August 26, 1999

C I N C I N N A T I  P O S T

East meets Midwest

By Jennifer Harrison, Post contributor

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - On the outskirts of town, the low and guttural sounds of multiphonic chant swell a 33,000-square-foot tent with spiritual harmonics of a world far away.

On these softly rolling hills of Southern Indiana a sacred millennial ritual, known as the Kalachakra Initiation, draws an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people from around the world each day.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and a man some Buddhists revere as a living god, has performed the ceremony at the Tibetan Cultural Center here since Aug. 17. Closing ceremonies are Saturday.

The Initiation itself concludes today. On Friday, thanks will be given to the Kalachakra deity. A long-life prayer for the public and the Dalai Lama concludes the visit.

The Kalachakra Initiation, also known as Turning the Wheel of Time, was first performed by Buddha himself more than 2,800 years ago, according to Alexander Berzin in ''Taking the Kalachakra Initiation.'' A sacred system of Buddhist meditations, the ceremony involves a series of prayers, meditations, dances, chants, lessons and vows.

Kalachakra is dedicated to the achievement of world peace through the growing enlightenment of participants or disciples of the teaching. Participants seek to become like Buddha and devote themselves to helping others. The spiritual teaching helps Buddhists stabilize their ''aspirations to reach Buddhahood,'' said the Dalai Lama on Sunday.

Why Bloomington? The answer is found in Thubten Norbu, 78, the eldest brother of the Dalai Lama, who lives here. Norbu himself was a lama chosen by the 13th Dalai Lama. Invited to teach at Indiana University in 1965, he is now retired.

In 1979 Norbu created the Tibetan Cultural Center on land he owns in a rural corner of Bloomington. At his invitation, his brother the Dalai Lama agreed to perform the Kalachakra on the cusp of a new millennium.

On Day 2, 14 Tibetan monks prepared for the construction of the Kalachakra mandala - an intricate sand painting - with an earth ritual dance. Dressed in colorful silk robes and golden hats rising into red spires, the monks formed a large protective circle as they intoned their chants. The earth dance is a cleansing ritual to prepare for the Kalachakra meditation.

Slowly, gracefully the monks swayed, turned, and moved their arms in large sweeping movements. Crossing their arms they symbolically create the Buddha mind. The monks called upon the forces of interference, then banished them with steps and stern kicks.

Throughout the dance they continued their deeply resonant chants. The sound of tinkling bells sporadically rose above their trance-like chant and prayers. The smell of pungent incense wafted through the crowd.

Following the dance a group of monks gathered around a raised work surface to commence the creation of the mandala. Used to guide the meditations of the Kalachakra, the mandala is a symbolic map of the universe. The painting represents deities as well as body, mind, wisdom and compassion.

As the mandala emerges, Buddhist participants taking the initiation are guided to imaginatively enter the mandala and journey toward the center. The journey is toward enlightenment or development of the Buddha-mind representing both wisdom and compassion.

Each day the Kalachakra ceremony begins with prayers, meditation and the chants of the Tibetan monks. The monks sit upon garnet cushions, laid in several rows upon a stage ablaze with silk wall-hangings depicting symbols and deities of Tibetan Buddhism. Their chants intone prayers, mantras and sacred text that aid their meditations.

Each day the monks continue to create the mandala. They work with vials of colored sand and painting tools to move the powdered sand into place. Their painstaking work creates a large circle filled with many symbols and images within a larger square. The finished mandala will look like a colorful mosaic.

People attend the Kalachakra Initiation as interested observers or as participants. Practitioners of Buddhism may choose to receive the Kalachakra empowerment. Disciples of the Kalachakra teaching make renunciations and take vows. These include renouncing the desire for material things and personal gain. Disciples affirm their desire to attain the Buddha-mind of enlightenment and to work for the good of others, the Dalai Lama explained.

Whether taking the initiation or not, pilgrims to the Kalachakra paid $350 each to attend the entire ceremony. The Tibetan Cultural Center has spent an estimated $2 million on preparations for the event.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Publication date: 08-26-99