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The Dalai Lama's 'Kalachakra for World Peace': Day 11 -- Alternative Time

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KALACHAKRA FOR WORLD PEACE
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HuffPost blogger Sarah Deming is writing daily from the "Kalachakra for World Peace" event in Washington D.C. Scroll down for all of her updates from the event.

Saturday 7/16: Alternative Time

There are three olives in the martini I am drinking. There are three wheels of time in the Kalachakra.

A train station is a nice place to think about time. I try to imagine there is no division between myself and all these people scurrying by -- a homeless guy in a Vietnam Veteran hat, two monks pulling red rolling suitcases, a flock of honking children with noisemakers shaped like duck beaks. We're all caught in the wheels of time. I feel a wave of compassion, although it might be the gin.

The martini is part of my scheme to retoxify before returning to New York. I've been listening to violent hip hop all morning. For the train ride I've got a DVD about zombies.

Of the three Kalachakra wheels, the first one is Internal Time. This is the time that unfolds inside our bodies. It's measured in breaths and birthdays, in dying and -- if you believe that kind of thing -- being reborn.

I met a cool guy here named Hanuman, who told me he'd had an epiphany. "I know that after death there is continuity of consciousness," he explained. "And I started to think how disorienting and confusing it will be for my consciousness at the moment of death to be suddenly disembodied. All the meditation I've been doing has focused on bodily sensations. So now I'm meditating more on the quality of pure awareness."

I wish I believed in continuity, but you can't teach an old Atheist new tricks. I think reincarnation happens in this lifetime, too. The child I was is dead. Every moment I live I am dying and being reborn, and the only thing I inherit is the karma of the previous moment: an empty martini glass, a check.

The second wheel of Kalachakra is External Time. This is the time that is measured in days and years, the movement of planets, the rise and fall of empires.

We don't know what will happen to the Tibetan cause when His Holiness dies. As I watched him receive the long-life blessing, I couldn't put my finger on what I thought I saw. For a moment, his face lost its customary twinkle. He looked down at the vajra he held, twined with strings whose ends were held by other monks, and his face looked like the face you make while your doctor explains your prognosis.

Then it was over, and he twinkled again as he draped scarves around the necks of various VIPs. Some got applause: Jinpa, the Spanish language translator, the nun who made housekeeping announcements, a white guy with a big head (Richard Gere? Eric Ripert?), but one of the loudest cheers was for the Karmapa Lama. It's nice to know there's a young lion in waiting.

"If the people of Tibet want another Dalai Lama, he will be reborn to them," says Colin, the man I sit next to on the train ride home. I forgo the zombie movie and talk to him instead.

He shows me the way he rolls his mala beads between his fingers: "Always clockwise. That represents universal time and our time. When I spin the bead, I think of how the earth is spinning."

I confess that I don't own mala beads but chant with a harmonium. I find the idea of counting 108 recitations vaguely obsessive-compulsive.

"You only need to chant a mantra once, if you do it with heart," he says. "Every cell in your body is a Buddha. You don't need to wake him up ten thousand times."

He tells me that the monk in the seat in front of us is the Venerable Palden Gyatso, subject of the documentary Fire Under the Snow. Palden Gyatso spent 33 years in a Chinese prison, where he was tortured daily.

"Come on," he says, "wanna meet him?"

I kneel in front of the great monk, who puts his warm hands around mine. He is eighty now, but there is strength in his thin frame and brilliance in his eyes. His translator tells him I am a writer. Palden Gyatso nods and gives me a huge, white smile.

The third of the Kalachakra's wheels is Alternative Time. This is the time that frees you from bondage.

In one of the evening dharma talks, Sophia Stril-Rever explained, "Buddha perceives every moment of time simultaneously for all beings. They're all immediate. He looks at us and he can see our timeline and how long it will take each of us to escape samsara. Through Kalachakra, the Buddha shows that he'll be here with us, through all of it, helping us realize our potential."

I don't understand how anyone could survive 33 years of torture and smile the way Palden Gyatso smiles. There are wheels within wheels.

Friday 7/15: Great Scholars

In between the morning prayers and afternoon empowerment, I spend some time at the Panchen Lama booth. The exhibit, organized by Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, features reproductions of rare photos documenting the dramatic life of the tenth Panchen Lama, His Holiness Choki Gyaltsen (1938-1989).

The Panchen Lama is the highest-ranking lama in the Gelug sect after the Dalai Lama. They share a close relationship; upon the death of the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama helps identify his reincarnation, and vice versa.

A black and white photo shows the two together in the 1950s. In their long robes, they could almost be new college grads. The Dalai Lama has thick, hipster glasses and a babyface. The Panchen Lama is taller by a head, with the carriage of an athlete. They are gazing toward the camera but higher up and farther out.

The two men never saw each other again after the Dalai Lama left Tibet. The Panchen Lama followed a different path, electing to stay in his homeland and attempt to work with the Chinese government. Photos from 1954 show him with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and Communist Party bigwig Deng Xiaoping.

In 1962, when he was 24 years old, the Panchen Lama had apparently had enough. The Panchen lineage is famous for its erudition, the word Panchen deriving from the Sanskrit "pandita" meaning "scholar" and the Tibetan "chen-po," "great." His Holiness Choki Gyaltsen submitted a "70,000 Character Petition" to Mao Zedong outlining Chinese abuses in Tibet. You can read excerpts on this wonderful Facebook page.

The most poignant photo in the exhibit is captioned "H.H. the Panchen Lama subjected to a struggle session during the 7th General Body Meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region on Sept 18, 1964." His Holiness stands at a podium with multiple microphones, behind him a larger-than-life photo of Mao. Seven people surround him, pointing accusingly, their fingers almost touching his face. His eyes are downcast, his face in shadow.

