ALL THINGS PASS…I left Amarava-thi the way I arrived: on my bicycle. The Kalachakra Empowerment Ritual was over. My faithful bike has toured me all over the world, and with between 100,000 to 150,000 people exiting the Kalachakra at once, and with trains in all directions sold out through the end of the month, here was my liberation from suffering.
Bicycling out of Amaravathi was itself a deeply spiritual experience. The sunshine burns over the plains of Andra Pradesh to reach 35 degrees C before noon; by 2:00 PM it is over 40. Fields of withered plants were scorched brown and dry, mottled with white puffs of cotton waiting to be picked. Every inch of my skin needed covering. The first 50 kilometers it was me and the sky, a few birds, poor farmers with ox carts, some flooded rice paddies, but tranquil nature turned into an industrial war zone — a sad, beaten, exploited land, and a beautiful, smiling people, abandoned and desperate.
LIKE MANY TIBETANS, my pilgrimage to Amaravathi began and ended at Majnu Ka Tilla, the New Tibetan Colony, in Delhi. “We Tibetans believe Kalachakra is a very special teaching,” a 31-year-old monk named Jingme told me. We shared the southbound AP Express, a 36-hour train packed with pilgrims. “It is very difficult for Tibetans to come to Kalachakra from Tibet. Until this year the Chinese only gave passports to very old Tibetans. This summer they let others leave — even young people — but they stopped again in December.”
Kalachakra is a meditation system from the highest level of Buddhist tantra, anuttarayoga. The word kalachakra means cycles of time, and the Kalachakra ritual offers a vehicle to a reliable spiritual path. Time, in Buddhism, is measured by change, and the Kalachakra deals with the cosmic, astronomical, astrological and historical cycles, the inner universe, and the outer.
The Kalachakra tantra is a long, ancient, mystical text. The Kalachakra deity represents a Buddha-figure that manifests to help people overcome their shortcomings and realize their potentials, and to handle all situations at any time: it has a rainbow of four faces and twenty-four arms, and the complexity of color and symbols reflects the struggle of achieving Buddhahood.
“Amaravathi is the place where the Buddha Shakyamuni turned the wheel of dharma when he gave the first Kalachakra teaching 2500 years ago,” Jingme said. “That makes this teaching more important. People also say it is the last Kalachakra in India — we are praying that the Kalachakra will take place in Tibet in the future.”
The old train was ker-chunking along through the hot plains of Andra Pradesh. Chai sellers plied the cars between stations carrying buckets of sugary milk tea and some small cups, hollering “ChaEye, ChaEye, ChaEye.” Jingme was playing cards in a 2nd Class AirCon cabin. “We believe some Holy things happen in other worlds,” he said, throwing down three Jacks. “Some of us hope that taking the Kalachakra can help people not to use horrible weapons against each other.”
“TAKE CARE of your Selves,” the Dalai Lama told the northerners who came from the Himalayan realms. “The climate is different, the food is different; prepare your selves.” It was the fifth of January, Day One, and the Dalai Lama’s welcome teaching. Over the next days pilgrims prepared for the preliminary teachings. Monks led long, protracted chants, Earth Ritual prayers and dances, under the BIG TOP.
The Dalai Lama often commented on the heat, and teachings under the BIG TOP were shifted to mornings to the ease the burdens on practitioners cloaked in snow mountain garb. Thousands of pilgrims rode in on the winds of hope, following their most Holy leader, and they rode out on the winds of exuberance, empowered by the auspicious words — to be shared with beings they would meet in this world or the next — I was there. Many saw H. H. only by closed circuit TV.
Many took the sacred Kalachakra vows, aiming to uphold them, to strive for enlightenment, here and now. It was, perhaps, the most significant gathering of Tibetans outside of Tibet, ever, and the closest thing these people have had — in their tenuous solidarity — to being as one people, united.
