There’s a spacious and open feeling in the Garchen this late morning as the monks filter in from the Karmapa’s talk. Plants line the walkways and new trees stand in front of the fences. Some monks are charging their mobiles at the row of plugs below the water tower, an area that is also home to a small restaurant and store. Most of the monks are returning to their tents to retrieve their bowls for the noontime meal. Inside their temporary homes, the monks have lined up their mats parallel to the door and placed their small pile of belongings at the top of their bed, just below three spacious, screened windows. The monks we spoke with are from Dilyak Monastery (Dabzang Rinpoche’s monastery) and have been coming to the Kagyu Monlam since 2004. They say that they like living in tents as it reminds them of being up in the mountains where they grew up, and they also treasure the opportunity to stay in the same place as the Karmapa.
The monks reported that the camping light hanging from the ceiling of their tent runs well on solar power, and they use it when waking up at 5am and also at night in the hours before going to sleep at 10pm. From 6 am to late afternoon, all the monks and nuns are in the Pavilion chanting. They clean their tents from 5 to 5:30pm, dinner is at six, and then they have free time until 8:30 to visit the stupa before returning to their tents. There, before they get ready for bed, the chant leader’s voice comes to them over the loudspeakers and leads the recitation of the Four Session Guru Yoga. Written by the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje, it is a beautiful practice which supplicates the Kamtsang lineage for blessings and includes the famous “Karmapa khyenno,” “Karmapa, think of me.” So as they fall sleep, the nuns and monks are physically near the Karmapa and also have him in their minds.
The Karmapa is to visit the Garchen kitchen this morning at 11am and soon his coterie of attendants and guards appears and passes through the wide navy blue gates to the dining and kitchen area. As the sangha stands to make way for him, he passes into the kitchen and along the row of tables set along its front side. They are laden with large pots of the noontime meal—local rice, red dahl, the chilli-rich Bhutanese dish known as amadasi, and the main meal: a tasty mix of transparent rice noodles, tofu, black mushrooms, potatoes, and green leafy vegetables. The Karmapa stops in front of one of these pots of noodles, takes the ladle in hand, and begins serving the surprised yet quietly delighted monks and nuns.
As he tours the cooking area, the Karmapa stops to talk to the workers. He tastes one of the round, flat breads that are served in the mornings, and looks at the bread-making area and also into the tea kitchen where tea is boiling in immense pots. The whole visit this morning is flavored by the Karmapa’s down-to-earth and very human qualities as he looks into the ways the meals are prepared and touches the hearts of those working from three in the morning to serve the sangha.
The grand Monlam Pavilion, with seating for about 10,000 monks and laypeople, is ablaze with colour in the darkness of early morning. Metal beams spanning the great height of the ceiling are draped with red and gold pleated banners giving an impression of sun rays beaming from Mount Kailash at the back of the stage.
It creates an eloquent statement about both the Buddhist tradition and the Kagyu lineage which the Karmapa uses to great effect in making his opening remarks. The theme that weaves throughout the talk is the essential unity of Buddhist schools and the destructiveness of schisms. Mount Kailash - sacred to 3 Eastern religions- towers above all.
The main teaching of the Monlam is Je Tsong Khapa's Three Primary Elements of the Path. This particular text was chosen for the Monlam because the commentary is by the first Jamgon Kongtrul, Lodro Thaye, and the 30th Monlam is dedicated to the Kongtrul lineage. Lodro Thaye set a precedent as the Rime [non-sectarian] master who broke through the barriers of Tibetan sectarianism in the nineteenth century.
To introduce the teaching, the Karmapa explained the connection between the Karmapas and Je Tsong Khapa, "the king of dharma". In an historic meeting on his way to China (or on the way back) the 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje met a child whom he recognised. He predicted "this boy will become like a second Buddha", gave him the Upasaka vows and a name, Kunga Chenpo. The child was Tsong Khapa.
Through the blessing of Manjushri, Tsong Khapa had a special experience and realised the Madhyamika view coming from Nagarjuna. He also held the lineage of Atisha and practised the Vinaya to such perfection that no one could dispute his conduct; although some people disputed his view of Madhyamika. "He was a great master," said the Karmapa. The three primary elements of the path are renunciation, bodhicitta and right view. These three elements are the foundation for even crossing the threshold of either sutra or mantra.
"The most important way of honouring the great masters is to understand their experiences and try to practice what they have taught. There is no better way to honour the teacher. Jamgon Kongtrul wrote countless books and out of them all, this one is very useful."
