KALACHAKRA – WHEEL OF TIME
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.)
- PROGRAM SUMMARY
This documentary film will tell the dramatic story of how the Dalai Lama brought the Wheel of Time Empowerment to America. 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.
- The Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism and the Wheel of Time to America, highlighted by the historic empowerment ceremony at Deer Park in Wisconsin.
- The aftermath impacts of the Wheel of Time on the participants and American religious and spiritual culture.
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.
This opening sequence will include shots of the charismatic Dalai Lama – –
- receiving the Noble Peace Prize,
- addressing an audience of thousands about compassion,
- in dialogue with neuroscientists on the positive effects of meditation,
- observing monks with electrodes on their heads being scientifically tested on the effects of meditation on their brains,
- wearing the colorfully elaborate costume of the Wheel of Time deity,
- surrounded by 12 deity costumed monks performing ritual dance,
- seated before over 1,000 young Americans taking the initiation.
The narrator asks:
“The Dalai Lama of Tibet has received the Nobel Prize, he has addressed hundreds of thousands on the need for compassion, and he has worked with some of the world’s top neuroscientists scientists to learn the effects of meditation on the brain. Why does the highly rational and compassionate world leader also wear the costume of a deity and engage in the extremely imaginal and otherworldly Wheel of Time initiation ceremony for world peace? What is the purpose and power of the Wheel of Time? Why did he bring it to America? What effect did the Wheel of Time and Tibetan Buddhism have on the participants and on American culture?”
Interview clips with the Dalai Lama, Ven. Losang Samten and our American experts will describe the importance of Buddhism and the Kalachakra in Tibet (as we see historic B&W footage). Historic footage shows the Chinese invasion and destruction of Tibetan monasteries. We will see footage of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans, among the 80,000 refugees escaping to India, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.
Our story now takes us to Dharamsala, India, where in the 1960s the Dalai Lama had launched a robust effort to preserve his ancient religion and culture and to teach Buddhism to English speaking students from around the world. Our footage also shows Westerners learning Buddhism and the Tibetan language from Buddhist teachers as well as participating in a major Tantric initiation conveyed by the Dalai Lama to a huge gathering of indigenous Tibetan Buddhists.
Interview clips with the Dalai Lama and our American experts describe the depth and breadth of the cultural and religious preservation efforts. New interview clips with Americans who traveled to India in the 1970s – 80s describe how they learned the Tibetan language and the practice of Buddhism that they were to bring back home to America. Interviewees also tell us why they chose to come to Deer Park to study with Geshe Sopa and to help organize the Wheel of Time empowerment.
Deer Park Buddhist Center, Wisconsin
We then travel to the farmlands near Madison, Wisconsin to see young Americans, some who had studied in India, building a new Buddhist temple for the Wheel of Time Empowerment. We see them learning from Tibetan monks how to craft woodwork, designs and embroidery to conform to classical Tibetan styles. We hear interviews with the enthusiastic and dedicated young men and women explaining their reasons for becoming Buddhists and donating their time and energy to this project.
We also witness a contentious county commissioners’ meeting at which approval for this exotic event would be debated. We hear past and present interviews with the Dunn Town Board Chairman who describes the doubts and fears of the commissioners, and his duty to honor religious freedom in American. We learn that most of these commissioners had never heard of Tibetan Buddhism or even met a Buddhist. Later in the film, we see some of these commissioners coming to Deer Park to meet the Dalai Lama in person who allays their fears.
Arrival of the Dalai Lama & Preparations
Next, we witness the ceremonial arrival of the Dalai Lama and his entourage of monks, who will perform all the rites and rituals of the initiation. We see them hanging the giant thangka painting of the Wheel of Time deity, setting up their musical and ritual instruments, donning their intricate and colorful deity costumes, and constructing an elaborate sand mandala for the initiation. We see the Dalai Lama participating directly in all these preparations, including rare footage of him meditating on the platform where the sand mandala will be constructed. We hear interviews with him about the purpose and meaning of this initiation, including the invocation of deities who will inhabit and bless the site of the initiation.
