Claudia Leisinger - Photography


From January 5th - 16th 2006, the Dalai Lama offered the Kalachakra Empowerment for the 30th time in his life at Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh, south India. Amaravati is closely associated with Dhanyakataka, where, the scriptures record, the Buddha first revealed the Kalachakra.

The Kalachakra is a Buddhist ritual in which a mandala is painted with colored sand made from precious stones. A mandala that represents everything and is made for everyone. The ritual dismantling of the mandala in the final celebration and its pouring into the water stands symbolically for transitoriness of all material.

For such an ancient teaching to be given again close to the site at which it originally occurred was a rare and auspicious occasion. It also took place at the beginning of a year that by common assent is being marked as the 2,550th anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha of this era.

The patrons who requested these teachings were the Busshokai Centre of Kanazawa, Japan.


in Amaravati, India, January 2006
I hold the little plastic cup of steaming tea, very sweet and strong, in my hands. It is eight o’clock on a January morning; the mist that fell during the night is fading away. It is going to be hot today – just like every other day.

I am sitting at one of the busiest streets in Amaravati about 100 metres away from the Teaching tent that holds the temple where the Dalai Lama gives the Kalachakra empowerment. Throngs of passers-by stride towards the Teaching ground, their many feet kicking up clouds of dust. Right now it looks like a purple stream for they are mostly Tibetan monks in their traditional robes.

Even from outside I can hear the Dalai Lama’s voice amplified through the loudspeakers placed on every street corner. Foreigners can tune in with their radios and listen to the translations in many different languages. Since my arrival a week ago, the number of pilgrims must have tripled to around 100,000. Festively dressed Tibetans, monks, nuns, from all over Asia, Westerners and local Indians all wait to be checked by the police. Everybody is in motion and not even the long queues that build up in front of the gates to the teaching site can diminish the excitement in the air.

Nearby, hundreds of beggars sit in the dust and wait in line for some change, knowing well a Buddhist’s duty is to give to the poor. Above this whole scene, in majestic silence the giant, 30 feet high Dhayana Buddha statue looks on. It is still wrapped in its filigree scaffolding.

I head off to photograph the Monlam kitchen, two open-air kitchens where about two hundred people busily prepare tea and bread served during the teachings to the attending pilgrims.

Arriving, I see teenage monks gathered around three huge metal cauldrons (around the size of three bathtubs), which boil away on open wood fires. The young monks talk and laugh, some sit reading newspapers. If it wasn’t for the silver teapots they all have with them this could look like any group of young adolescents.

The cooks busily prepare the tea, stirring and testing it, adding a bit more butter or salt, others add some wood to the fire. As in Tibetan tradition, lay-people come to offer butter, milk and tea.

The monks wash their teapots and line up next to the cauldrons, scrapping a little amongst themselves. It feels like just before a race. The filling of the teapots is the start shot; and then they’re off, sprinting with their hot pots towards the teaching site entrance. They spread across the ground like a silent wave, fanning out through the corridors, running with bent upper bodies, careful not to disrupt the ongoing teaching. Again and again the monks have to fetch more tea to fill the thousands of cups.

Towards noon the heat under the tent is only tolerable due to a little breeze coming from the nearby Krishna River all the monks still sit and listen.

I meet Kate Saunders from the organization International Campaign for Tibet. We go to the New Arrivals Camp. Fires burn with sizzling pots and pans, children scamper around, women replait their braids, 108 in total, held together at the bottom with a ring or jewelry. It is very apparent how quickly they have made themselves at home: no surprise since the most of them are nomads in their hearts.

I am not allowed to take any photos. Most of these Tibetan pilgrims will return to Tibet and they could face prosecution if their local authorities recognize them from any published picture. Even the Dalai Lama advises these people to deny their allegiance towards him if necessary. "My image is in your heart" he assures them. I have been told of Tibetans who hang up empty picture frames instead, knowing well what should be inside.

A curious crowd soon surrounds us. Kate’s interpreter Dorjee Tsering diligently translates her questions to these tired but happy faces. These people have taken upon themselves a three-month trek to attend the Kalachakra: a slightly bigger commitment than my three-day journey - and not only in terms of the length of the voyage…

It is late. I have to leave the camp for a conference at the Press Centre. As always, I am stopped by many curious locals, politely asking questions.They want to know all about the Dalai Lama, about Buddhism, about me. As ever their tolerance and interest amazes and humbles me. Within the community of this little town there are Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims and each religion has their place of worship. They adapt to these masses of strangers with very inventive offers. I just saw a young man ironing clothes on a very busy street.


