It is quite a different schedule than his last visit in February 2010, before the 76-year-old leader of exiled Tibetans retired from politics, when a meeting with President Obama set off a political firestorm with China.
In his first major public event since stepping down as head of state in March, the spiritual leader will guide one of the most complex rituals in Tibetan Buddhism, a 10-day teaching called a Kalachakra. He’s one of few people considered skilled enough to do so, and he’s held only four others in the United States.
The event is expected to attract as many as 100,000 people to the Verizon Center between Wednesday and July 16, when a massive, intricate sand drawing created during the festivities will be dispersed into the Anacostia River to signify the temporary nature of all things.
The Dalai Lama had been saying for about a decade that he wanted to step aside from politics and focus on his role as a spiritual leader. While a new prime-minister-in-exile was elected in April, the Nobel Peace Prize winner remains the face of national Tibetan identity. Since March, he has kept his usual globe-trotting schedule, lecturing about Buddhism. He still has high-level political meetings planned in Washington, but they are expected to be low-profile.
People close to him say he looks forward to coming to the global center of power politics as more of an observer. “He’s more free. He’ll be with a more jolly attitude than ever,” said Robert Thurman, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism and longtime friend of the Dalai Lama.
But many still see huge significance in his picking the capital of the world’s superpower as the place for a ritual about how to reconcile disunity. Some believe the Kalachakra’s hopeful explanation about how to deal with differences literally will spread through meditators to area bigwigs coping with national debt, wars, environmental disasters and terrorism.
“The most significant thing about this is the time and place, 10 years after 9/11, and in a place where big decisions are being made about the planet,” said Clark Strand, former editor of Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine.
A statement from the Capital Area Tibetan Association, which is putting on the event, also stressed the significance of having it in Washington: “If there is a seed of spirituality in this very city, that seed when it grows is bound to have an effect.”
Huge peace festival
The Dalai Lama has transformed the Kalachakra from an arcane ritual into a huge peace festival. That is typical of the way he has popularized Buddhism in the West. With his 76th birthday falling on the ceremony’s first day, many wonder what will come after him.
But for now, the faithful are gearing up for one of Buddhism’s most celebrated events.
Houses around the region are filling with meditative crashers and monks on blowup beds.