How easy it is to completely miss the inner wisdom of our ancient wisdom traditions.
About 35 years ago, the Dalai Lama accepted an invitation from Geshe Sopa to bestow the Kalachakra Tantra (the Wheel of Life) at the Deer Park Buddhist Center near Madison, Wisconsin. Sharpa Tulku and I were asked to help film the process. The Kalachakra is the “King of Tantras,” said to be the most complete and complex, and the only “Higher Tantra Initiation” open to the public. We accepted because we knew the event would be historically significant: the first time the Kalachakra had been bestowed outside of India or Tibet. But at the time, I wasn’t prepared to embrace the fantastical images, esoteric methods, and lofty claims that this initiation could speed up spiritual transformation into the body, speech, and mind of an enlightened Buddha. Our raw film footage ended up being stored at the Smithsonian, and only now are we working to complete the project. The goal is to explain why these public initiations, which have now been experienced by more than a million people worldwide, may actually help usher in an era of world peace.
Origins of Tantra
Buddhism, of course, is best known for meditation, and its most enduring image is the Buddha seated in the lotus posture, meditating under the Bodhi Tree to gain Enlightenment so he could free others from suffering. The Buddha realized the central importance of compassion and that all phenomena are impermanent, interdependent, and empty of inherent existence. During his life, he taught others to become enlightened through meditations on wisdom and compassion. Centuries after the Buddha’s death, paintings and sculptures of the various manifestations of the Buddha became transformative agents propelling believers toward Enlightenment. These images became important elements in the practices of the Buddhist Tantras, including the Kalachakra.
What I didn’t understand was why the Dalai Lama, a man who would earn the Nobel Prize and collaborate with the world’s leading neuroscientists on the effectiveness of meditation, was equally committed to the practice of Tantra. What unique value does Tantra offer in relationship to the original Buddhist practices?
What I learned was that the practice of Tantra can hasten the progress toward Enlightenment through the practice of precise visual imagery, ritual, mudra, and mantra. It harnesses breath energy and even such primal energies as those associated with desire, sex, and anger. While the images may look strange to us, they are especially designed to serve as transformative agents. Taken as a whole with meditation and compassion, Tantric practices compose a complete science of Enlightenment.
The First American Kalachakra
Filming the creation of the Kalachakra proved to be a fascinating challenge: We were asked to document the extensive preparations both in Dharamsala and Deer Park, including the arduous task of gaining county approvals, the building of a new Kalachakra temple by volunteers, and hosting over a thousand people in the rural fields of America’s heartland. Then there was the nine-day preparation for the initiation, which began with the construction of the Kalachakra Mandala from colorful grains of sand and ritual dances by monks dressed as deities to create a sacred and protective space for the initiation to proceed. The sand mandala was a beautiful two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional structure where 722 deities were to be visualized to help initiates eliminate the obstacles to their own Enlightenment. The elaborate initiation ceremony ended with the sweeping up of the sand mandala and the Dalai Lama pouring it into Lake Mendota as an offering to the Nagas, or water spirits, residing in its depths.
What Did It Mean?
To begin to understand the methodology of the Kalachakra, it can be helpful to compare the elaborate, colorful, and exotic ceremony to something more familiar to many Americans, a High Catholic Mass. During the Mass, the priest, choir, rituals, incense, altar images, stained glass windows, and statues of angels and saints around the chapel create a sacred environment for followers to imbue themselves with Christlike qualities. Devotees also often have a patron saint whom they hope to emulate and pray to for help. The bread and wine of the Eucharist represent the body, mind, and Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. The devotees prayerfully ingest these to receive Christ’s blessings, to embody His qualities, and perhaps even to become mystically united with Him. In this sense, the Catholic Mass and the Eucharist might be regarded as a kind of Christian Tantra.