Interviews with Participants
This 2nd Movement of the story will include interviews with the 20-something volunteers who worked tirelessly for several months to prepare for this event. We will learn about all the challenges and obstacles they faced, and how, with no previous experience they pulled together around the leadership of Geshe Sopa to host this historic event. Some of the interviews are with young American monks and nuns who pondered the challenges of keeping their vows and adapting Buddhism to American culture. These interviews will be intercut with new interviews (35 years later) reflecting on the significance of this event in their lives.
Tom Driscoll (carpenter)*, Brian Grabia (Psychotherapist)*, Morgan Groves*, Dr. Zorba Paster (Geshe Sopa’s physician), Penny Paster, Ed Minihan* (Dunn County Chairman.) Sharpa Tulku, Co-producer, translator and expert), Beth Simon*, Mike and Linda Atkins, Frank and Kathy Barone, Patrice Kennedy, Kathy Downs, and Marty Bleyer.
Preparations for The Wheel of Time Initiation
Then, we see 1,200 people arriving for the three-day event, who must ritually purify themselves before entering the great tent erected in the field facing the temple. We hear interviews with some of the attendees about their aims and experiences. We also hear extensive interviews with young men who have become robed Tibetan Buddhist monks about what it means to become a Buddhist and the challenges of maintaining the monastic vows and lifestyle in the West. Geshe Sopa talks about the purpose and meaning of the empowerment and all the work done by young volunteers to make it happen.
As the initiation begins, we hear the Dalai Lama addressing the crowd about the purpose of this empowerment, helping them to prepare their minds and hearts for this historic event. Then, we witness the unfolding of the ceremony itself, step-by-step, as young initiates participate in the chants, meditations, and visualizations. We see American men and women wearing the ritual deity costumes as they engage in each step of the initiation. The film takes us through the stages of the ritual, succinctly explaining the significance of each.
Wheel of Time Empowerment
We will see animation sequences of a dazzling three-dimensional mandala emerging out of the two-dimensional sand mandala. These beautiful art images will transport the viewer to each of portal on the mandala corresponding with each step of the empowerment. As we enter each portal, we will meet the respective deities who will help initiates to transform their mental and physical elements into those of an enlightened Buddha. Here, we will see gorgeous pictures of the deities from Tibetan thangkas and wall paintings. Dissolving shots of these deities will engender a sense of awe and deep appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of Tibetan Buddhist art and this imaginal practice.
Final Scenes of 3rd Movement
After the conclusion of the empowerment, the Dalai Lama and his monk assistants dramatically sweep the gorgeous, elaborate colored sand mandala into an indistinct pile and place the sand in a vase that itself is clothed in the garb of a deity. They then depart for Lake Mendota, in Madison, where they gather inside a rather decrepit looking cabin cruiser that will take them out onto the lake.
The morning is shrouded in a mist that bespeaks the sacredness of their task. Inside the boat, the Dalai Lama sits next to the sand-filled vase, surrounded by monks who are chanting and ringing their ceremonial bells. Then, the Dalai Lama steps out into the stern of the boat. An attendant hands him the vase, now stripped of the deity garb. While the chanting continues, he pours the sand into Lake Mendota as an offering to the Nagas, the spiritual beings who will protect and nurture the blessings of the Kalachakra spirit that now permeates these waters and lands. Interviews with the Dalai Lama and experts accompany the visual scenes with an explanation of the meaning and purpose of each.
To summarize, this segment of our film will combine the following elements:
- American initiates donning deity garb.
- The Dalai Lama’s instructions on how to visualize the deities in the mandala.
- Animations of the mandala depicting how the initiates ascend from one portal to the next until they manifest themselves as an enlightened Buddha in the form of the Wheel of Time Deity.
- Interview clips of reflections by the participants on their experiences.
- Interview clips with internationally renowned American and Tibetan scholars on the meaning and purpose of each step in the Initiation.
