Thousands of Buddhists are gathered in Washington, D.C. wrapping up the most intense part of a 10-day prayer and meditation ritual known as the Kalachakra for World Peace.
The ritual has drawn crowds and attention from around the world for taking place in a city with such a global reach.
In the last 10 days, the presence of Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people has transformed a Washington sports arena into a spiritual center. The Dalai Lama is leading them in the Kalachakra, a spiritual empowerment or initiation ceremony that many Buddhists consider to be a peace rally. Throughout the ritual, practitioners concentrate on a symbol called the mandala to find peace with themselves and the universe.
One American couple joining the event says having the Kalachakra in Washington is the answer of many prayers.
Wilson was raised in the Episcopal church, a form of Protestantism. He began to lose his faith at a young age. He said he could not get past a certain logical disconnect. “I lost my faith probably in my early teenage years as I started to see the suffering in the world, and I couldn’t really reconcile that with the idea of a divine creator who wanted everybody to be happy and was in charge of everything,” he said.
Wilson, now a psychologist, said he started believing in the idea that he had one life to live. But he said this changed in college, when he met a lama, a spiritual teacher in the Buddhist faith. He started studying the teachings very deeply, and says he was drawn in by the mental continuum, or the idea of past and future lives.
His wife, Sharon, a retired school teacher, began practicing Buddhism in the early 1980s. After a little hesitation, she was persuaded by a co-worker to attend a meditation class. Her religious roots lie in the Roman Catholic church, but she began to lose faith in her college years because of a lack of answers. She met Wilson at meditation classes, and soon started studying Buddhism, which she says gave her the answers. “My heart opened again, and it had been so long since having that. I started finding answers to things I hadn’t contemplated before,” she said.
The Hurleys now run a small Buddhist center out of their home. In the serenity of a living room decorated with Buddhist tapestries, the Hurleys reflected on why they converted to Buddhism about 30 years ago. “It seems real, it doesn’t seem - many people I’ve heard talk about spiritual things and it seems very kind of distant, or very other worldly. And it doesn’t seem like it’s based in reality. Whereas I think the Buddhist approach is very, very hitting you with what’s right in front you,” said Wilson. He says he feels he could make a good argument using research to support the logic of Buddhism.
The Hurleys are among a growing number of Buddhists in the United States. Buddhism became the third most practiced religion in the country after Christianity and Judaism, in 2008, according to the Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum.
For the Hurleys, and others like them, the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Washington is a dream come true. “We are very devoted. Practice a lot every day, meditation practice, and so for us, we have been hoping and praying for a long time that His Holiness would grant the Kalachakra in Washington D.C. And so for us, this is really a fulfillment of our hopes,” Wilson said.
He says the Kalachakra is much like a Muslim’s pilgrimage to Mecca. The ultimate goal, he says, is enlightenment. The Hurleys said they are participating in the ritual to deepen their compassion and wisdom of the Buddhist teachings.
Although this is their fourth initiation, Sharon admitted going into the event that enlightenment may still be elusive.
“Perhaps for me, the whole Kalachakra initiation itself, there are numerous deities inside the mandala, and visualizing them is not very easy. And I am not sure many people are qualified, certainly I am not, to do that,” she said. “So maybe just trying to listen to what His Holiness is saying, and to the ceremony, and kind of being able to follow it a little more and not getting caught with, ‘Oh, what did he just say?’”
The Dalai Lama has spent decades preaching interfaith understanding. He delivered a message of inner peace and harmony in an address outside the U.S. Capitol last Saturday. “But the problem, we sometimes neglect are the part of these inner values,” he said. “We are trying to seek joyfulness and a happy life from outside. That is a mistake.”
After the Dalai Lama’s public talk, and about half way through the Kalachakra, Sharon said it still felt surreal. “It’s almost like he is talking to you personally. That’s the part that you have to kind of pinch yourself. Am I really here? Is this a dream? Is this really happening?” she said.
The Kalachakra will wrap up in Washington Saturday. Sharon says it has become so much more real, since it began last week. “I think I mentioned this before, usually his Holiness starts teaching and he brings you in deeper and deeper, more focused and more concentrated,” said Sharon. “I feel that has happened to me, so I am really focused, as much as my little mind focuses, more so than I was maybe say a week ago.
The Dalai Lama has suggested that with so many minds concentrating on peace, “positive vibrations” might happen on an invisible level. Sharon and Wilson said they hope that power spreads across Washington, where so many decisions have a global impact.