"Chris why do you want to go to the Kalachakra?
Because HHDL is an awesome teacher, because Graz is easily accessible
and because in some way that I dont yet understand, the Kalachakra
is part of my journey.
Mary why do you want to go?
Because HHDL is an awesome teacher and I have a long, strong
connection with him. Because Ive missed out on getting to it
several times and because people I know who have been told me it is
a profound experience. And I think its a natural if youve
been involved in Tibetan Buddhism for a while.
There was an element of purposeful accident about how we got there. We
thought Graz was a lot closer to Munich than it actually is. So, lured by
£40 return flights to Munich courtesy of Go, we booked via the internet,
only to discover that wed let ourselves in for a five-hour train ride.
Our journey turned into a pilgrimage, with each stage taking us one step
further away from our usual world usual processes, usual mind set.
Trundling through the fairyland of autumnal Austrian alpine landscapes amplified
our sense of moving into a different realm and boosted anticipation
what were we going to find at our journeys end?
How you get to a place influences your perception of it. We stepped out
of our slow train from Munich via Salzburg directly into the Graz Hauptbahnhofplaz
and discovered from an amused taxi driver that our hotel was just
a few yards away across the square. Wed traveled slowly and arrived
quickly. By plane direct to Graz it would have been the other way around.
Mary what were your first impressions of Graz?
It seemed like a small, conservative provincial city taken over by
a wave of enthusiasm for all things Tibetan. When the novelty of seeing
department stores draped with prayer flags and pictures of the Dalai Lama
in shoe shop windows wore off, these two radically different cultures seemed
to merge quite nicely. After a couple of days I stopped being surprised
by the presence of red-robed monks and nuns on every street corner.
And yours Chris?
Trams! I love trams. Sleek, shiny modern trams running all over the
city with clockwork regularity. The electronic noticeboards at the stops
announced heartfelt welcome to guests at the Kalachakra for World Peace.
And it felt like that
.the people of Graz seemed genuinely pleased
to see us. Graz is amazingly clean, quiet and orderly. I loved the pedestrianised
city centre and the relief from crowd pressure.
The Styria State Hall (Stadthalle) in Graz is huge and newly built. Much
bigger than either of us had seen in a city of comparable size so
in fact Graz was an ideal location for the Kalachakra an attractive,
relatively unspoilt small city with a hall big enough to accommodate the
10,000 people expected for the initiation. When we turned up there to register,
after pre-booking months in advance, an atmosphere of thinly-concealed chaos
prevailed. The organising group had had at least a year to prepare, but
when it came to the nuts and bolts of doing it for real, it was clear that
they were only just holding it together. Building work on a Tibetan bazaar
with dozens of stalls, shops and restaurants was still in progress. We discovered
that we would not be able to sit together. The reason for this was that
Mary had put arthritis on her booking form and had been allocated
a seat in the area reserved for the disabled! Also, Mary had been called
up as a volunteer worker, which gave her additional privileges.
Graz is footwear city, which was fortunate because Id promised to
buy Mary a pair of knee-high boots. So we shoe-shopped. I felt semi-detached
while we were roaming the city, comparing prices and trying on boots. I
was aware of the magnetic centre being created down the road at the Stadthalle
being a shopper/consumer seemed like a childish game. We found and
bought a pair of affordable stylish boots with ease. Mary seemed delighted,
but soon afterwards a dharma debate about the nature of emptiness degenerated
into a quarrel. Maybe because its so difficult to argue about emptiness
(neither of us could win and we both knew it) that Mary transferred the
battleground to the subject of my domestic living habits (where she stood
a better chance of winning).
Chris goes monosyllabic sometimes. I mistake this for bad-temper or irritation
around my habits. He says its more like a tuning-in process for the
impending spiritual experience but this explanation is not immediately
forthcoming. So I have a surly companion and after a while start to feel
that its personal and respond by goading him into conversation. The
spat that followed the boot-buying expedition was a classic example of this
I chose to volunteer, Chris chose not to. We discussed it before,
during and after. With hindsight the difference in our experience of the
whole event on the basis of me spending swathes of time on the Information
Desk and him being a free-roaming creature during these periods created
an insightful dynamic.
I enjoyed wandering around Graz, exploring alleyways, riding trams to the
terminus and back and then sharing my discoveries with Mary, including The
Ultimate Cake Shop and The Place of Human Rights in the city park with its
wonderful fountain complete with voluptuous mer-people.