Now let’s make a more prosaic comparison: In basketball, aspiring players engage in drills for shooting, passing, and defense. They learn about tactics for playing and winning as well as the rules that govern their participation. But, perhaps most important of all, they visualize the result of all this practice as personified by their particular role model, be it LeBron James or Stephen Curry. Similarly, an aspiring Buddhist learns the ethical rules, the philosophical tenets, and the techniques for meditation. But they visualize the result in the form of an image of the Buddha or Buddhist saint or spiritual being who manifests specific qualities of Buddhahood like compassion, wisdom, generosity, calm focus, and transcendental insight.
“Imagining the ideal” is a powerful and practical tool for secular transformation, and nobody doubts that it works in creating great basketball players. What I overlooked is the power of “imagining the ideal” for spiritual transformation. Based on 2,500 years of experimentation and practice, Buddhists have refined a unique, powerful, and profound system for transforming themselves from ordinary human beings into compassionate, wise beings with extraordinary powers and the ability to rebirth themselves into a state of Enlightenment.
The mandala’s geometry, symbols, colors, and shapes connote the concordance of all the Buddhist philosophical tenets, astrology, and meditation practices.
What’s In a Mandala?
Nowadays, I find it helpful to regard the Kalachakra mandala as a visual “memory palace” that contains all the essential tenets and practices of Buddhism. The mandala’s geometry, symbols, colors, and shapes connote the concordance of all the Buddhist philosophical tenets, astrology, and meditation practices. It represents a symbiosis between individual “spiritual anatomy” and universal cosmology and astrology. By spiritual anatomy, I am referring to the Chakras, channels, and nadis through which prana, the vital animating energy of life, flows. Within the mandala, the Tantra initiation assigns specific deities to all the specific elements of our body/mind that are to be transformed and purified. It instructs initiates on how to visualize these deities and to regard them as beings who themselves have purified the causes of their own ignorance, desire, and anger. It guides initiates on the chants, prayers, and meditations associated with these deities that are designed to help transmute all the elements of their being and to be reborn as a living Buddha. Gradually, a seven-step process introduces them to the entire Kalachakra Mandala, which has five levels representing the transformative practices to be perfected over a lifetime of practice: enlightened body, enlightened speech, enlightened mind, enlightened wisdom, and enlightened bliss. As with the High Catholic Mass, there is a profound felt sense of transformation, whether or not people understand the imagery and the practices. It can be hard to explain.
For example, when the 1981 initiation was completed, a freakishly powerful wind suddenly blew through the tent and the temple, scattering the pages of the Dalai Lama’s book. Simultaneously, a huge flock of birds never seen in the area before swirled around the grounds. Then, a rainbow appeared above the ground that had been made sacred. The Dalai Lama told me in a later interview that these were signs that the initiation had been successfully completed and he should not continue on any further.
My film interviews with participants immediately after the 1981 initiation revealed that the “initiates” who sat beneath the tent absorbed this initiation in their own personal ways. Some tried hard to engage in the complex visualizations, mantras, and commitments. Some absorbed the blessing of just being in the presence of the Dalai Lama. Some were interested observers who learned a great deal from this experience. Of the people I have been able to reach recently, nearly all said it was a life-altering experience that stayed with them. And, of course, I find myself finally coming back to finish this film.
The Final Initiation
After the completion of the Kalachakra initiation, a select few initiates are chosen to engage in the esoteric Completion Stage meditations with a qualified teacher. Here, they learn to harness their clear light consciousness to become reborn as an enlightened Buddha. This phenomenon, called thugs dam, is said to occur in rare instances at death.
Several decades after the Kalachakra initiation in Deer Park, the life of the founder of the center, Geshe Lundup Sopa, seemed to end in this way. For after his breath and heart stopped, his physical body did not decompose or show the normal signs and smells of death. Instead, it stayed in a meditation posture for nearly a week. This condition was verified by a medical doctor, witnessed by many others, and interpreted as a sign that he had intentionally harnessed his clear light meditation to achieve enlightenment. The Dalai Lama and his students are hoping that he will return again to continue teaching the wisdom and compassion of Buddhism to help relieve the suffering of all beings.