After that, the Panchen Lama spent ten years in a Chinese prison. Photos from after his release show a changed man. He gained a great deal of weight, and -- while some of the pictures show a happy man playing badminton, giving donations, and living a good life as a householder -- in others he seems almost haunted.

"Why did he gain weight in prison?" I ask Khen Rinpoche Geshe Kachen Lobzang Tsetan, the abbot of Tashi Lhunpo.

"I think maybe they tortured him during the day, gave him medicine at night," he says. "The medicine maybe makes him gain weight."

Khen Rinpoche is a jolly, indomitable personage, and even when discussing suffering he retains the philosophical air for which Tashi Lhunpo is famous. He says that what he remembers best about Choki Gyaltsen -- from whom he received Lamrim and his first Kalachakra -- is "his kindness, his compassion, his beauty."

The last time he saw the Panchen Lama was in 1985, in Beijing, when Khen Rinpoche was traveling through China with the scholar Huston Smith.

"He offered us Coca-Cola. He asked about His Holiness and about his friend Bakula Rinpoche."

The Panchen Lama died in 1989, at age 51, after delivering a speech critical of the Chinese government. I ask Khen Rinpoche if he thinks the lama was killed and he says, "Maybe, I don't know" and the young woman volunteering at the exhibit says that someone just told the press the government poisoned him.

"Look it up on the Internet," she says, and I do.

Most of the hits for "Panchen Lama poisoned" are quotes of Mao's description of the 70,000 Character Petition as "a poisoned arrow shot at the Party." Then I see that, earlier this year, the dissident Yuan Hongbing said Hu Jintao masterminded the Panchen Lama's death. How he knows this it doesn't say. We may never know for sure how this courageous lama died. Maybe his reincarnation knows, but he's not talking.

The exhibition ends with the only extant photo of the eleventh Panchen Lama. It shows a dark-eyed six-year-old with big ears. Soon after his recognition by the current Dalai Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and family were seized by Chinese authorities. He has not been seen or heard from since, and the Chinese government says he is under house arrest. Meanwhile, they have set up their own puppet Panchen Lama in his place.

I stare for a long time into the lost boy's eyes. He would be twenty-two now.

"Do you think people can get blessings just from photos?" I ask Khen Rinpoche.

He spreads his hands. "It depends on their motivations. If they have strong belief, yes. If not, it's just a piece of paper."

Thursday 7/14: Blindfolds and Flowers

I want to say the man who leads the opening prayer is a cardinal because he has a red beanie, but I missed the introductions. He looks stiff and vaguely creepy but loosens up the longer he holds His Holiness's hand.

"Now I give you souvenir," says the Dalai Lama, handing him a Buddha statue. "When I give Buddha to non-Buddhist, I always say, 'Here, this is a great philosopher. A great thinker.'"

He takes off his glasses and hands them to one of his attendant monks, who holds them delicately, stems up, while His Holiness does three full prostrations. It is moving to see this great man stretch himself prone on the ground. Once he climbs the stairs to his throne, he sounds winded.

Before I came here I found the idea of doing long-life prayers for the Dalai Lama a little cultish. Now I'm saying my own prayer every time I see signs of his age.

Much of the teaching today is a technical discussion of emptiness in tantra versus sutra. There's some intriguing stuff about "empty form" and the three kinds of bliss, but I'm having trouble staying awake.

I perk up when the talk turns to authenticity. Apparently some people think the Kalachakra Tantra is not authentic based on times and places cited in the text. We shouldn't use conventional historical analyses to evaluate sacred texts, though. His Holiness cites as example the Heart Sutra, whose alleged setting, Vulture Peak, is too small to fit a big assembly and too steep for all those old arhats to have climbed it.

These texts arose from the pure vision of an enlightened individual. His Holiness borrows a model from Samkhya (I think) to show how a vision gets transmitted:

Scripture --> Authentic Commentary --> Authentic Teacher --> Authentic Experience

In terms of developing conviction, we reverse this sequence. We start with an authentic experience -- e.g., of emptiness -- and this convinces us of the skill of our teacher, which in turn gives us faith in the commentary, which creates conviction in the scripture's truth.

"What matters is your own personal experience. If you experience transformation, then clearly that teaching is authentic. If not, then leave it." His Holiness lists great masters, including Tsongkhapa, who have had genuine visionary experiences from the Kalachakra teachings.

The Karmapa and a few other A-listers get gold ponchos and tall red hats that look like something from Dr. Seuss. Volunteers dispatch blindfolds and pressed flowers throughout the Verizon Center. Ah, the tireless volunteers!

The blindfold thing is weird because I assume it's to help us do visualizations, but the etiquette seems to be to wear it as a headband. I'm not really sure what the flower is for. It is fragrance-less and translucent, the color of bone.

The monks toss rice in the air. Fun!

Now the actual initiation starts, and when I say that it's anti-climactic, I think it's because I'm not a real participant and haven't spent years studying this language. Also, I'm bad at visualization; it's hard enough for me to picture my husband's darling face let alone a vajra on top of a moon disc situated at my navel.

Everything goes so fast. I wonder if some Kalachakras are stretched out over longer periods. The call and response prayers in Tibetan zoom by too fast for me to do anything but mumble. The visualizations are brief.

We all kneel as His Holiness talks about infinite compassion and the Bodhisattva Vow. He says that if we're not sure if we will follow these practices, we should just vow, "I will never harm others," and I do. I intend to keep this promise.