Preparation for the Kalachakra started at around 7.00am on Saturday morning,
12 October 20002. At this time, work began on the sand mandala. Simultaneously
His Holiness and monks from the Namgyal monastery in Upper Dharamsala started
chanting the lengthy preliminary ritual. For the first session, only sangha
were allowed in. But afterwards His Holiness said all participants could
come into the hall while the ritual was in progress. The number of people
sitting quietly meditating during the ritual increased steadily every day,
building up to at least 3,000 on the final day.
Our cosmopolitan group on the foyer Information Desk (Austrian, German,
British, American, Hungarian, Filipino, French and Portugese) quickly settled
into minimally structured, self-regulated teamwork, which allowed all of
us to spend time inside the hall during the ritual. Our self-imposed rules
included making sure there were at least two people on the desk at all times,
one English speaker and one German. Another was that someone (usually Emilia,
our energetic Portuguese scientist) would check that we had up-to-the minute
information. The moving goal post factor ensured that this was not an easy
task. The Information Desk was a fast-moving, high intensity and sometimes
stressful job. All the foibles of the human race came past us. Some problems
were solved and some were not. Escaping from this into the tranquil energy
of the main hall while the ritual was in progress was a powerful contrast.
Wherever I was in my wanderings around Graz, I could orientate myself on
the Stadthalle. The sense of energy connection was always there. Sometimes
sitting in the hall, I reached the state where sound or the absence of sound
were the same. At other times I found it easier to meditate in the park,
but whether I was in the hall or the park I was aware of the chanting of
the sadhana turning the wheel of the Kalachakra.
Theres a sound integrated into the Kalachakra sand mandala. You
hear it and never forget it if you see (and hear) the Kalachakra on film.
You know instantly where you are and whats happening if you hear it
for real. Its the sound of several monks scraping very small metal
tubes in order to deliver trickles of coloured sand onto the outlines of
the symbolic diagram with pinpoint accuracy. The skill of the young men
who do this is hugely impressive. But theres another dimension to
their patient, delicate work. The mandala is their meditation. Without single-pointed,
effortless concentration it could not happen. In Graz, the unfolding of
the mandala was relayed to big screens in the hall and the foyer by a camera
pointing directly downwards from the roof of the tent surrounding it. Everyone
could follow the progress and as a result, feel personally involved in its
development. The sand mandala was our barometer.
According to the Dalai Lama, the Kalachakra is primarily an opportunity
for Tibetan lamas to deliver their teachings. Alongside and in tandem with
His Holiness, masters of the five schools of Tibetan spirituality spoke
from the perspectives of their individual lineages. What they said (and
how they said it) was aimed at both the spiritual tourists who knew little
or nothing about Tibetan Buddhism and at the many experienced practitioners
present in the stadhalle.
Lopon Tenzin Namdak, the venerable sage of the pre-Buddhist Bon tradition,
spoke from the viewpoint of Dzogchen (self-liberation). Dzogchen is seen
as a completion stage process within the four Buddhist schools,
but in Bon it is regarded as a system in its own right, accessible even
to absolute beginners. But modern Bon and Buddhism are inter-woven and the
Lopon emphasised the importance of the fundamentals of wisdom and compassion.
This theme, linked into contemplative experience, was echoed by Sechen Rabjam
Rinpoche representing the Nyingma lineage and His Holiness Sakya Trizin,
head of the Sakya tradition.
We ducked out of the other two traditions Kagyu and Gelug
because we couldnt endure sitting listening for six hours in one day.
We did it for Sakya Trizin, who spoke in the evening after the Dalai Lama
gave his first 4-hour teaching session on Tuesday, 15 October. We agreed
that one mega-marathon was enough.
I liked getting different perspectives. Often I find that Im telling
myself I know all this, but when I really listen to teachings
of this calibre, I realise I dont know it. This is uncomfortable,
but so are most things that wake you up.
Arriving at the hall, for the first of HHDLs teaching sessions, I
sought the seat whose number appeared on the badge hung around my neck.
It did not exist. I discovered that security had abolished several entire
rows of seats, in the interests of protecting HH.
The security people in charge of entry to various different areas graciously
allowed me to sit up front with the VIPs and sponsors. Later one of the
guards told me that several sponsors who had paid large sums for
privileged seats had complained about the presence in their exclusive
enclave of humble participants like me. By luck rather than judgment I got
a good seat, so I was content to put up with the sponsors restlessness
and their power-and-lama-centric networking. Being near the front was an
unexpected bonus because people sitting near the back of the hall needed
binoculars to see the Dalai Lama in person rather than on screen.