“MORE than 8,600 Tibetans have come from Tibet,” the joyful Dalai Lama said, Day Four, “and with great enthusiasm. In the future, the Tibetan survival is dependent on the Tibetan people living in Tibet. But for most of you, it will be the first and last time to receive some teachings from me.”
The Dalai Lama talked about particle physics, and what the scientists have to learn, and how the mind can be physiologically altered, through med-itation, transformed from a negative to a positive influence. I can verify from experience that this is true. Meditation has literally changed my mind.
I was once a deeply suffering soul, raging wildly at the injustice and inhumanity of samsara as I knew it. With the help of my teachers — with meditation, therapy, yoga, movement, and a lot of hard work — I have transformed the constant negativity and destructive thinking, opened my Self to positivity, hope, and the mystery of this journey called life. Negativity is like a dark cloud: we harness our Beingness to it out of choice. But through effort we can learn to watch this cloud drift by — nothing but a thought, a thought is no thing — and bask in the sunshine of its passing.
The Dalai Lama entreated the unidentified many who would report back to the authorities of China to do so without manipulation or deception, because he will speak openly and honestly, with equanimity, his teachings inclusive of the leaders and people of China. “My approach is a middle approach and I welcome you,” he said, speaking to China’s eyes and ears, “to help with the possibility of bringing resolution between China and Tibet.”
He joked about Tibetans looking silly wearing so much jewelry, and laughed about people who snore during his teachings. He told people to go home and tell Tibetans and others that he is ashamed and saddened that people are wearing animal skins and eating animals. He laughed at his watch, too: “It brings great disgrace upon me.” He spoke about Ignorance, Delusion of the Self, and Compassion for all Beings. He spoke often about Love.
There were devoted monks, high Lamas, and lay pilgrims traveling the heartpath to the Kingdom of Shambhala. There were young monks on a meal ticket, cast into a life they didn’t ask for, but one they don’t have the faith or luxury to abandon. People came from 75 countries, and translations of the teachings were simulcast on FM radio frequencies, in English, Russian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese and Turgul (the local dialect). There were hundreds of Westerners: some came steeped in their attachment to the cult of the exotic, with their delusions enshrouded in fantasies about Tibet — I arrived as one of these — their minds enraptured by ancient gongs and mystical rituals like the Kalachakra. There were many serious practitioners. I am also one of these.
HUNDREDS of Indians and Tibetans flocked to the Kalachakra purely for profit: to sell trinkets, Tibetan antiques, lovely Ladakhi clothing; to peddle chai or fried noodles or the iconography of Western materialism and decadence —plastic noisemakers; cheap repro jewelry; fluffy pink teddy-bears and laconic, white-skinned Barbie dolls and, saddest of all, plastic handguns that went POP! for a while, and then broke.
There was junk from China, America, Singapore, India. Plastered and strung up everywhere were seductive advertisements sending the opposite message of the Dalai Lama. Sex. Fashion. Coke. War. Sex. More Coke. More War. And the pilgrims, even the monks, were buying. Trash was shipped out of town: out of sight, out of mind. And I began to see the piles dumped along the river, along the roads, in the gullies and ravines and, well, anywhere.
It was rumored that the beggars were bussed in. They plied the streets, and some died in them, sporting the most ghastly human afflictions I have ever seen. It was a freak show of unprecedented horror, and while it pressed the limits of my compassion, it exceeded my thresholds of fear. The heartfelt smiles from Himalayan pilgrims, and the prayerful piety under the BIG TOP, rescued me.
By Day Fifteen you could even buy a video CD of the Dalai Lama teaching the Kalachakra. The CDs quickly made their way to Delhi, and the secretive Kalachakra teachings are now available everywhere for 150 rupees — about three bucks. (It won’t be long before it makes its way, with English subtitles, to Wal-Mart.)
“Buddhism is very much in fashion,” Jingme told me. He’s right.