There's a Tantric Vow next, then more visualizations, and a discussion of the significance of the consort goddess, who represents control over the mind. His Holiness briefly addresses the seemingly erotic symbolism, stressing the importance of controlling sexual energy. Jinpa's language departs from its usual precision and becomes distractingly euphemistic ("secret parts," "drops") but I guess that's the gig.

Then we all line up to see the mandala. There's a lot of tsouris because they need to get thousands of people up there without a riot. I'm extremely lucky and don't have to wait too long. It is beautiful, but they're telling us to keep moving, don't stop, and I fail to get any discernible mojo. The things at the corners that looked like jars of nuts are jars of nuts, the nice kind with lots of cashews.

Tomorrow is the first day that will not be webcast, as it contains teaching that can only be received in person. But never fear, dear reader! As long as suffering exists, I vow to blog about it, for the good of all sentient beings.

If I did get any mojo from the mandala -- or from this whole trip -- I'd like to pay it forward to my mother and to all mothers everywhere. May you be joyful. May you have radiant health. May you be open to the unfolding of your lives. May you be free.

Wednesday 7/13: Tranquil Abiding

His Holiness asks the audience, in English, "How many of you Tibetans do not speak English? Raise your hand, please, if you speak no English."

The audience titters, and Jinpa gently corrects him.

The Dalai Lama laughs. "Ah, a contradiction!" he says. "Sometimes it is good, right in the beginning, to make a mistake."

The hall is almost full today, and the stage is packed with monks. I'm happy to see my Rinpoche up there with them, and Ajahn the Australian. The serene and handsome Karmapa Lama has his own desk in the front row. There's been a lot of buzz about the Karmapa. Apparently he's staying at the St. Regis, and audiences are highly coveted.

My favorite security guard is on duty, the one who looks like a spy. He's a smallish bald man in a black suit with a cold, dead stare. I find him way more deterring than the pony-tailed blonde stage right.

The teaching picks up where it left off, with a discussion of shamatha, tranquil abiding mind. We learn that the obstacles to shamatha fall into two camps: mental states like scatteredness or excitation, which are overly energetic; and mental states of withdrawal or laxity, which are not energetic enough. To counter the states of excess, it helps to contemplate sobering matters like suffering. To counter depletion, we should meditate on joyful objects. A skillful meditator achieves perfect balance between the two, and soon she will be able to hold her concentration unwavering for up to five hours.

All Indian-based traditions have this teaching in common, says His Holiness, but what separates Buddhism is the object we choose for our focus: anatta or selflessness. By meditating on the self's lack of inherent existence, we achieve vipassana, true wisdom.

Shamata and vipassana: complementary attainments. Shamata is the peaceful state in which you can hold your mind steady on the object; vipassana is the penetration of the object with your understanding. We read from Kamalashila:

"What is suchness (tattva, tathata) like? It is the nature of all phenomena that ultimately they are empty of the self of persons and the self of phenomena."

I reflect on how different this is from the yogic view, where the purpose of the tranquil abiding mind is to recognize one's inner essence. Patanjali wrote: Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah

Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind.

Tada drashtuh svarupe vasthanam

Then the Seer abides in his essence.

My deepest experiences with meditation, at 10-day Vipassana retreats, have given me convincing glimpses of impermanence. But am I the witness to the impermanence? Or is there no I, no witness?

I get tired of thinking so hard and duck out through the vomitory, flashing my borrowed badge. The Sponsor's Lounge has coffee and flowers and little bags of Annie's mini graham bunnies, of which I eat two since they are devoid of inherent existence. On my way back to the teaching, I ogle the bowels of the Verizon Center: a vast concrete space filled with ducts and electronics and parked vehicles.

"What are the cars for?" I ask the man seated before a row of gleaming SUVs. He studies me for a moment before answering in an indefinable accent.

"That's the cavalcade."

"What does that mean?"

He blinks. "The secret service cavalcade."

"Oh." So those security guards are secret service! I have new respect for the pony-tailed blonde, who is probably a Krav Maga master. "Are you in the secret service, too?"

He inclines his head.

I want to ask a million questions but know instantly that he won't answer them.

"You guys seem pretty scary."

He smiles. "We're just here to protect."

I thank him for protecting His Holiness and go back to my seat.

We do visualizations of moon discs and spherical drops and syllables resting on our chakras. We recite prayers in Tibetan. His Holiness pulls two women up on stage to participate in the casting of truth sticks, which produces the result, "increase in development."

Volunteers pour saffron water in our hands. We sip three times, purifying body, speech and mind. Then the monks chant us out, and as we leave we get red protection strings and two blades of kusha grass to place under our mattress and pillow "for assistance in examining dreams tonight."

I wish I could go to tonight's dharma talk, given by the eminent Khandro Rinpoche, who may have blessed my blog last night, but I have a date with Heather, my childhood best friend.

I get a cool vibe from the dapper 80-year-old next to us at the bar, so I interrogate him. With a newspaper man's gift for storytelling, John tells us how he rose from a 17-year-old copy boy at the Providence Journal to editor-in-chief of USA Today. One of his greatest joys, he says, was promoting racial and gender equity in the newsroom.

His son Chips was also an editor, and when he died in a car accident at age 34, John and his wife used memorial gifts to establish a scholarship for minority students. The Chips Quinn Scholars is now celebrating its 20th birthday.

I ask about his wife.

"Late wife," he says.

He pulls her picture out of his pocket and shows it to us.

Heather says, "She has a beautiful smile."

John puts the picture back in his pocket, and I think I got a dharma talk after all.