The creation of a Kalachakra-Mandala. By Martin Brauen

Only a being filled with altruism is capable of overcoming greed and hate to reach Buddhahood. This applies to all Buddhist paths including Tantrism, which created the Mandala ritual.

According to Tantric thought, the highest absolute manifests itself in everyone and everything and the aim of every visualisation, like the one the Mandala ritual depicts, is to discover this clear, luminous divine and to realise its glory and bliss within oneself.

For this purpose the practitioner uses specific exercises in which he cleanses himself and sublimates his subconscious to bring himself nearer to the divine source, a method known as divine-yoga. As an aid, the practicing person uses pictorial representations of the absolute, e.g. a single Buddha or whole groups of deities, who are positioned in a prescribed way to describe a Mandala and symbolise the pluralistic points of view of Buddhahood.

A Mandala is normally a strictly symmetrical diagram, usually split into four equally large sectors that are composed of concentric circles and squares, whose centre coincides with the middle of the circles. Many Mandalas are effectively an aid for meditation, visualisation and initiation – but this does not necessarily apply to all of them.

Mandalas are also understood to be simple circles or discs containing a sacred middle or those built on their bases, for example the five element discs, which according to a tradition, (Kalachakra Tantra), depicts the lower part of the universe, or the superimposed discs depicting the moon, sun, and the two planets Rahn and Kalagui that serve as the seats of a deity.

The term Mandala can refer to the whole cosmos, namely, if the wholly purified universe is given as an offering during a specific ritual in the mind.

According to Tantrism, religion and ritual are not an antithesis to the suffering during the circle of life. On the contrary, there exist numerous correlations between, on one hand, religious practice as well as structure and process in the universe and, on the other, the particular human being. These correlations are worth recognizing and utilizing.

For this reason knowledge of Tantric Buddhist cosmology is also necessary for the understanding of the Mandala ritual, during which the meditating person gradually recognizes how inseparably man, cosmos and Mandala are connected with each other; how man and cosmos are mirror images of the Mandala - and vice-versa.

The Buddhist worldview sits in opposition to the European worldview of the Middle Ages, not centred on the world and mankind but rather on a "theocentric" outlook. Gods and their worlds, from corporal, fine materialistic to spiritual and shapeless beings, form the core of this world entity, while humans and other lifeforms eke out an existence at the edge of the centre. In Tantric visualisations and especially in the complicated Mandala ritual, it always revolves around reaching this godlike middle (again), that is to say purification through many intermediate stops which corresponds with reaching purer, higher layers to achieve godliness; and at the same time to ascend the middle and peak of the universe.

But the alignment between man, cosmos and mandala goes far beyond pure structural correspondence. The Mandala meditation process according to the Kalachakra Tantra for example, shows similarities with the development and the passing of a cosmos, but also with the dying and the rebirth of a human being. Just as the formation of an embryo in the uterus evolves to become a baby and after birth into an infant, child and then an adult, so the Tantrician develops when he creates the deities of the Mandala in his mind until he reaches, after many visualisations, rituals and initiations, a state which is comparable to the one when entering death, with the difference that he is living through all these stages willingly and consciously, and therefore creating the preconditions for complete enlightenment.

We live in an era in which we often become painfully aware of how close the connection with the “outside world” is. It is not, of course, to be taken literally when in Tantric scripture our arms and legs are used to portray the continents of the universe, rather this meant in an allegorical sense implying that we are the world and the world is us. If the world or a part of it is suffering, I suffer too and if I suffer, the world is suffering. If I cause harm to the world, I harm myself and the other beings and parts; if I exploit the world, I effectively exploit myself.

Man and all the other life forms are not only part of the cosmos, but they contain it within themselves, in the way in which they are structured in the same manner, and by the fact that the same processes are taking place within us as in the world around us.

The structures and sequence of events repeat themselves from the wide macrocosmos to the tininess of the microcosmos. This attitude leads to the realisation that exterior and interior, object and subject are opposites formulated by man, which lead to confusion and inappropriate behaviour; an inappropriate behaviour that we will feel more and more painfully.

The Tantric worldview denies the possibility of only partially tackling existing damage and postulates instead a holistic approach taking into consideration mutual dependencies. Therefore, according to Tantric teachings, someone wanting to purify himself would not only have to keep his apparently limited self in perspective but the whole cosmos at the same time, The Mandala ritual helps him to recognise and experience all these connections and the underlying divinity that forms the basis for it all. 

Translation from German: L. Singer, C.Leisinger, T.Sweeney

Copyright: Claudia Leisinger

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