I've been attending the Dalai Lama's Kalachakra For World Peace, and I can say for sure that it is not all about politics, schmoozing or warm laughter for Tibet's leading light. Being a Tibetan spiritual leader is a killer (in a non-violent way, of course). Take the Pope, for contrast. He comes to town, performs the mass and then he's done. Time to clean up. The Dalai Lama comes, speaks at the Skydome to 30,000 and then stays for - count 'em - 11 days of teaching and leading public prayers.
With an onstage retinue of 18 monks from his own monastery in India and about the same number from around the world who have come to assist, he begins the public chants at 7 or 8 in the morning and continues chanting and teaching until 4 or 5 in the afternoon on each of these days.
Along with his monks, he offers all these hours sitting cross-legged and straight-backed. This posture is the source of those stooped shoulders and awkward shuffling walk. But when he is sitting there, praying and swaying, hour after hour, he and his body are utterly astonishing.
And don't be fooled by the big glasses and sweet, elderly demeanour. He's edgy, too. This ceremony's namesake, Kalachakra, is no smiling, cross-legged Buddha in prayer position. He's a blue, four-headed deity, both fierce and pleased, standing locked in sexual embrace with his consort Vishvamata, the All-Mother.
We see her from the back, with one leg wrapped around her lover's torso. Together, they are said to symbolize full enlightenment, the blissful union of wisdom and compassion.
Kalachakra, part of a deeply esoteric aspect of the tradition, is among the very highest yoga Tantras taught in Tibet. It is quite surprising that this is the ceremony the Dalai Lama has chosen as something of a trademark, except for one thing. He considers it the most effective means to attain enlightenment available in the whole body of Buddhist methodology.
It is thought so powerful that the exceptional practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime. But it can only be practised if you've been initiated by a teacher who is part of the lineage of Kalachakra teachers that goes back to the original Buddha himself.
Over 6,000 tickets have been sold to people from 50 different countries, including, oddly enough, a few from mainland China. With just over 3,000 tickets needed to break even, the organizers, the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario, are happy. Most participants come from Canada, but there's a good showing of Americans, and simultaneous translation is offered in Mandarin and German.
Maybe a third of the crowd are Tibetans from all over, many adding colour with their beautiful traditional clothes, and most of all, bringing the warmth of reunion to the gathering. Men and women, both Tibetan and non, with shaved heads and monks' robes are commonplace. But the pull of these teachings attracts a truly diverse crowd in age, nationality and level of spiritual involvement.
The first time I head to the National Trade Centre at the CNE, where it's all taking place, it's an unexpected thrill just to see the huge signs all over the place that say "Kalachakra For World Peace," because world peace doesn't usually play the CNE. Across the street, the Ultimate Guy Show is much more like it. But soon impermanence - a key Buddhist idea - manifests itself, and the Guy Show is gone and forgotten. Not so the Kalachakra initiation ceremony. His Holiness says the imprint of the individual and collective dedication to the end of suffering generated during the ceremony will remain as long as space remains.
But don't get too excited. There's a long way to go.
The project the Buddha began is the end of all suffering. The idea is to accumulate enough merit to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment. And by the way, if you want to undergo the initiation, you need to dedicate yourself personally to this for as many lifetimes as it may take. This is called the Bodhisattva vow, and it is incredible to be in giant airplane hangar of a hall with thousands of people repeating that pledge out loud together. Can there ever be a world of inner peace, one enlightened mind at a time?
This is the grandness of the conceptual scope of Buddhism in general and the Kalachakra process in particular. There is absolutely nothing modest about the event - except, famously, the Dalai Lama, of course. He sits in his saffron and maroon monk's robes, pulling a puffy orange sun visor on or off, depending on how the light is hitting him, while the camera throws his image onto the two big screens on either side of the stage.
Above, a gigantic thangka of the Buddha flashes its golden brocade, flanked by other lavish spiritual images. The altar below is overflowing with offerings and ritual creations. There are two thrones onstage. One faces the audience while the Dalai Lama teaches. It is carved and coated with ornate orange and gold and rich embroidered silk. The other is lower and simpler. During prayers and chanting, the Dalai Lama actually sits on it with his back to the audience, facing the incredible sand painting the monks are creating.
This is the literal and symbolic centrepiece of the ritual. In it's own gold-roofed structure, the gorgeously ornate Kalachakra mandala is created onstage over the first five days of the ceremony, using grains of coloured sand painstakingly placed with a pointed funnel. In symbolic form, the mandala depicts the mind of enlightenment, which includes within its circular frame the entire cosmos and all its elements. This is the place where the blissful Kalachakra resides.
How many monks does it take to make a sand painting? Well, about five to work with the sand and at least 15 more to say the prayers.
But well before a grain of sand has come to rest upon the mandala, an infinity of holy syllables have been sung by the chorus of monks led by His Holiness, their deep voices rolling over hours and hours of mantras as the blueprint is created. The mandala gets more beautiful as each moment passes. It is nirvana in becoming.
