Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wheel of Time

I recently rented a documentary on Buddhist practices and rituals by Werner Herzog entitled Wheel of Time. The film focused on the Kālacakra Initiation which took place in Bodhgaya, India in 2002, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Kālacakra centers around the building of a beautiful sand mandala which is made entirely by hand by skilled monks. Here is a chart breakdown of the elements in a Kālacakra mandala and a video depicting the 3D image that this 2D image represents.

[Image of a sand mandala, taken from We Can Change the World.]

I found the Kālacakra Initiation, which initiates practitioners into Vajrayana Buddhism, fascinating although I'm unfamiliar with their rituals and, quite honestly, Buddhism altogether. Yet hundreds of thousands of Buddhists came not only to get initiated into the Vajrayana practices but to see the Dalai Lama who leads the initiates through the ceremony. This ritual is meant to activate the seed of enlightenment and help the initiate onto the path towards buddhahood. Some came by prostrating themselves the entire trip. One such pilgrim, Lama Lhundup Woeser, traveled in prostration for over 3,000 miles which took him three and a half years to complete. Word spread quickly of his journey although he didn't want any attention, and because of his dialect the film crew needed two different translators because he came from such a remote village. Monks held theological debates while others prostrated themselves towards the Sri Maha Bodhi, the bodhi tree claimed to be the descendant of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Many of those prostrating towards the tree had a goal of prostrating over 100,000 times which usually takes them up to 6 weeks.

It is a beautiful film and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Buddhism. It doesn't get into much detail but it is worth checking out. But through all the rituals and chants the thing which moved me the most were the human moments. Watching thousands of people chanting and meditating you almost forget that they still feel pain and suffering, love and compassion. There was one scene were it looked like the monks were throwing out food or gifts out into the crowd (it looked like candy bars) and people were scrambling like mad. Another scene showed monks rushing to get the chance to work in the kitchen to feed their brothers. And as the Dalai Lama announced he was too ill to lead the main initiation rites announcing the cancellation and postponing of the Kālacakra initiation, you could see the Dalai Lama holding back tears of pain for all those who've traveled hundreds even thousands of miles to attend.

The rituals were concluded later that year in Austria as the monks rebuilt, consecrated, meditated upon, and finally dismantled the sand mandala. The mandala is then thrown into a nearby river to show the impermanence of all things created where it will flow out into the world as a blessing to all. And yet it wasn't the rituals and ceremony which stuck with me after the film was over, it was the human moments: the smiles, the laughter, the tears (of joy and sorrow), the acts of compassion, and just simply being with your fellow man. There is a short interview with the Dalai Lama who speaks about Mount Kailash being the center of the universe. He goes on to say that each of us are equally the center of the universe. At first this seemed odd to me coming from the Dalai Lama but what I think he meant was if we are all the center and we acknowledge each other as the center, acknowledge each others equality (and our potential Buddhahood), then our reasons for "one-uping" our fellow man begin to dissipate as we realize our relationship and interconnection with our neighbor.

1 comment:

Sabio Lantz said...

Many years back I attended the Kalachakra initiation -- it was my intro to Tibetan Buddhism. I did a little post on it if you are interested.

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