Tuesday 7/12: Monks and Nuns

Twelve monks in high headdresses revolve about a thirteenth, chanting in a reverberate bass. Beneath their gold surcoats, three of them wear red robes, three yellow, three white, and three blue. The leader is in white, and over his surcoat he wears a gold mesh with red fringe. They hold bells in their left hands, "diamond scepters" in their right. On the floor before them, a line of Tibetans dance in place.

There is something ponderous about the way the monks move, as though every step is weighted down with significance. Or maybe it's just the robes. The Ritual Offering Dance reminds me of lots of things: the one-legged balance of the dancers of Nrityagram; the circular hand movements of Tai Chi; the prayer dance of Muay Thai boxers; Godzilla crushing cities.

A banjo-type instrument joins in, and then - oh wow! - the dancers on the floor are a choir. A sweet descant floats over the monks' bass.

His Holiness sits in a chair off to the side, watching the dance and smiling. The camera zooms in on his hands, which hold a sheet of yellow paper.

Next to him, the mandala has gotten some new accoutrements. Banners and windsocks hang from the pavilion roof; flowers and tapestries surround the base.

The choir falls silent, but the monks chant on, pivoting and pacing and ringing their bells. I'm close to the stage today, and it's pleasingly loud. I can feel the vibrations going through my stomach, like sitting close to the pipes of a good organ.

At the end, His Holiness and crew put on those crazy yellow hats that look like bird crests. Cymbals clang and a horn honks as the choir sings a last, fierce verse. The dancing monks exit, and two non-dancing monks give white shawls and red necklaces to the choir, who are singers from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. His Holiness exits through the vomitory.

I spend some time trying to find the singers so I can interview them, but no one will tell me where they are, so instead I work up my courage to interview some nuns. I'm sort of used to monks, because I see Khen Rinpoche whenever he's in New York, but nuns remain rare and exotic and I'm a little scared of them. Fortunately, I pick two of the nicest ones around.

Ani Thupten Dronma lives in California, where she works as a homeopathic M.D. Her friend Ani Thupten Chodron is a purchasing agent for the government at a satellite tracking station in Alaska. The two met while studying with Ven. Khentrul Lodro Thaye Rinpoche.

"I attended a Kalachakra before I was ordained," says Ani T. D., who is quick and birdlike, "They told us, 'You have to have enough teaching that you can understand it. You really have to understand emptiness.' That motivated me to seek teachings. But there are many levels to the Kalachakra. Even if you're you're just here to watch, you will get many blessings.'"

I ask Ani T. C. how she balances government work and nunhood.

"It's wonderful," she says. "I wear my robes to work, and I talk to so many different people every day and get to have different experiences of loving-kindness. People love to come to my office."

I can see why. Ani T. C. is restful. If I worked with her, I'd always be stopping by for some nun-on-one.

"Ooh!" Ani T. D. grabs my arm. "Look! You need to interview her."

A nun has appeared a few feet away and is thronged by admirers. They bow and offer gifts and thank her for her teachings.

"I don't think so," I say. "She looks pretty busy."

"Yes, you have to! Come on!" On a scale of one to ten, my embarrassment is an eight as Ani T. D. pushes me forward through the throng to the elbow of the famous nun.

I clear my throat. Everyone looks at me.

"Um, hi! I was wondering if you have any thoughts on the Kalachakra. For my blog."

The famous nun's eyes are like lasers. "You have been attending His Holiness's teachings every day?"

"Yes."

"Then what more do you need to know?"

I am cowed. "Okay, thanks, um..."

"She doesn't know who you are!" announces Ani T. D.

"Khandro Rinpoche," says the nun. When she sees I can't spell it, she takes away my Moleskine and writes it down herself.

"Thank you," I croak, and even though I'm a little disappointed in the quote, I'm too scared to think of anything else to ask.

Then she relents and starts talking. My pen, which has been low on ink all day, picks this moment to die. I close my notebook and gaze into the eyes of Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche.

"We all have this tremendous potential within us," she tells me. "It's time we started using it. You have a blog. Make sure you do good things with it." She says other things, too, but my mind is rolling and I forget them. At the end she says, "We need the young people. We're getting old."

"You don't look old," I say. Everyone laughs.

But it's true. She looks less like a middle-aged woman and more like an all-knowing child. The Ani Thuptens and I vibrate with joy as we watch her leave the Verizon Center.

"That was so great!" says Ani Thupten Dronma. "For anis, she's our hero. She's clearing the path. And I think she might have blessed your blog!"

Ani Thupten Chodron says, "Stand in the right spot and the world comes to you."

Monday 7/11: It Grows on You

A vase of fat white orchids sat at His Holiness's right elbow. He told us a story about a Catholic friend who said that emptiness, for him, was total submission to God. The Catholic then asked the Dalai Lama to define the Buddhist conception of emptiness.

"I told him: This is not your business. This is Buddhist business."

Everyone laughed. H.H. explained that he'd put his friend off the scent because Buddhist teachings might have distracted him from his single-pointed focus on God.

A long talk followed about emptiness, selflessness, morality, the interdependent nature of things, bodhicitta, samadhi, and the workings of the mind. Here's a few orchids from the pot:

"All the negative emotions are ultimately riddled with self-grasping."

"Grasping, I, I, you become very stiff. Letting go of I, you become looser. You get more friends. You get more smiles."

"Altruism is the best way to counter an enemy. If a mad dog comes, maybe you have to run away. But verbal abuse or mental criticism can never hurt you. Then your enemy will have failed. You should maintain your calm, and use the time to calculate the enemy's weakness. Then you can strike back! But strike back out of concern for their well-being, because if they continue to harm others, it will be bad for them. With a sensible enemy, it is possible that they will become your best friend."