The Karmapa then spoke from the heart about his personal experience of divisive rumours and wrong views to dispel them publicly. Because of his prolonged stay of twelve years at a Gelugpa monastery in Dharamsala, there were rumours that he had abolished the Lama dances at Rumtek, had become a Gelugpa and that he told people not to practice Nyingma or to say the 7-line prayer of Guru Padmasambhava.
"Since the time of the 16th Karmapa nothing has been discontinued at Rumtek", he said. " I just came from Tibet and went directly to Dharamsala. I thought I would stay a few months in Dharamsala and then I would go to Sherabling or Rumtek. But I couldn't go anywhere. I had to stay in Gyuto. I have been a kind of guest there for 12 years. Now the guest is almost becoming a permanent resident. Since I am staying in a great Gelugpa monastery maybe some people are spreading these kind of rumours."
Since his childhood, he said, he has maintained a deep and abiding connection with Guru Padmasambhava.
Right from the beginning of my life my parents had great faith in Guru Padmasambhava and I would recite the 7line prayer. We were nomadic and had to move our tent to different places in the summer and winter. Everyone wanted the best place for grass and water. My father told me to recite the 7-line prayer and I would recite it all day. If my father got a good place for our tent he would say, " You must have recited it very well". If we didn't get a good place he would say, "I'm sure you didn't recite it very well". One day there was dark red smoke in the sky. The chief of our area said there was a fire in the mountains and if the fire burned the grass, all the food for the cattle would be destroyed. I went on top of a hill and recited the 7 line prayer and blew into the air. I don't know whether it helped or not but the fire didn't come to our place. The chief gave me one yuan and I was very happy and showed it to my parents. I had never before received a present. I had this kind of connection with Guru Padmasambhava. Even now, I have the same connection.
Generally I have great faith and confidence in all the teachings of the Buddha. I have no thought that one is better or worse. All the teachings in Tibet come from India. They are not different; they just have different names. The teachers established different monasteries in different places. We come from the same teacher and the same teaching. We tend to forget this because it's more than 2000 years since the Buddha passed away. The Buddha predicted the way the dharma would end would be when the people who hold the teachings have conflict amongst themselves. That conflict is the maras. However bad we are, we should not destroy our own teachings. We should all be very careful about this.
Thedifferences are there to help different kinds of people, he emphasized, not because they are in essence different. The Monlam prayer book is also allinclusive, containing prayers from the great masters of the different schools and the sub divisions of the Kagyu. Reciting these prayers plants the seed for teaching according to the needs of different people.
When we take refuge it should include all buddhas, all the dharma, all the sanghas. We don't say my buddha , my dharma, my sangha. Otherwise it isn't refuge. We should not make this segregation. If we don't take authentic refuge we are not authentic Buddhists. It is like giving up the dharma.
If you give up the dharma it's worse than the 5 heinous deeds. If you commit the 5 heinous deeds you may go to the hells for some time, but if you give up dharma you create a situation where you will never be able to practice dharma.
All of you have to hold the dharma, understand the Buddha's teaching and how to preserve it - through both teaching and practice.
monks and nuns from 61 monasteries and nunneries, including some from other Kagyu lineages;
approximately 6000 monks and nuns;
approximately 4000 laypeople, including international devotees, Tibetans, Nepalese, Bhutanese and people from the Himalayan regions of India.
The total attendance was about 10,000 people.
800 people watched the Webcast: 150 people in North America; 130 in Latin America; 100 in Europe; 400 in Asia; 20 in South Africa.
Early morning at Tergar and the Monlam Pavilion
In order to prepare the Pavilion, some of the staff had worked throughout the night. Now, before dawn, they waited expectantly. Great banners of red and gold hung from the girders, and blue rosettes with red and gold centres decorated the white columns. Mats lay across the stone floor, awaiting the arrival of the monks and nuns.
The gong in the Garchen sounded at 4:00 am to raise the sleeping monks and nuns. Back at Tergar, Gyalwang Karmapa was up already. A flight of six fruit bats, their pale underbellies reflected in the spotlights on the roof, winged silently over the monastery, returning to their roosts. At 4:15 am Gyalwang Karmapa's black SUV pulled out of the monastery gates. He was on his way to check personally that all was ready for the 30th Kagyu Monlam Chenmo.
