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An Encounter with Tibetan Buddhist Tantrism

To Practice Tantra is to Ride the Tiger of Crazy Wisdom,
to plummet into Wisdom-Fire, and emerge
Wearing the Body of Visions!”

Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche

Zanskar, Ladakh – site of the twelfth Kalachakra initiation given by the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

After six months teaching Tibetan kids in the Kulu valley, the children of those who had come to India as refugees, I travelled north, first into Kashmir and then into Ladakh. We’d heard the Dalai Lama was giving Kalachakra, a public ritual, amongst the people there. It was 1988.

The journey was a wild pilgrimage composed of the kindness of strangers. There were no spaces left on any means of public transport. We spoke to a rickshaw driver in Srinigar, who took us to see his shopkeeper cousin, one Mohammmed Latif, who knew the chief of police. The chief fed us Kashmiri cardamom tea on his extremely floral carpet and arranged for us to travel with a crew of Sikh lorry drivers in their truck. They cooked the spiciest food I have ever eaten and by moonlight played cards, flicked matches, and unwound their turbans and combed out their long black hair. The truck left behind bright green rice paddy fields and the fiercely steaming Indus and arrived at the snow of the Zoji La pass. Ladakh is a moon-scape; all the hills were bare. In Leh we join another truck, full of pilgrims, on the road to Zanskar. The camaraderie of pilgrimage came upon us. People shared watermelon, chapattis and pickle, and orange cream biscuits. The skies were blue and immense and close to the face, we were so high up. The sunsets were purple and orange, the nights crammed with stars. We slept outside and drank hot butter tea. There were soldiers everywhere, in brown and green uniforms and brown and green vehicles.

The place itself was just outside Padum in a whipping dustbowl of lonely white parachute tents with a water standpipe. The flat landscape was covered in small canals, purple flower patches and some thin wheat. The Dalai Lama had brought the rain to this arid region as a blessing people said. An information tent contained officials of the deposed theocrat. Amongst the mud and melee we registered for a sermon on the thirty-seven practices of the sons of Buddha.

A single white building with pointed scalloped roofs sat in a flat plain surrounded by mountains. This was the monastery where the Dalai Lama was temporarily encamped. The white walls were hung with pink and yellow banners. A sea of Ladakhi people gathered before it. The women wore heavy turquoise head-dresses and neat traditional dresses. A raised wooden enclosure housed visiting journalists. Unlike the stoic locals they sprouted a sea of umbrellas. A monk in ceremonial red robes and a pointed yellow hat blew a long horn. Other monks gathered on the steps of the white palace. Deep sonorous chanting of mantras began. The Dalai Lama was with them, but he broke off to giggle. The opening address once sent out by loudspeaker and translated for the Westerners enclave, made the whole field laugh too. Some of the people from this valley of Zanskar, marked by pink ribbons, kept their hands together in reverence from the moment the Dalai Lama took the stage to the moment he left.

A letter from Dawa-La, the headmaster of our school, gained us the privilege of a brief and rare private audience with His Holiness. We had made quite an impression at the school, by working hard rather than lunching out classes smoking weed, as had apparently happened with Western visiting teachers in the past. HH the DL was still giggling when we approached. “I am a very frank person, I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “Tashi Delek” I said feebly. I had hurt my thumb misjudging jumping over one of the water channels, and it was bandaged. The Dalai Lama took my hand in his and ran his fingers gently and unceasingly over my injured digit as we spoke. I made him laugh by explaining it was difficult to jump in a traditional Tibetan dress. As soon as he touched me I entered a strange state. I felt “blissed out”, his warm big-souled energy enfolded me like a blanket. I stayed in that state for weeks afterwards. It glowed like pink honey around me and only faded gradually. I had no frame of reference for the experience then, but now I think of it as a very gentle encounter with someone suffused with tantric practice – a tantric empowerment if you will.

We presented white scarves to HH, as was correct custom, and were presented with some in return, then were taken by aides to an ante-chamber for butter tea and farewells. It was 1988 and in that place of the water channels, where the people are Tibetan kith and kin and had travelled by hook or by crook from all over the region, thousands received Kalachakra empowerment.

772 deities are represented in the Kalachakra mandala, delicately constructed from coloured sand, revealed to participants and then destroyed. The Kalachakra text can be traced to the tenth century. Kalachakra means Time Wheel (Kala – time, Chakra – wheel) in Sanskrit. For the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the goal for the practitioner of Kalachakra at the highest level is a state of unchanging blissful awareness dedicated to the enlightenment of all beings.

Kalachakra is given at the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s ceremonies to thousands of people as an empowerment or blessing. The Kalachakra mandala is dedicated to world peace. However, there are many levels to Kalachakra practice and it involves, according to the current Dalai Lama, celibacy at its most complex level. At the centre of Kalachakra visualisation and the Kalachakra mandala is depicted an image which may appear overtly sexual, that of the couple erotically embracing, of Kalachakra embracing the goddess Vishvamata, surrounded by ten shaktis. The present Dalai Lama has been interviewed about the practice of Kalachakra (www.berzinarchives. com) and the visualisation of this divine coupling. He comments that “some non-Buddist traditions assert that offering a fire puja of semen in the reality source of a woman pleases Shiva and through that one can achieve liberation. But liberation doesn’t happen like that”. In other words in the Tibetan tantric Buddhism practices by HH DL, sexual energy is invoked as part of its more advanced practices, but it is not actualised between people as described in some non-Buddhist (Hindu) tantras.