"Emptiness is difficult to understand. It's difficult to become comfortable with the tension between appearances and the reality of a world that is empty of independent existence."

"If you make a constant effort on a daily basis, the mind can definitely change. That I know. Here is the lab." (points to himself) "No need for a technician."

Stanza 9 of the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva ...

The pleasures of the three realms, like dewdrops on a blade of grass,
Are objects that perish in an instant.
To strive for the supreme state of liberation
That is never changing is the practice of a bodhisattva.

...reminded me of a poem by Kay Ryan (whose new collection is magnificent):

"Dew"

As neatly as peas
in their green canoe,
as discretely as beads
strung in a row,
sit drops of dew
along a blade of grass.
But unnattached and,
subject to their weight,
they slip if they accumulate.
Down the green tongue
out of the morning sun
into the general damp,
they're gone.

At one point His Holiness was trying to work out a theory about the unity of cognitive processes. He questioned his translator, but wasn't satisfied with the answer. Some hurried, sharp exchanges followed between him and the monks. There were sheepish looks and laughter.

The Dalai Lama explained, "I remembered this line, but I wanted to know the rest of the quote. Nobody remembers it. This one," pointing to one of the monks, "says he knows it, but the sentence was not so nice, so I think it is his own creation."

He led us through a breathing exercise that was something like the yogic pranayama nadi shodhana. Then the talk was over and the curtains were pulled back from the mandala.  
Oh, I wish I could see it up close! I would be very careful not to sneeze.

The square middle was astoundingly detailed. Paths turned into paths like a maze filled with gems and animals and flowers.

His Holiness rose from his throne, and the whole amphitheater rose with him. It always makes me a little sad when he gets up. I forget his age when he's sitting, bright-eyed, swaying gently with the rhythm of his words; I remember it when he starts to walk.

Attendants straightened his robes, draped a gilded shawl over his shoulders, and handed him various sacred objects. He sprinkled rosy liquid on the margins of the mandala platform, and a monk followed after, spreading white flower petals. Someone put something that looked like jars full of nuts at two of the corners, and His Holiness situated several lingam-like objects -- I later learned they were phurbas, protective daggers -- at the four corners.

Gongs and cymbals rang as the monks reprised the houseplant parade. After a certain number of perambulations, they placed the plants around the pavilion's edge, giving it a cool magic-forest vibe. His Holiness came to the front of the stage and waved to the crowd, not forgetting those in the nosebleed seats: He has a heart as wide as the Verizon Center.

Which is a great place to work, according to Pamela of Hillcrest Heights, Maryland. She's been a doorkeeper at the venue for six years and taught me an exciting new word: vomitory.

When I ask what she thinks of Buddhism, she says, "I was informed that they don't believe in Jesus. The only thing they have is that little bald guy."

"Have you been in to see the Dalai Lama teach?"

She nods. "I don't understand half of what he says. But I read some pamphlets. I see how people pray for him. I saw this guy with kneepads on, and he's outside bowing down, and I'm like, 'Isn't he gonna hurt his knees?' But that's just what they do. They really love him. Especially his people."

"The Tibetans?"

"Yeah. He's important for their culture. One day I brought home some of their soup. It had macaroni and chicken, and I heated it up for my husband, and he says, 'What's this? Where's the meat?'"

"Twenty minutes later, he said, 'Heat me up some more.'"

Sunday 7/10: Epistemology

From my rightful place in the nosebleed seats, I caught about every third word of today's teaching. I should have gotten a hearing impaired headset. All my neighbors had one, except Andrea.

"She has good ear karma," said her boyfriend Dan.

The young North Carolinians are staying in a tent at Greenbelt National Park. Like many of the attendees I've met, they work in helping professions: he as a substance abuse counselor, she at a store that benefits an animal shelter.

"It doesn't matter how many lifetimes it takes." Andrea told me. "It's like His Holiness is saying, here are the tools, and here is the instruction guide. It's complete hope."

Dan praised the Dalai Lama's compassion for everyone, "even the Chinese." He told me a group of Chinese nuns led the morning offering prayer, which I slept through.

I couldn't be sure from so far up, but I thought there was more diversity of robe color on stage today - saffron, ochre, even black - indicating that monastics of other traditions are being given places of honor. Early in the talk His Holiness announced, "Some people make a big distinction between Mahayana, Hinayana, and Vajrayana. That is a clear sign of ignorance."

He went on to criticize rote observance empty of understanding and religious hierarchy that revels in status distinction.

The initial goal of our practice should be to use the mind to purify the emotions so we attain a higher rebirth. The eventual goal is moksha or liberation. "Buddhahood is the final destination." In order to attain these goals, we need to understand karma, the law of cause and effect.

Next came some fun epistemology:

What is ignorance?

There are two kinds, the run-of-the-mill kind, like not knowing your ABCs, and "distorted ignorance," like believing that the letter A is the letter B. The latter kind of ignorance is worse, and I suffer from it frequently at cocktail parties.

"The opposite of ignorance is not prayer or meditation. The opposite of ignorance is awareness."

What is truth?

There are two kinds of truths, conventional/intellectual and ultimate. Ultimate truths are the best kind, and we should all try to get some.

How do we get some?

The shallowest truths are easy to apprehend through the senses. The deeper ones take reasoned inquiry. The really obscure truths you might need to receive as a gift.

An example: the date of your birth. You don't remember it and you couldn't reason your way there. You trust your parents, or maybe you trust the birth certificate. Obscure truths come from wise teachers or scriptures.

