The Wheel of Time Initiation
A 60 Minute Documentary Film
In 1981, America was experiencing an undercurrent of spiritual transformation. Membership in traditional religious institutions was declining as many young adults sought deeper life meaning and purpose in Buddhism, a religion that prescribed meditation and compassion as the means to create a peaceful mind and society. In that year, a major historic event occurred in the rural farmlands of Wisconsin that marked the formal establishment of Buddhism in America. It helped lay the foundation for the Buddhist meditation and spiritual practices that are now woven into the fabric of American spiritual culture.
What was this historical event and how did it shape the spiritual landscape of America?
In 1981 His Holiness the Dalai Lama conferred the first Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) initiation in America to an estimated 1,200 people gathered in a field outside Madison, Wisconsin. This was the first Kalachakra ever performed by the Dalai Lama outside of India or Tibet. Since then, he has bestowed this initiation twenty-five times around the world to over a million people. This first historic event in 1981 was a significant sign that, unlikely as it may have seemed, Tibetan Buddhism and the Wheel of Time had found a home in the heartland of America.
The transmission was precipitated by the violent Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, which sent over a hundred thousand refugees over the forbidding Himalayas into Nepal, India, and Bhutan, thence eventually throughout the world. Among those refugees was the 14th Dalai Lama, whose predecessors had been the religious and temporal leaders of Tibet for nearly four centuries.
Ironically, the tragedy in Tibet became a gift to the rest of the world. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, large numbers of young seekers from the industrialized world journeyed to India and Nepal to study with Tibetan Lamas, who were the recipients of a lineage of unbroken teacher-to-student teachings dating back to the time of the Buddha some 2,500 years ago. Hidden behind the world’s tallest mountains, the great monasteries of Tibet had faithfully preserved the Buddha’s teachings and the practices designed to liberate all beings from suffering. The seekers of the 1960s and 1970s were longing for spiritual meaning and purpose and an ethical way of life that were missing in their modern, materialistic societies. Some of these young people learned to read and speak Tibetan, and some of the lamas learned to speak English. The Dalai Lama began to travel throughout out the world. The authenticity and magnetism of his wisdom and personality resonated with millions, who came to regard him as an exemplar of spiritual wisdom in a troubled world.
Over the following decades, thousands of western students traveled to centers of Buddhist learning in India and Nepal—including Dharamsala, India the exile home of the Dalai Lama—to study in programs designed for non-Tibetan speakers. They returned to their countries to spread their enthusiasm and to invite Tibetan monks to set up centers for Tibetan Buddhist learning and practice. Today, there are hundreds of centers for Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world, led by both Tibetan and Western teachers. And, the Dalai Lama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, has become one of the most recognized and respected spiritual and moral leaders in the world.
The purpose of this film is to document a seminal event in the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West in general and America in particular: the historic 1981 Kalachakra initiation by the Dalai Lama near Madison, Wisconsin. He was invited to convey this initiation by the late Geshe Lhundup Sopa (1923–2014), founder of Deer Park Buddhist Center, professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the most esteemed Tibetan scholars and practitioners of his generation. It was due to his indefatigable efforts that Tibetan Buddhism would take root in the heartland of America.
This film is designed for prime time television broadcast, Internet streaming, and use in secondary schools, colleges and by the public at large. We will extend the project’s reach through an interactive educational web site, as well as DVDs and streaming distribution that will include expanded educational resources and the unedited interviews of the participants, organizers, leaders and scholarly experts.
Our expert advisors and interviewees include the following:
His Holiness the Dalai Lama*, Prof. Jeff Hopkins (translator and author)*, Prof. Robert Thurman*, Sharpa Tulku (Tenzin Trinley, co-producer)*, Tenzin Thetong, (Dalai Lama’s US Representative), Thupten Jinpa (Dalai Lama Translator & Author), Ven. Losang Samten, Prof. Jose Cabezon*, Prof. Roger Jackson*, Dr. Alexander Berzin, Dr. Beth Solomon*, Prof. John Newman, Prof. Vesna Wallace (Scholar and Translator), Jeff Watt, (Director of Himalayan Art Resources), Prof. Jan Willis, David Patt (Translator & Scholar). (* These individuals participated in and were interviewed at the 1981 Wheel of Time event.)
This documentary film will tell the dramatic story of how the Dalai Lama brought the Wheel of Time Empowerment to America in 1981. We will reveal its esoteric meaning and its impact both on the participants and on American religious-spiritual culture at large. Our story will be told through documentary footage, entrancing Tibetan art and music, and mandala animations along with the voices of the Dalai Lama, Geshe Lhundup Sopa, key American participants, scholarly experts and a well-known narrator. In 1981, we shot over 50,000 ft. of never-before-seen 16mm film in India and the US before and during the initiation. This footage will be supplemented by new footage of interviews with the Dalai Lama, leading experts and participants.
The Wheel of Time (Sanskrit Kalachakra, Tibetan dus kyi ‘khor lo) is one the world’s most complex, colorful and imaginative cosmological and mind-body systems for human transformation. The so-called “empowerment” to practice this transformative system is comprised of two major stages, the Generation Stage and the Completion Stage. Our film will focus on the Generation Stage, whose purpose is to guide human beings on an imaginal and empowering journey through a three-dimensional mandala whose 722 deities help purify their negative states of mind and lead them into the enlightened state of Buddhahood.
Our story will be told in these four movements:
- The significance of the Wheel of Time in Tibet and its tragic demise during the Chinese invasion and Cultural Revolution.
- The heroic preservation of Tibetan Buddhism and the Wheel of Time practices by Tibetan Refugees in India with the help of scholars and practitioners from around the world. Young Americans study in India and bring back the teachings and teachers to the US. Preparations for the empowerment in Wisconsin and India
- The Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism and the Wheel of Time to America, highlighted by the historic empowerment ceremony at Deer Park in Wisconsin. Animated initiation journey around the 3 dimensional Kalachakra Mandala. Interviews with the Dalai Lama, participants and scholars.
- The impacts of the Wheel of Time on the participants and American religious and spiritual culture. Miraculous death of Geshe Lhundup Sopa.
This one-hour documentary will utilize over 25 hours of 16mm film shot by the producers in 1981. This footage includes interviews with the Dalai Lama, Geshe Sopa and key participants. It documents preparations both in India and Deer Park, Wisconsin and the entire four-day ceremony at Deer Park. Our story will be further enhanced through new interviews with the Dalai Lama, the original participants and leading American and Tibetan scholars.