By 5:15 am long lines of people, nuns, monks and laypeople, had formed along the road from the pavilion as far back as the main gates of Tergar monastery. The morning was dark and chill but they waited patiently to pass through the stringent security checks.
Although it now has a greater capacity than last year, the vast space of the Monlam Pavilion filled steadily. Seats to left and right of the central aisle were allocated to nuns and monks respectively. The rinpoches, tulkus, khenpos, and some gelongs were seated on the stage. A space near the front was reserved for international sangha, and other designated areas were allocated to members of Kagyu Monlam, VIPs, and special guests. Clad in their distinctive yellow panelled waistcoats, disciplinarians patrolled the rows of monks and nuns.
At 6:00 am promptly, the gyalings sounded, and led by an incense bearer and monks playing the gyalings, Gyalwang Karmapa arrived on the stage and the 30th Kagyu Monlam Chenmo began.
Opening remarks by the Gyalwang Karmapa
Facing the congregation of monks, nuns and laypeople, Gyalwang Karmapa gave the Mahayana Sojong vows before making some opening remarks.
He emphasised the great opportunity that everyone gathered for the Monlam had been given to pray on behalf of all sentient beings. "We should treasure this opportunity and not waste it," he warned.
It was our great good fortune that we had come together in the sacred place of Bodhgaya with those who upheld the Kagyu lineage: Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, many other rinpoches, lamas, khenpos and so forth.
"Now that we have come to this sacred place and have the conditions to accumulate great merit we should be diligent, have great aspirations and generate bodhichitta," he explained.
Finally, he thanked everyone who had come, especially those who had come from far away.
The Twenty-Branch Monlam
The first session each morning is the recitation of the Twenty Branch Monlam, compiled by the Gyalwang Karmapa in 2006. Sitting on a low throne at the head of the congregation, he faced the Buddha images and the altars to lead the opening Sanskrit prayers; Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche sat on his right, Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche on his left. After the initial prayers, Refuge and Bodhichitta, the Gyalwang Karmapa rose and walked up the steps to the shrine of the small golden Buddha statue.
This year six video screens have been placed around the pavilion, enabling everyone to see what is happening in greater detail than ever before. Thus, for the first time, everyone was able to see the Gyalwang Karmapa assuming the role of chöpön and performing the rituals which accompany the first nine stages of the Twenty-Branch Monlam such as offering incense and pouring perfumed water over the golden Buddha. His task finished, Gyalwang Karmapa resumed his seat at the head of the assembly to lead the rest of the Twenty-Branch Monlam prayers.
Gyalwang Karmapa gave two special short commentaries on the prayers:
Session One: A short commentary on the Sutra in Three Sections
This sutra was translated into Tibetan during the time of King Trisong Detsen because it was judged to be one of ten sutras which the king should practise in order to purify his negative actions.
The Karmapa emphasised the importance of this sutra for its use in purifying the negative deeds accumulated by all of us from beginningless time, as we go from life to life, trapped in samsara, like water from the well. We have lived so many times, that we have lived in every place, and during that time we have accumulated so many negative actions lifetime after lifetime that the whole universe is too small to contain them. Unless they can be purified, they will ripen and cause us great suffering in the future. This is especially true for those of us who continue to commit negative actions even though we hold vows and have made promises to practice the dharma. Sometimes we may not know that what we are doing is wrong, but sometimes we commit misdeeds in spite of knowing. These negative deeds or downfalls, if they are not purified, can lead us to rebirth in the lower realms. As even the effects of a small negative deed can grow steadily stronger and negate our positive actions, it is essential to purify our negative actions daily.
In order to purify, we practice using the four powers or antidotes.
The first antidote is the power of the object of support or reliance. In this sutra that support is the 35 Buddhas; even to hear their names, and to make offerings or prostrations will generate powerful purification. In order to do this we should visualise all 35 Buddhas in front of us, with Buddha Shakyamuni in the centre, surrounded by the others, seated in vajra posture, and visualise them as not separate from our own root guru. The second antidote is the power of regret. We need to develop deep regret for all our negative actions, as if we have eaten poison. The third antidote is the power of reparation. In this case we can recite or read the sutra. Finally, there is the power of resolution, resolving never to commit the deed again.
We cannot remember all our misdeeds, including the five heinous ones, but we can have the motivation to purify them. In the same way, we can have the motivation to purify all our negative actions of this lifetime, since childhood, those we remember and those we can't remember.