What's truth done for me lately?

If you engage in critical inquiry into deep stuff (like karma or the theory of dependent origination), you will develop firm conviction. You won't get confused when you run into an apparent contradiction in a text or at a cocktail party. You'll reach a level of understanding where all potential for doubt will be gone.

In closing, he cautioned us to avoid sensual distractions like music, sports, and all of my other favorite things.

The whole avoiding-music-and-frivolity thing is the part of Buddhism that I always find hardest to digest, seeing as how I'm a frivolous fiction writer and my husband plays jazz. There's not much room in the Verizon Center for art that isn't in some way didactic.

Where's the blues? Where's the absurd? It's the elephant that is not in the room.

Then again, per Thupten Jinpa, "Tensions aren't bad things. The cognitive dissonance that results from two opposing paradigms can lead to creative solutions." He was talking about Buddhism and science, but maybe it's also true for Buddhism and science fiction.

And speaking of art, the monks on mandala duty worked away through the whole talk, Eight of Pentacles-style. They were no longer kneeling on the platform but standing around the edges to fill in the outer layers. A spotlight on the sand gave it a lavender glow.

That night I rode my invisible elephant to the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, where Sharon Salzberg and Krishna Das led an evening of kirtan and metta meditation. These two make an ideal team, her teaching stories setting the perfect context for his heart-opening chants. He's the song, and she's the silence, and they're really the same thing.

Sharon told us, quoting the Buddha, "Develop a mind so filled with love that it resembles space."

Special guest star Lama Surya Das chanted an almost cantorial-sounding blessing for His Holiness. Surya is another superb teacher from the Das family that also includes my hero Ram Dass and the mind-scrambling Bhagavan Das. Neem Karoli Baba must have been everything they say and more.

I was amused by Krishna Das's instructions to the room to, "Just chant, don't worry about what it means," since His Holiness had given the exact opposite advice earlier in the day.

Different strokes for different folks. Bhaktas don't need epistemology; they just need something to give. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, "If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it."

Saturday 7/9: The Cessation of Suffering

This afternoon His Holiness took the big throne center stage, creating a pleasing symmetry with the array of monks at his feet. He wore a cute red sun visor, and delivered a dharma talk encompassing morality, impermanence, the nature of mind, and the beginning of a commentary on Kamalashila's Stages of Meditation.

Meanwhile, the sand mandala crew stayed bent over their tasks in the pavilion, and the talk was punctuated by gentle clanging from their tools. The camera was rolling on His Holiness, so you couldn't see the progress of the mandala, but they seemed to be working at a brisk pace. No rest for the blessed.

Selected nectar:

"Hatred and compassion cannot exist simultaneously for the same object."

"If you're serious, practice. If you're not serious, don't practice. Don't be a hypocrite."

"You cannot buy moral principles in the market; you cannot get them from taking a prescription; you cannot make them with laws. The systems in the US and India are very good, but without self-discipline, they corrupt."

"The mind has many levels, both gross and subtle. Awake mind is gross, still conscious of sense organs. Dreaming mind is more subtle, sense organs do not function. The most subtle level of mind is at the time of death."

He said there have been about 30 cases of Indian holy men whose corpses remained fresh after death for up to three weeks.

"When contradictory teachings are taught by the same teacher (Buddha) that's not because he's confused or because he wants to confuse us. It is because he knew that among his followers there were many different mental situations."

"Don't develop a bias or attachment to your own religious tradition ... All traditions have the same potential to produce great people."

His Holiness then cautioned us not to change our religions like we change our fashions but to have respect for the tradition into which we were born. I immediately felt guilty for being a bad Jew. I toyed with the idea of going to Shabbat evening services that very night, schmoozing with the DC tribe, and writing a moving blog about reconciliation with my people. Which shows what a truly bad Jew I am, because evening services are on Fridays.

Via his translator: "The Tibetan word for meditation connotes activity, agency. It involves cultivating familiarity with a chosen object, in two ways: first, through analytical inquiry about the object; second, through resting the mind upon your inquiry's settled conclusions... When we meditate on compassion or devotion, this is different. We're trying to cultivate the tone or feeling of that quality, trying to turn our mind into it."

"The cessation of suffering may not be part of our reality, but its potential is always there, in our mental continuum."

"Over the course of decades, we see cracks form in a building. Over the course of month, we see leaves on trees turn color and fall. But if change happens over decades and months, it also happens over days and minutes and seconds. It is always changing, never standing still."

"We're trying to grasp some independent existence of self. We're trying to grasp to an enduring entity, but this is ignorance. This is the base of all the negative emotions."

Later in the afternoon, His Holiness's translator delivered a lecture about Buddhism's relationship to science and secularism. The mandala-cam was rolling again, and I saw that the sand painting was now almost finished in the middle! Diagonal lines split the central square into orange, white, blue, and red quadrants. It was soothing to watch the bright colors spread as the translator spoke.

Has there ever been a greater translator than Thupte Jinpa? Refined and gracious, his every utterance is a mini-essay. E.g.:

One of the characteristics of modernity is the relativization of perspectives. Modernity throws up a multiplicity of perspectives, and the dominant one takes a hegemonic position. How can we avoid falling under the dominance of the hegemony? And how, in the face of such multiplicity, can we continue to cultivate devotion toward our own particular tradition?

This was an off-the-cuff answer to a question! I transcribed it verbatim. Whatever kind of gingko this man is on, I want some.

