness feels that transparency regarding tantric studies helps to remove speculation about what happens during an intitiation, another reason lay people are allowed to attend the intiation and receive the blessings without committment. There are many books and websites about the Kalachakra for those interested.
His Holiness Leads the Initiates Through a Visualization of the Mandala
The audience, still blindfolded, are taken through the mandala via visualization led by His Holiness, the Vajra Master, circumambulating the palace and, finally, being allowed to remove the blindfold, the members of the audience can “see” the mandala and meet many deities. Eventually the visualization is over and the members of the audience return to the mundane world of the teaching grounds.
His Holiness then offers an oral transmission of a new translation of the Kalachakra Six-Session Guru Yoga composed, at His Holinessʼ request, by his Senior Tutor Ling Rinpoche. His Holiness encourages people to recite it daily, if they wish. Unfortunately for many, the new translation is currently offered in Tibetan only for the moment, though other language translations are forthcoming.
Concluding Prayers and Rituals
Though the concluding prayers and rituals are conducted with no further language translation, many in the foreigners section sit quietly and remain until His Holiness and the Namgyal monks complete the session. When His Holiness is finished for the day he walkes to the front of the building platform to wave to the audience before being driven back to his residence. It was agreed by my group that the heat was extraordinary today and we reminded each other to have some soup and tea, to rehydrate, aftewards. Although it sounds funny to take tea and soup on a hot day, it is a common practice. Taking cold beverages in hot climates is considered unhealthy by many Asian cultures.
DAY THREE OF THE KALACHAKRA INITIATION
July 12, 2014
His Holiness gives us the morning off so he can spend the hours on preparatory rituals. After lunch, the audience packs the Jiwe-Tsal grounds, and the heat is worse than ever, easily the hottest day so far. Umbrellas, as far as the eye can see, and wet towels on the head are the fashion of the day.
His Holiness on Happiness
As he does each day, His Holiness acknowledges the audience, high Lamas and Rinpoches, and visiting dignitaries and guests before settling on His teaching throne. His Holiness reminds us that the sutras tell us that all beings wish to be happy. Happiness comes to sentient beings naturally, even in dreams.
However there is a difference between short term happiness and long term happiness. Animals achieve physical short term happiness, and have reproduced according to Darwinian theory for millenia. Christians and other mono-theists take refuge in their God, whereas Buddhists trust in causality, seeking higher rebirth and eventually enlightenment. In this life there is an effort towards meaning.
One source of happiness is the sangha, male and female members. He mentions that in the past Pali and Sanskrit communities were wary of each other. Now with better ability to communicate, distances can be overcome. Therefore it is important to develop and maintain friendly relations.
On the Study of the Classic Texts in Tibetan
His Holiness goes on to encourage study of the Classic Texts, warning that performing rituals is not enough. “It is important to study.” He encourages monasteries to have teachers get together to update the standard of study, noting that distractions of the modern world may need to be minimized so that monastics are not overwhelmed by them. His concern is that standards of monastic education could fall into decline and it might not be noticed until it is too late. Monastics in China are under the control of the government, and therefore the monasteries in exile, in India and other free countries, need to take advantage of the freedom to study.
His Holiness also encouraged the ongoing teaching in the Tibetan language, noting it is not about being a loyal Tibetan. Rather, the Nalanda tradition is best expressed through the Tibetan language. Even if different cultures cannot speak to each other, such as Mongolians or Russians cannot speak with Tibetans, the writings, the sutras are written in the same language. He emphasized that this is not a political stance but rather that the study of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, the Kangyur and Tengyur, for example, is best done in the Tibetan language.
The Kalachakra Empowerments
His Holiness then turned to the matter at hand and began the Kalachakra Initiation with the seven childhood initiations, noting “I wonʼt be able to explain everything verse by verse, during the empowerments we will go like a rocket!” His Holiness, as Vajra Master, then confers the Seven Childhood Initiations followed by the four Higher Empowerments. He then reviews the fourteen root downfalls, with students making the intention to follow the requested behaviors, after which is the Dedication of Merit and the Kalachakra Initiation is complete.
His Holiness addresses the audience acknowledging the completion of the seven empowerments of childhood, which are related to the generation stage of guru yoga, and the four higher empowerments, that relate to the completion stage. Thus His Holiness says, “the eleven empowerments of Kalachakra are complete and it is only 3pm, not bad!”
Speaking specifically to students who propose to make Kalachakra a daily practice His Holiness says, “I gave you the transmission of the Kalachakra Six-session Guru Yoga yesterday. The focus of Tantric practice is the completion stage, but what we need to concentrate on is developing bodhichitta, the awakened mind, and our understanding of emptiness. In order to realise the higher stages we must build on a firm foundation.”
His Holiness and the Namgyal monks remain at the Jiwe-Tsal to perform the concluding rituals while the audience, in no hurry to leave, but for the heat, slowly filed out of the Jiwe-Tsal. The 2014 Kalachakra had come to an end. It was hard to believe. All of us felt very fortunate to be able to sit in His Holinessʼ audience to witness so many cultures coming together for the blessing of the Kalachakra for World Peace!
DAY FOUR: THE WHITE TARA EMPOWERMENT
July 13, 2014
His Holiness confers the White Tara empowerment followed by a celebration and the offering of the Long Life puja for His Holiness, after which the public is invited to view the mandala. Despite the heat the queue of people seemed to extend “forever” around the Jiwe-tsal. For the next two days people line up to walk around the sand mandala. It was said that many people came at night to view the mandala by moonlight.
DAY SEVEN: THE KALACHAKRA SAND MANDALA IS DESTROYED
July 16, 2014
On the last day, the Kalachakra sand mandala is ritually destroyed, acknowledging impermanence, and the sand is deposited into the Indus River, offering a blessing to the environment.
If you are interested in further information on His Holinessʼ teachings in Ladakh, including the Heart Sutra, Nagarjuna, and the Kalachakra Initiation, there are articles along with stunning photographs on His Holiness the Dalai Lamaʼs website: www.dalailama.com > news > view archives > July References
I am grateful to Lobsang and Yolanda for their invitation to offer a guest blog to their audience at YoWangdu.com. Any mistakes in this blog are those of the author, my apologies for any infractions, I welcome corrections. May any merits accumulated through the writing of this article be dedicated to the Long Life of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.
Want to be Ready to Travel to Tibet When it Reopens?
Sign up to get instant access to our FREE Tibet Travel Planning Guide that shows you exactly how to:
- Get your visa and Tibet permits
- Avoid altitude sickness
- Choose a reliable, Tibetan-owned agent
- And much more…so you can feel peace of mind about your trip, and have a great, safe journey!
Along with instant access to your free, comprehensive online guide for planning your Tibet travel, you will also get our weekly All Things Tibet newsletter, with tips, tools and strategies for simple, safe and meaningful Tibet travel.