It is impossible to help others when we are influenced by negative deeds, so we need to purify ourselves.
Session Three: Explanation of the Noble Aspiration for Excellent Conduct
During the third session, the Gyalwang Karmapa gave a brief teaching on the prayer titled, “The King of Aspirations: the Noble Aspiration for Excellent Conduct.” This is the aspiration prayer made by Samantabhadra, one of the eight bodhisattvas, and it is also known as a prayer made by all buddhas and bodhisattvas. The Karmapa taught:
The first section of the prayer encompasses the Seven Branch Prayer: prostrations and praise, offerings, confession, rejoicing, request to turn the wheel of Dharma, supplication not to pass into nirvana, and dedication. The purpose of the Seven Branches is to purify our mind streams, so it is very important. It is said that there are ten aspects to aspiration prayers, such as vowing to bring conduct to completion, to mature all living beings, and to wish that they all attain full awakening.
Since there was not enough time to explain all the verses, the Karmapa picked out a few key ones to focus on. The first:
May I always associate with those Who act in harmony with my own conduct. In body, speech, and mind may we behave As one in conduct and in aspirations.
This verse is important for those who have taken vows. It is important that our thoughts and conduct be harmonious and that we rejoice in each other’s positive behavior. This is especially necessary these days when people take sides and are attached to their own positions.
The second verse he mentioned is:
In that fine, joyous mandala of the Victor, I’ll take birth in a beautiful, great lotus. I also will receive a prophecy Directly from the Victor Amitabha.
This is a prayer everyone one can make, women and men, the lay and ordained. We make the wish to be reborn in the pure realm of Amitabha, which is possible if we continually make prayers and accumulate merit. Once we are born there, Amitabha will make a prophecy about when we will become a buddha.
Finally he felt that this famous verse of dedication is very important:
The brave Manjushri knows things as they are As does, in the same way, Samantabhadra. I fully dedicate all of these virtues That I might train and follow in their example.
Even if we are good at making aspiration prayers, we should take the previous bodhisattvas as an example and follow after them. They are the model to show us how to dedicate merit. Since we are not yet realized, it is difficult to make a perfect dedication. What would this be? There is no concept of a person making the dedication, the dedication itself, and the act of making it.
It is also key that we relate these prayers to the depths of our hearts and minds, so they are not just words we are saying and lovely tunes we are chanting. We must blend their meaning together with our mind and then dedicate the merit wholeheartedly for the benefit of the teachings and all living beings. This is true for all prayers we make at Kagyu Monlam.
The Gyalwang Karmapa spent the whole day at the Monlam Pavilion and attended all four sessions of the prayers.
The work of the Kagyupa International Monlam Trust
The annual Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya is organised by The Kagyupa International Trust, a charitable organisation registered in Bodhgaya, Bihar, India.
Although its main activity is the Monlam festival, it also organises various charitable activities within the Bodhgaya area to coincide with the festival. These have included free medical camps, food for the poor, distribution of blankets and rice to the poor, and work to improve the environment.
Early morning at Tergar and the Monlam Pavilion
At 4.00 am promptly the wake-up gong resounded across the Garchen, followed shortly afterwards by a loud broadcast of the Gyalwang Karmapa chanting Milarepa's aspiration prayer. The monks stirred and stumbled and coughed their way into the day.
Once more, a heavy mist lay over the land as ghostly people made their way to Mahayana Sojong at 6.00 am in the Monlam Pavilion. The morning temperature had fallen considerably and even inside the pavilion their breath misted in the cold air. From outside, the fog rolled in through its open sides. The fortunate ones among the monks and nuns were able to huddle into their dhagams— the heavy woollen cloak born of winters in Tibet—but the majority only wore regular robes and the yellow prayer robe.
Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche gave the Mahayana Sojong vows.
Gyalwang Karmapa's activities
On the second day Gyalwang Karmapa attended the second session to continue his teaching on the Three Primary Elements of the Path. He then visited the VIP kitchen and the special lunch for gelong and gelongma [fully ordained monks and nuns] in the shrine room at Tergar.
As Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche began giving the Mahayana Sojong vows, the generator malfunctioned, leading to a massive power failure; the stage and much of the pavilion were plunged into darkness. Unfazed, Rinpoche waited calmly, and resumed the Sojong ritual as soon as power was restored.
Gyalwang Karmapa's activities
Gyalwang Karmapa attended the second session and taught on "Three Primary Elements of the Path". Much of the remainder of his day was taken up by audiences.