He told us that we needed both faith and reason. The Sanskrit word for faith, shraddha, he called fluid and emotive, in contrast to the English word, which implies belief in an external object's truth or falsity. Shraddha is more a feeling of affinity, and he gave as an example: I have faith in my parents, and that made me a little sad, thinking of my mom and my dad and the autumn leaves and the cracks in buildings.

When the Q&A started, I got ready to split, because the Q's at most dharma talks are usually not real Q's but thinly-veiled bragging and/or requests for free therapy. Today's Q&A, however, was superb and revealed the depth of Geshe Thupte Jinpa's generosity. A particularly moving moment was when a Tibetan woman asked how to be a good Buddhist in the face of her rage about human rights violations.

"Some people think being a Buddhist means being passionless and detached," he replied, "but that's not true. It's not true that you shouldn't get mad at anything. It's malice that's wrong. Moral outrage at injustice motivates us to get up and do something. I don't ever want to lose that sensitivity, to get inoculated against injustice."

What quotes fail to convey is the wave of compassion these two men created in the Verizon Center.

Yes, I was bored some of the time, and, yes, the thought of nipping out for enchiladas did occasionally cross my mind. But underlying it all was a feeling of gratitude and a helpless kind of love, like the love that makes 50 million people watch Internet videos of kittens.

Do the kittens know we are watching them? Are they slowly evolving, in response to our love?

Friday 7/8: The Most Beautiful Choruses

The room is hushed when I enter at 8AM. Beneath the golden pavilion, His Holiness and company hover over their sand painting, which has come a long way from yesterday's simple grid.

White sand on a red base, it's now a ghostly image of the finished product, with countless nested squares within concentric circles. Spinning wheels and temple gates mark the cardinal directions.

A monk has a bowl of yellow liquid he paints on with a brush while his neighbors sift white sand from cupped palms. I see the adorable soles of one monk's bare feet as he kneels with his back to the crowd. Everyone points and consults and the design becomes increasingly ornate. Creatures emerge. I think I see a horse, an elephant, a chariot.

The Verizon Center is fuller than yesterday but still mostly empty. We're in the last day of "ritual preparations." More people will show when the preliminary teachings start tomorrow, and the rest will arrive next Wednesday, when the empowerment itself begins.

Sharon Salzberg sits down in my row. I don't know if it's her but I suddenly smell sandalwood. Sharon's book Lovingkindness was my introduction to meditation, and I consider it one of the most important books I've read. I admire the way she sits mountain-like in her folding chair, seeming to drop instantly into a deep reserve of stillness.

In front of us, an older man is giving acupuncture to a young woman beside him. I watch him needle her trapezius and scalp.

The monks climb down off the mandala platform. His Holiness inspects their work, consults his watch, and retires momentarily. I try and fail to catch the eye of my friend Khen Rinpoche Lobzang Tsetan, several rows back. I need to corner him and get some pull quotes about the Panchen Lama.

His Holiness reappears on stage looking happy. He settles into his silk-fringed chair, and everyone starts chanting. It's a rumbling, rhythmic sound that makes me think of what Ornette Coleman once said: "The most beautiful choruses are the ones in which you can hear every individual singing."

At the break I introduce myself to Krishna Das, and I'm a little star struck because his kirtans were what inspired me to get a harmonium and start chanting.

"Do you know anything about these tangkas?" I ask, pointing to one of the vast scroll-paintings adorning the back wall. "I'm trying to figure out why Kalachakra has three heads in three different colors. And why his wife is orange."

KD shakes his head. "I can't even keep track of one monkey."

I laugh. Krishna Das is devoted to Hanuman, Son of the Wind, the monkey god of the Ramayana. I ask how the monkey is doing.

"Oh, he's taking care of everything."

Later on at the street fair, I find the Tibetan food stand with the longest line and buy some salty noodles, curried chickpeas, and potatoes. I stagger home, where I collapse in a carbohydrate coma, waking just in time to miss the afternoon session.

I head back to the venue anyway, and when I sit down to watch the mandala, I strike up a conversation with the guys next to me. Both are about my age, one with a blond ponytail and one in ochre robes.

The Ven. Ajahn Achalo is an Australian monastic in the Thai Forest Meditation tradition. There aren't many Theravada monks at the Kalachakra. I ask him why he came.

"I wanted to observe these days of puja, meditation, and prayer," he says. "It's a chance to see the Dalai Lama in his role as a monk, to see his discipline. Right now I'm contemplating his samadhi, his peacefulness. Tomorrow, when the teaching begins, I'll be contemplating his wisdom."

His buddy Adrian is a stone carver, originally from the U.S. but now living in Nepal. He shows me a lovely bas-relief he's done of a goshawk.

"Even though Adrian lives in Kathmandu, he doesn't get stoned," says Ven. Ajahn Achalo.

We all laugh. I admit that in the past I've been a frequent flyer to Kathmandu. I don't say how much I miss it sometimes, or that it took giving away my kidney to make me quit.

We all agree that life is better without drugs, and I say it frees you up to experience natural highs, and the monk says those highs are so much better than drug-induced ones, and even though I've had some wild times in Kathmandu I kind of think he's right.

Thursday 7/7: Geometry by Consensus

My friend wasn't kidding about having good tickets; I was sixth row orchestra for today's prayers, closer than some of the monks. The hall was about a third full, the mood sleepy yet devout. I squinted up at the nosebleeds where I'll be relegated later this week. Thankfully there are huge flat-screens throughout the Verizon Center, broadcasting the action.

Center stage sat an enormous yellow throne that remained empty. Behind it hung five exquisite tangkas: scroll-paintings of ferocious and serene Buddhist deities. I got a little frisson when I saw His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He sat in a raised chair with his back to the crowd. Although he celebrated his seventy-sixth birthday yesterday, he still looked sleek and radiant.

