Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Contemplating Spiritual Materialism at the Kalachakra Empowerment in DC

Today I volunteered at the Kalachakra for World Peace event at the Verizon Center. The Dalai Lama is leading the Kalachakra empowerment over three days and today was the first day of that empowerment. This is a historic ocassion as the Kalachakra is a fairly rare event and carries profound signficance within Vajrayana Buddhism. It is unlikely that the Dalai Lama will ever offer this again in DC.

It was a kind of a weird juxtaposition to have a sacred event at the epicenter of agression, capitalism and competition, where the Washington Wizards go to battle with the LA Lakers. One of my fellow volunteers pointed out the irony of having a TV screen with the Karmapa and the Dalai Lama on it, and an advertizement for the Army on the side bar. "Not just strong. Army Strong." (Note to self: find out if Army makes trash bags or condoms.)

My job, along with a team of volunteers, was to pour purification water and blessed water into the hands of people observing or taking the Kalachakra empowerment. I won't get into specifics about the empowerment, but basically, those taking the empowerment are committing to a set of daily tantric practices. This stuff is way over my head at my current stage in practicing and studying Tibetan Buddhism. Needless to say, I was more of an observer than a participant in the empowerment ceremony.

I was fascinated by the zeal with which many of the Tibetans participated, doing prostrations in the Verizon Center, and coming up to me with empty water bottles, asking me to fill them with blessed water so that they could take it back to their families in Minessota and Massachussets. During my visits to China, India and Nepal, I've seen Tibetans practicing Buddhism, but I've never seen it in the United States. It is remarkable just how differently Westerners practice and Tibetans practice. Westerners are generally more focused on the meditation practice, whereas Tibetans are very interested in blessings and sacred objects like blessed red string to wear on their wrists, and kusha grass, the same kind of grass that the Buddha's meditation mat was made of. In fact, there was a small riot at the Verizon center during the distribution of blessed red string and kusha grass. I wasn't there to see the pushing and shoving, but it put a damper on the awesomeness of the whole event to hear that violence had broken out around something so sacred.

This is not to say that only Asians bring a strong materialistic streak to their Buddhism. I noticed how much I and other Americans were yearning for little Buddhist goodies to bring home and satisfy our spiritual materialism. I was disappointed not to have gotten a big piece of kusha grass to put under my mattress. The lore is that if you put the grass under your pilow, you'll have dreams that will bring you closer to the Kalachakra empowerment ceremony. That sounds pretty cool... and now that His Holiness planted that seed in my head, I better push my way to the front and get me some of that holy grass!

Now that I've started going to Sangha retreats and Dalai Lama events, I've started to notice the spiritual materialism that Chogyam Trungpa warned about and that we can read about in his book Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. In that book he says, "If we become successful at maintaining our self consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine development is highly unlikely." Picking up on this vibe in a big way, Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, who gave a Dharma talk almost exclusively to a Western audience after today's events, noted that Easterners have gotten into a nasty habit of waiting for lightning to strike them and give them spontaneous enlightenment. She warned Westerners not to fall into the same lazy beliefs. She praised westerners for being skeptical about stories about how the Buddha would give a Dharma talk and people would become instantly enlightened. The point is that real development takes real work. We have to spend countless hours sitting on a cushion to develop wisdom mind or prajna, and we have to exert ourselves in learning to love humanity, which sometimes seems so damn unlovable. We have to practice multitudes of kind and selfless acts to rouse Boddhichitta. We can't just buy it in an antique shop in Osaka or Dharamsala. I guess that means we can't take it in pill form either... better get to work with that meditation...

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