Throughout the entire proceedings images from cameras at various strategic
locations were projected onto a giant screen in the main hall, and another
in the entrance foyer. The vision mixer, sitting with the translators in
a gallery above the hall, slid skillfully from the sand mandala to HHDL,
to faces in the crowd, to close-ups of VIP lamas and so on. Some of us appreciated
this movie-in-the-moment as another facet of the Kalachakra.
His Holiness taught for 12 hours, split into three 4-hour sessions before
the start of the Kalachakra initiation itself. It does not seem appropriate
for us to interpret his teachings or to go into great detail about them
here. They related to three principal texts The Middling Stages of
Meditation, the 37 Practices of the Bodhisattvas and The Lamp for the Path
to Enlightenment. He spoke first about suffering which seemed like
a platform for the expositions on meditation and the Bodhisattva path that
followed. On meditation he gave precise instruction on the dynamics of Samatha
(calm abiding) and Vipassana (special insight). On the bodhisattva path,
he spoke at length about compassion and altruism as the basis of the Mahayana.
One of the good fortunes of my life is being able to attend HHDLs
teachings many times and to have been lucky enough to spend time
with him on a one-to-one basis on several occasions. I feel as if I know
him as a friend as well as having huge respect for him as a spiritual master.
At a material level I think he has an impossible job he can never
please all of the people all of the time in the political arena. But as
a Buddhist mentor who speaks from both high scholarly and deep experiential
levels he invariably holds me spellbound. He achieves so much with such
apparent ease, the very least I can do for the privilege of being in his
company over several days is to focus my attention onto what he has to say
more or less unwaveringly. Yes, I do lose it now and again
but considering how long we sit and how subtly he teaches I can forgive
myself! Each time I hear HHDL, familiar material (even difficult stuff like
the emptiness of emptiness) is refreshed into new perceptions. Concurrently
older ones become deeper and more directly meaningful.
I hadnt heard HH teach since his visit to the Cambridge University
Buddhist Society in the early seventies. Id expected teaching directly
related to the Kalachakra initiation but instead got discourses on most
of the main lines of Buddhist thought and practice. Just staying focused
and aware, listening painfully to the poor English translation of HHs
Tibetan through an uncomfortable radio headset that occasionally blasted
me with local pop radio stations instead, was a real test of mindfulness.
What I found most valuable was the teaching on calm abiding and insight.
Having practiced samatha meditation in the Theravada tradition for years
it was wonderful to have such a different perspective. In particular, his
statement that a one-pointed focus on emptiness was the union between calm
abiding and insight was an Ah, yes moment that I could feel
setting off a slow domino topple of views. And there was the warmth and
One morning during HHs teachings I took absence-with-leave from my
info desk duties, to go sight-seeing with Chris to the Graz Schlossberg
the remains of the medieval castle-on-the-hill that gives access
to a vast panoramic view of the city and its surrounding hillsides. We took
the funicular up, intended to walk down, but ran out of time and jumped
into the lift. We encountered the Nyingma lama Sechen Rabjam Rinpoche with
a small entourage of western students. Other red-robed figures materialised
during our explorations. Later, Chris took me on a tram ride to Mariastrot
an elegant suburb of Graz featuring luxurious chalets, big gardens,
lots of woodland, a tramway museum and a cathedral.
Friday 18 Oct was Ritual Offering Dance day when the sand mandala and the
preparatory rituals were completed. Monks in magnificent regalia made slow
and stately steps in veneration of the deities who, during the rituals,
had taken up residence in the mandala and in the vases placed on one of
a magical display of altars that grew larger and more ornate each day. We
were told that TIPA (The Tibetan Institute of performing Arts) and an Austrian
folk group would also perform in the same session. We were not told
that the folk groups would start their acts while the lama dances were in
progress. TIPA made a dramatic entrance in spectacular costumes (snow lions,
monkeys etc:) accompanied by their drums, wailing strings, flutes and songs.
Then came a moment that bordered on farce. While TIPA did their thing and
the lamas continued their dignified gyrations, the sound of an accordion
playing Tyrolean knees-up music heralded the arrival of a dozen young couples
in dirndls and lederhosen, who duly performed local folk dances. HH grinned
from ear to ear as the sounds of the three groups merged into a Monty Python-esque
tapestry. To say that it was incongruous puts it mildly. At least one member
of the audience failed to get the point of this multi-cultural goulash (deflection
of negative energies) and filed a formal complaint about insulting HH with
the presence of the Austrian folk dancers!
On Saturday, during the preparation for the initiation, His Holiness spoke
for the first time about Tantra, giving us the keys we needed to genuinely
experience the initiation. He explained the difference between the Kalachakra
as a blessing and as a Tantric empowerment. We were given a little sips
of holy water, red protection threads and kusha grass. As there were now
10,000 people in the hall, distribution by squads of volunteers took some
time. Those of us taking the full initiation (the majority) also accepted
commitments in the form of Mahayana precepts and Tantric vows.