“WHEN I see the people here I feel very happy that people have this kind of empowerment,” one happy Tibetan monk, Yeshi, told me over Tibetan tingmo (noodles). “But the cars and traffic and frustration — sometimes you get a little angry. There are too many people. And so many loudspeakers make me feel uneasy.” This monk laughed out loud at his self. “We have to compromise. The Kalachakra is the shortest way to enlightenment for sentient beings. All life is contradiction.”
Many Buddhist mantras echo variations on this theme. For the Preliminary Teachings (January 8-10), His Holiness explored Chapters 18, 24 and 26 of The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, a centuries-old text by the sage Buddhist teacher Arya Nagarjuna.
Everything is real and is not real.
Both real and not real.
Neither real nor not real.
This the Buddha taught accordingly.
The not Real was very real. The loudspeakers were everywhere and they blasted messages, in competing languages, 24-7. Earplugs were essential for sleeping, but even for walking to and from teachings. Poisonous chlorine powder was spread everywhere: into the trenches around the drinking water faucets, lining the roads white, blanketing the earth around latrines, and into the deep, stagnant, polluted sewers that swelled — hidden by the pop-up tents and instant restaurants and plastic facades — as the population exceeded the carrying capacity of the town. Latrines were pumped daily, the huge sanitation trucks driving a mile out of town and dumping the raw, empowered sewage on poor, irate, disempowered tenant farmers.
Men with ingenious machines slung over their shoulders or mounted on trucks nightly roared up and down streets, in and out of health clinics and teaching areas and the tent cities where tens of thousands of pilgrims were living, and they sprayed everything — even the drinking water systems — with DDT and other poisons. The bugs fell out of thin air. This, I suppose, is “dependent arising”: Western medicine cut research into the cure for malaria. What goes around comes around.
There were protests, in some quarters, where foreigners rose to challenge the foolishness, but most attempts to educate, to be helpful, to usher in positive change, were laughed at, dismissed, ignored, even by the organizers from the Norbilinka Institute. Many agreed that the pitch was too high, and they left before the teachings were taught. It was insane.
It was as tragic, and as beautiful, as the story of Tibet. Monks and nuns — and ordinary beings — seeking salvation, filled the huge 440,000 square foot teaching area with hopes and prayers and love for the Dalai Lama. Pilgrims lined up to see the sacred mandala — constructed of colored sand — but they fought to ascend the queue, and Tibetan guards with sticks beat some. And when, in the end, the monks distributed the accumulated foodstuffs, there was a riot. These were no ordinary snacks — they were BLESSed bananas and BLESSed biscuits. Pilgrims laughed at the reflections of their aggression seen in the faces of others.
Whoever sees dependent arising
Also sees suffering
And its origin
And its cessation and the path.
ON DAY FOUR I WEPT. I was taking the preliminary vows, and the words of the Dalai Lama sank deep into me. The presence of all those teachers, all those witnesses, was empowering, and deeply moving. To abstain from stealing, killing, telling lies, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants — these are the preliminary vows, and H.H. was guiding us through it.
“In order to overcome samsara, one must overcome delusions, and delusions are rooted in ignorance.” The Dalai Lama repeated this mantra too. “To overcome delusions, abstain from negative physical and verbal actions. We are in the midst of intense suffering, and we need something very powerful to overcome that. We must overcome the self-grasping mind, the self-cherishing mind. Imagine the buddhas and bodhisattvas gazing on you at all times. This is the path to attain liberation, oh yes indeed!”
I felt that deep connection I often feel — so easily numbed — to all other living things. I prostrated, prayed, recitated. Tears ran out of my eyes and compassion welled up in my heart. Following the Dalai Lama’s lead, I imagined BEING the enlightened Buddha, here and now, my Self possessed with an increased capacity to free others from the cycle of samsara.
I love that man, Lhamo Dhondup. My Buddha nature accepts him as my teacher, with his own human frailties. I give my Self over to him, as I give my Self over to my other teachers, but it is always a tenuous abandonment of the Self.