In the afternoon a public audience with Gyalwang Karmapa was scheduled for 3.00 pm in Tergar main shrine hall. However, so many people had arrived and the crush was so great that the time of the audience was moved forward. Approximately 2000 people—the head of security commented that there were too many to count precisely — gathered for the audience. So many attended that it was necessary to set up a special security system. Those waiting were gathered on the lawn to the left of the shrine hall, where they joined a giant conga which snaked its way back and forth across the lawn until finally they reached the metal detector gate and security check. From there they had to queue once more to enter the hall. Having received a blessing, a red protection cord and a photo of Karmapa, people left from the other side. As fast as they exited, a continuous stream of others arrived, rushing around Tergar monastery to join the queue, as word of the audience spread across Bodhgaya.
Old people on walking sticks hobbled through the gates as quickly as they were able, mothers holding babies and clutching young children, youths in blue jeans, leather jackets and gelled hair, non-Tibetan sangha, Bhutanese, Sikkimese and Himalayan people in traditional dress, Tibetans, Westerners, Chinese, all thronged into Tergar; it seemed as if the whole world was represented.
Two hours later, the Karmapa went up to his quarters to begin the schedule of private audiences, mainly groups of international students from various centres world-wide.
Winter’s cloak descended on Bodhgaya several days ago when it wrapped the town in a dense and bone-chilling morning fog. This sudden drop in temperatures may have reminded international attendees that they had forsaken the holiday season in their home countries in favor of attending the Kagyu Monlam in India. But if any of them felt nostalgia for dim sum, plum pudding, or holiday cheer, you couldn’t detect it on their faces as they waited eagerly in a winding queue on the lawn of Tergar Monastery: for what better way for the 750-plus Kagyu Monlam members to spend Christmas Eve than with the glorious Gyalwang Karmapa in an hour-long audience, embraced by his warm, loving, and compassionate presence.
Karmapa began the audience by giving a transmission of the four-armed white Chenrezig practice and the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM. Then he expressed his delight that everyone was able to come and personally join in the 30th Kagyu Monlam.
As in previous years, the Karmapa reminded the group that the revival of the Kagyu Monlam in India was due to the profound noble activity of Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche and Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, as well as the dedicated work and resolve of the many others who offer support and sponsorship annually. He said that this has allowed the Kagyu Monlam to take its place on the world stage as a major spiritual event, important in both appearance and substance. Besides being webcast live from India, the Kagyu Monlam’s scope has expanded as it has become an annual event held in many countries around the world.
But such growth is fraught with the possibility of danger, warned the Karmapa, and as the Monlam becomes more elaborate its essential purpose might become distorted or lost over time. He urged the members to pay attention to this and to remember that the main function of the Monlam is to inspire a wholesome and virtuous outlook in people and to lend confidence and strength to their individual dharma paths. This is his vision for the Monlam, he said, and it should not be compromised.
He added that this vision is in accordance with the noble aspirations of the great buddhas and bodhisattvas, and that among these aspirations there are two types: those that can be realized and those that cannot. For instance, one can aspire to become a buddha and achieve that aim, but the wish to take on the suffering of all sentient beings and to share one’s experience of virtue and well-being with everyone is probably not possible. But regardless of whether our aspirations are truly attainable or not, he stressed that it is important to make our minds infinitely spacious, and replete with the attitude that if there comes a time when we can take on the suffering of others we should do so without hesitation.
The Karmapa also reminded the members to look around them and become aware of unbearable suffering others beings experience on a daily basis. For example, billions of creatures in the animal realms are suffering constantly, primarily because of us. We should feel overwhelmed by the fact that they are completely without protection and we should determine to eliminate their suffering whenever possible. He added this profound piece of advice: we should cherish others more than we cherish ourselves.
The Gyalwang Karmapa then thanked everyone for their ongoing support of the Monlam. He joked that he had attempted to become a member of Kagyu Monlam himself but since he had not kept up with his membership dues, he had not been issued a membership card this year. And he playfully thanked the organizers for this.
The Karmapa told the Kagyu Monlam members that he took their membership as a gesture of support to him personally and as an indication that they all share his aspiration and resolve for the Monlam to continue indefinitely. And finally, as a fitting conclusion to this special Christmas Eve audience, the members were invited to go up one by one to receive a personal blessing from the Gyalwang Karmapa and a small gift from all of the Kagyu Monlam organizers.