The night I slept with the kusha grass under my mattress and pillow I had
a very powerful dream, in which the themes of sexual energy and transformation
took disturbing forms. I felt no doubt that this was deeply connected with
the theme of the ritual.
Receiving the kusha grass and the lucid dream instructions that go with
it reminded me of previous initiations in particular the Vajrakilaya
given by HH Sakya Trizin on home territory in Bristol. This aroused a sudden
insight into Sakyas role during the Kalachakra. He was a rock-steady
presence, supporting HHDL throughout the entire proceedings. I saw him as
I had done in Bristol, as one of the great yogis of our time.
The actual initiation which took place over the following two days, was
a complex and colourful ceremony, with His Holiness explaining and contextualising
At one point the senior participating lamas, including HH Sakya Trizin
and Sechen Rabjam Rinpoche, had to put on bright red bonnets with long pointy
tops that made them resemble characters from a childrens TV show.
It was one of the remarkable aspects of the proceedings that they managed
to carry this off without losing their dignity. It was no easy task to follow
the intricacies of the Kalachakra partly because instructions for
one unfamiliar visualisation after another came at a rapid rate, but also
because of the inadequate English translation and the delays while the German
speakers received their version, which nearly always went on longer than
the others. Tantric initiations are self-secret. Its easy to describe
what happens externally, but impossible to articulate the inner processes
that unfold in each individual as you go along settling progressively
deeper into meditative states despite the discomfort of sitting still,
crammed up against your fellow participants for long stretches of time.
Sometimes it is an actual physical pain, but mostly the body obliges.
The week of the Kalachakra coincided with the publication schedule of a
newsletter I edit. So throughout the event I was diving into an internet
café for an hour or more, rewriting texts, fiddling with layouts
I had dreaded becoming distracted by this, but was surprised at how easy
it was; I just went into functional mode and did what was needed
it was like a river: multiple twisty vortices and swirly loops in the surface,
one steady current down below.
It was much the same for me on the information desk. For a few hours every
day I was part of a maelstrom people with problems, people with agendas,
lost people, found people, people asking for help and/or advice in several
languages simultaneously. At times we were manically busy, during quieter
periods we chatted amiably, getting to know each other a little better each
day. I think we all experienced the steady current down below,
because despite our widely different backgrounds and personalities we got
on with each other without any bad vibes or bitchy moments whatsoever. Not
a single murmur of discontent. Extraordinary.
Monday 21 October was the climax of the Kalachakra initiation. It was
solemn, profound, dignified and complex and also hilariously funny.
HHDL always punctuates his discourses with jokes and the Kalachakra was
no exception. On this occasion, one of the jokes was visual. While the senior
lamas were being adorned with elaborate symbolic headdresses, His Holiness
decided it was time to shield his eyes from the glare of the spotlights
with an eyeshade that resembled a topless baseball cap. At first
it sat square on his shaven head, but later tilted slightly into a jaunty
angle. Mixed in with the jokes, the mantras and the esoteric symbolism were
teachings on Tantra and the most secret aspects of the Kalachakra. In conclusion,
His Holiness warned us not to get fixated on ritual and initiation, fancy
hats, drums, bells, gongs and dances. The really important thing, he emphasised,
is the development of compassion and bodhicitta the motivation for
enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Sitting through nine days of Tibetan Buddhist teachings and initiation was
a grueling experience compounded by the long, slow queues to get
through the security checks or grab a bite to eat. But spending nine days
with the Dalai Lama was a life-enhancing privilege.
In the short term, it boosted my awareness and appreciation of the benefits
of spiritual practice. In the longer term I feel the Kalachakra in some
fashion every day. It seems to become more deeply embedded as the wheel
of time turns.
The return of a rumbling tooth abscess meant we left town before the sand
mandala was poured into the river. But I felt I didnt need this extra
lesson in impermanence. I had absorbed something about bliss and emptiness,
was aware of this as a seed with wonderful potential for unpredictable growth.
And I wonder about 10,000 people each leaving Graz each with their own seed
Christopher Gilchrist has practiced anapanasati (breathing
mindfulness) meditation in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism since the
early 1970s. Recently he has started to engage with Tibetan Buddhist
Mary Finnigan met the lamas Thubten Yeshe and Thubten Zopa Rinpoche
in 1970 and has been involved with Tibetan Buddhism ever since. From
1979 onwards she has been a student of the Dzogchen master Cheogyal