I drifted into a pleasant trance as the monks chanted preliminary prayers, punctuated by gongs and bells. We rose when His Holiness rose, sat when he sat, and I understood very little of what was happening. At one point the monks paraded houseplants around the stage.

In front of me sat two Tibetan women in dresses of stiff yellow silk. To my left, a young man clicked mala beads and periodically checked his iPhone. Behind us, a fat guy was spinning something that looked like a children's toy but was clearly liturgical.

After an hour or so, His Holiness led the monks to the pavilion built to house the Kalachakra sand mandala. The flat-screens showed the bare red surface of the pavilion's floor. One of the monks produced a white string and spread it across the space.

Everyone conferred about the placement of the string. They bent intently over it, reached out to touch it, looked things up in a sacred text. Then the red plane was crossed with white, and one of the monks had chalk-stained hands.

More conferring, and next came a horizontal line, then a diagonal running up to the right, and another running opposite. Finally, a perfect square in the center. There were no rulers or T-squares; it was like geometry by consensus. When the square was fixed, the monks smiled and looked relieved. His Holiness retired. There were some additional prayers, and then everyone filed out into the sweltering D.C. afternoon, but I spent a while prowling the Verizon Center in search of interesting people to write about.

There were more booths with books and t-shirts, and some people selling tickets to performances by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. At the audio desk a friendly attendant told me that for a ten-dollar refundable deposit I could get a headset with translations into Mongolian, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Italian, or Japanese.

At the Panchen Lama exhibit, I met Thupten, a 31-year-old banquet server from Minnesota who had come to receive the initiation.

He said, "Tibetans say that if you receive the Kalachakra six times, you will not be reborn in a hell realm. But this is not why I am here. It's about deepening my practice. When you get the initiation, that's an obligation to adopt the teaching in your life."

At the outdoor booths, I struck up a conversation with a fellow New Yorker who looked kind of familiar. John told me about his non-profit, Tibetan Bridge, which is working to build a boarding school in Rabshi, a rural village in Eastern Tibet. He said that 40 percent of the children in Rabshi don't attend school. The region's tragic earthquakes have set this work back, but they are forging ahead. John said he had gotten interested in Tibetan affairs through his studies of sacred art.

I asked him what he thought of Marina Abramovic's performance art. I ask everyone this. Marina's MoMA retrospective was one of the most powerful art experiences of my life; if I get half as much juice out of the Kalachakra, I'll be stoked.

"I performed in that show," he said.

The hot day felt suddenly hotter. Now I knew why John looked familiar. At the MoMA I had gazed endlessly into his eyes while he lay naked beneath a human skeleton. The bones of the skeleton had risen and fallen in time to his breath. This was shortly after my father died, when I found strange things comforting.

"We all have the same body, the same human flesh," the Dalai Lama has written, "and therefore we will all die. If from the beginning your attitude is 'Yes, death is part of our lives' then it may be easier to face."

Wednesday 7/6: Surveying the scene

"Will you be hitting the bars afterward?" my husband asked when I showed him the schedule for the Kalachakra for World Peace. He pointed out that the mornings were filled with Dalai Lama lectures but the evenings ended by eight. I told him I would play it by ear. According to the official website, the Kalachakra has the power "to confer enormous blessings and generate great positive force." Failing that, there's always martinis.

The Kalachakra will be at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. through July 16, and I'll be lucky enough to catch all eleven days. An esoteric Tantric teaching, it dates back 2,500 years to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. The teachings encompass complex concepts like our place in the universe, experiences of time, and the nature of cosmic reality.

Yesterday was the first of three days devoted to ritual preparations of the venue. Monks began construction of the Kalachakra mandala, an exquisite piece of sacred art made from colored sand.

I hopped on the Bolt Bus from New York to DC, where I arrived too late for the teachings and settled for the street fair instead. Tibetan-themed booths occupy two blocks in front of the Verizon Center. Vendors sell turquoise and rosewood, banners and flags, paintings of Buddhist deities, singing bowls, dumpling steamers, and "very special" Kalachakra hats.

Business was brisk. Most of the fairgoers were Western laypeople, but I spied some radiant Tibetan nuns in dove-gray and an American in saffron robes who looked like Jerry Garcia.

"I'm a old school hippie turned monk," he was telling a silk salesman.

There is no conflict here between commerce and faith. Many of the monasteries have their own booths selling incense and sacred texts.

"We're raising funds for food, healthcare, and books," said Tsering, a monk from Drepung Gomang Monastic College in South India. "We have been on a tour of seventeen US states, giving teachings about Buddhist philosophy. American people are very open-minded."

I asked him which state was his favorite.

"All are beautiful," he said.

His fellow monk Jinpe disagreed. "North Carolina!" he cried, giving me a thumbs-up.

Students for a Free Tibet were in town from New York, selling silk-screened American Apparel tee shirts and talking up their nonviolent campaign to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

"People don't think the Chinese government listens, but they do," said Kate, who reminded me of everyone I went to college with at Brown. "It's unjust. We have the Kalachakra here, but Tibetans inside Tibet can't have these teachings."

Most of the attendees at the Kalachakra will be observers like me, but the monks, nuns, and more devout laypeople will attend as active participants in the initiation. Three days of preliminary teachings will begin on Saturday, followed by one day of ritual offerings. The empowerment ceremony proper begins on July 13 and lasts three days.

On the last day, the carefully-constructed sand mandala gets swept up and cast away, in keeping with the Buddhist teachings on impermanence.

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