The fourth movement will include retrospective interviews with participants and scholars, and a lengthy interview with the Dalai Lama about the significance of the first Wheel of Time empowerment ceremony in America. “B-roll” footage will contain shots of the huge new temple built at Deer Park with the Dalai Lama presiding over its inauguration.
Thirty-three years after hosting the Dalai Lama at Deer Park, Geshe Sopa died in a most astonishing manner: although his heart stopped, he remained seated in meditation for seven days. According to tradition, his consciousness was absorbed in a Clear Light Meditation (Tib. thugs dam) whence he was transformed into an enlightened state of being that his students pray will re-incarnate again in human form to lead Deer Park Monastery and teach Buddhism.
Our film will include photos of Geshe Sopa seated in meditation after the time of his physical death along with interviews with several witnesses, including Professor Roger Jackson and his doctor, Zorba Paster. Our concluding interview with the Dalai Lama will include his perspectives on the death of Geshe Sopa, and the power of the Tibetan Buddhist Tantras (in general) and the Wheel of Time (in particular) to transform a practitioner into the state of a fully enlightened Buddha at the time of death. Once enlightened, the practitioner is committed to remaining on earth to liberate all beings from suffering until all beings are liberated from suffering.
HISTORY OF THIS PROJECT
This first American Kalachakra and the emergence of Tibetan Buddhism in America were documented on 16mm film by Ed Bastian and Sharpa Tulku (Tenzin Trinley). Ed had just completed a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies under the guidance of Professor Geshe Lhundup Sopa. Sharpa Tulku was highly regarded as a reincarnated lama and leading translator of Tibetan scriptures into English. Ed was also to become the executive producer of six films on religion in Asia for the BBC and PBS, and three films on Tibetan Buddhism.
Working under the guidance of Geshe Sopa and the Dalai Lama, Ed, with expert advice from Sharpa, directed an Indian film crew for the Indian scenes and an American film crew supported in part by WHA Public Broadcasting station in Madison, WI.
In 1980, Ed (with the guidance of Professor Joseph Elder and the University of Wisconsin) received a major grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to produce an hour-long documentary on Tibetan religion in Ladakh, the Tibetan Cultural region in northwest India on the Western border with Tibet. In Ladakh, the ancient Tibetan Buddhist traditions were still thriving, even as they were being destroyed just across the border in Tibet. This shooting of film on the Kalachakra was piggybacked on the NEH grant for the Ladakh project. The filming of the initiation also received support from Wisconsin Public Television.
Over a decade earlier, in 1970, Ed had first interviewed the Dalai Lama at his exile headquarters in Dharamsala, India for a film produced by the internationally renowned Lowell Thomas, who had first met the Dalai Lama in 1949 in Tibet. Soon after the 1970 filming was completed, Ed continued to meet privately with His Holiness, who taught him the basics of Buddhism and introduced him to his first meditation teacher, Geshe Rabten. The Dalai Lama advised Ed to continue his studies in America with Geshe Sopa, who inspired Ed to complete a PhD in Buddhism, and to learn the Tibetan and Sanskrit languages so he could dive deeply and translate Buddhist texts into English.
In 1980, Ed’s professor, Geshe Sopa, worked with Tenzin Tethong of the US Office of Tibet, to invite the Dalai Lama to come to his new Buddhist center near Madison, WI to confer the Kalachakra to over 1,000 early students of Tibetan Buddhist from throughout America and Europe. Recognizing that this historic event needed to be documented, Ed diverted time and resources from the Ladakh project for this purpose.
After the filming was completed, Ed deposited it at the Smithsonian Institution where he was working as a program director. Here, it would remain safe until the time came to edit it into a finished film. In 2014, with the support of his colleague Catherine Wyler (former director of cultural programming for PBS) a digital copy was made of the archival tape reference copies of the original footage. These reference, (low quality) digital files now reside on a hard drive to help with our scripting and production planning. Once sufficient funds are raised, the original footage will be re-digitized for the editing of the final film.