I find Tibetan Buddhism patriarchal, and I have confirmed that monks — of all ages — are routinely beaten in monasteries, and that it is justified as “virtuous” necessity. The deep, permanent scars on the bodies of some monks — wounds inflicted by angry “discipline masters” wielding leather belts — bespeak only of delusion. Hearing His Holiness say that “the desire for liberation from suffering cannot be reached for in such dull beings as animals” does not work for me either. And I struggle with the knowledge, rekindled at Amaravathi, that the Dalai Lama formed a military alliance with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
AT LEAST 2000 Tibetans gathered in the field near my tent city to watch the nightly documentaries about Tibet. One film talked about the CIA arming the Tibetan struggle, sending cold-warriors into occupied Tibet — a thorn in the side of communist China, never enough to matter — and how even this little support was withdrawn with the winds of expedience. Whose bad karma is that?
Sadly, the U.S. government never cared about the people of Tibet. I think WE THE PEOPLE need to search our hearts and reflect: did the U.S. do more damage to Tibet than the Chinese? It is a simple example of cause and effect. Dependent arising.
Who shall cast the first stone…
Were China to withdraw from Tibet, the U.S. military would certainly rush in and it would be as unaccountable and ruthless as everywhere. Torture would be commonplace, and the US occupation would profit U.S.-based corporations, and the Tibetan plateau would shudder as our machines ripped up the blessed land, and the National Geographic — replete with all the pretty pictures — would celebrate the renaissance of Tibet, liberated.
When you foist on us
All of your errors,
You are like a man who has mounted
And has forgotten that very horse.
I do love that man. I take from him that which serves me, and leave that which does not. It was the same at the Kalachakra, as in all life: take that which serves you, reject that which does not.
I LEFT AMARAVATHI on the day after the Long Life Prayer, symbolized by the goddess White Tara. The High Lamas and Rinpoches on this day led prayers for the Dalai Lama’s prosperity, so that he can be there for his people, to help them find their way. To help us all find our way.
In the end, six people expired amidst the teachings, but they were blessed by the cosmic consciousness, and the highest lamas in the land, and if you are a devout Tibetan Buddhist, you could not choose a better presence to die in, to pass on, to evacuate the tired shell of your earthly life and go wherever it is that your soul is destined to go.
“Go, go, go beyond, go absolutely beyond, to the ultimate state of enlightenment,” the Dalai Lama told us. “All thoughts, all mindsets, and all actions that I will be having,” we recited, after him, in the final Kalachakra Empowerments, “will be for the welfare of all sentient beings. The nature of this world can take care of everybody’s need, but not their greed. I must cultivate Boddhichitta. I must cultivate a sense of concern for others.”
After seventeen days at Amaravathi — meditating, negotiating, observing, battling the wrathful deities of my personal karma, praying, trying to sleep, laughing, shutting things out, crying, inviting things in, being the Buddha I am, and seeing the Buddha I am not — my bicycle was my salvation. My bodhicycle.
The streets of Amaravathi were packed with Tibetans, on foot, in rickshaws, in fancy SUV’s with designer luggage spilling off roof racks, in luxury buses that blasted their way through the crowds in the wake of the deafening Indian pneumatic air horns, and — like some great metaphor about the road not taken — everyone was vying for a piece of the narrow, crowded way.
You are careful not to fall into deep ravines, not to drown in the perilous sea or be run over by a horse, reads an old Tibetan proverb, so why do you not take refuge in the Dharma and renounce all earthly desires while there is still time?
As the dharma turns, so did my wheels, leaving Andra Pradesh behind me forever. With me went the highest blessings conferred by the Dalai Lama, and the prayerful hopes of more than a hundred thousand human hearts beating as one. But peddling through the desert landscape of Andra Pradesh was a deep meditation on samsara — because it is one, long, sad, lament of suffering nature and human heartbreak.
“The very purpose of my being is to work for the welfare and happiness of all sentient beings,” I thought, remembering vows to my Self. This journey is not geographical, but it is the true meaning of life, and the beingness I seek to always BE.