And yet it is destined to become a symbol of the fleetingness of all things. At the end of the ceremony, after being infused with the spiritual energy of the entire Kalachakra cycle, it is poured into Lake Ontario, from where, transformed into non-existence, it will presumably continue to dispense its blessings.
I can take the intensity of metaphor and mantra for about two hours tops before I need to take refuge in the bustling Kalachakra marketplace just next door, where an ocean of Tibetan food, books and endless goods await. The more I try to keep my adult awareness focused on the work of enlightenment, the more I feel like a child at play in the pleasures of samsara.
On day three, the teachings begin. His Holiness speaks Tibetan in such long passages that you would think translation would be impossible. Then translator Thupten Jinpa, who lives in Montreal and is crisply suited in jacket and tie as he sits cross-legged on the floor beside the monks, goes into equally lengthy English exposition. At first I think he must be paraphrasing. But the Dalai Lama listens closely and throws in the odd correction to perfect what Jinpa is saying.
It is awe-inspiring to watch Jinpa at work. There is something almost mystical about it. I become fascinated with their relationship. Jinpa manages to be unfailingly respectful without the slightest hint of subservience. I'm thinking he's aware of his own innate Buddha nature that the Dalai Lama explains is within each and every one of us.
We are delving into the meaning of thousand-year-old sutras, or verses of profound wisdom, and are exploring the nature of true reality, which, as I understand him, is actually a profoundly luminous, clear emptiness.
We are studying the dramatic role of ignorance in giving birth to karma. And we are using our minds to reason our way to self-illumination. Frankly, it seems daunting. I feel like a nap.
Yet I'm surprised to find myself feeling elated as I leave. I am loving seeing the beautiful expanse of the lake as I walk outside. I get the glimmer of a feeling for the way remembering the non-existence of this reality does lighten the heart. I try to remember this feeling when I read the newspaper headlines the next morning, but it has passed.
If I want to stabilize this thought as a habit of mind, I have some serious work ahead of me. An inner controversy on Buddhist perfectionism starts raging in my untamed mind.
But when it comes to the seemingly endless work of preparing for the initiation, the Dalai Lama and his crew ask little from the initiates beyond, of course, their vow to work for others until the end of all suffering. The hours of preparation liturgy are completely optional. One morning, I find myself sitting across the aisle from an older Western nun who is so deeply asleep, she looks like she may tumble down at any moment. It doesn't seem to bother the sisters by her side.
By day nine I've even gotten used to seeing the Dalai Lama give us breaks during his teaching while he continues to sit, unmoving, on his elevated platform.
Sleep through the prayers, but pay attention to the teaching, because the Dalai Lama really asks you to use your mind. One three-hour teaching takes us to the mental realization that dependent origination is the proof of non-existence. See what I mean?
But he's a really effective teacher. I actually get that. Basically, he's saying that since the law of cause and effect is always operating, there is no such thing as independent existence. That's worth knowing, because when you come to see yourself in that context, you realize that the you, your identify as "I," is actually just a bunch of psycho-physical aggregates brought together by a bunch of causes. Get rid of the aggregates and what is left? The clear luminosity of enlightened mind. Now, that doesn't sound so hard, does it?
His style is to take you to the very farthest stretch of abstraction and then personalize the thought in some way so that suddenly you can take it in.
At one point, His Holiness says directly that he thinks Tibetans look excessively to their gods and nagas instead of to the deep tradition of reasoning and understanding. But meanwhile, he is doing the most shamanic public ritual I've ever seen. You should have seen the earth ritual dance celebrating the completion of the Kalachakra mandala painting. The ante on costume and pageantry onstage has just gone over the top. Two monks in each direction and one at the centre, wearing golden embroidered robes and huge headdresses, are doing magic Tai Chi-like passes in time to the beating drums.
And the thing is that it's working. Sure, the Dalai Lama wants us to decide for ourselves whether he makes any sense as he tries to get the idea across that the suffering we all feel isn't the only reality. But the Kalachakra mandala is a symbol of the reality that exists beyond appearance.
The tricky part of the process - he would call it "the skilful means" - is that he has us using our imaginations to visualize that reality. Actually eating it, tasting it, feeling it in our bodies, hearing it in our hearts and inside our heads. Grain by grain, I'm distracted by the mandala. I keep thinking about it when I go home, looking forward to seeing it.
Here's what I didn't expect during my week taking a good strong dose of the Kalachakra For World Peace. Of course, I thought I would be moved by the substantive presence of the Dalai Lama. Everyone falls under his spell in one way or another.
But I think I am falling in love with Kalachakra. He's the principal god being who lives in the palace of the Kalachakra mandala, and he's hot. And beautiful. He lives in the luminous clear light of his mansion and spends almost all his time in the fiery bliss of union. By the time we get to the actual initiation, we see Kalachakra as our Lama and in ourselves. The secret of Tantra is that we need to grow and learn within our bodies as well as with our minds. After we have used our imaginations to enter one another's bodies, His Holiness jokes, "we really are comrades, now."