Sujata Vihar, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India — 14 February, 2017
The essence of the mahayana teachings is bodhichitta, the wish to attain full awakening so we have the capacity to truly benefit others. From the very beginning of entering the path, the focus is on others: there is not only the wish to help them but the actual engagement in specific activities. For many years now, the Kagyu Monlam has sponsored medical care for the local population, following the Karmapa’s directive: “When we do something for people, we have to do it genuinely as if we are doing it for ourselves.”
The first three days of the camp, called the Multi-Specialty Medical Camp, are held in conjunction with Max India Foundation. It has won many awards for its Corporate Social Responsibility, which focuses on healthcare for the underprivileged. Its CEO, Mohini Daljeet Singh, has come each year to Bodh Gaya to oversee the camp and meet with the Karmapa. Among the large network of Max Hospitals in India, this year she sent out a request to the Max Hospital in east Delhi, and six doctors responded with the wish to participate. Many of them had already staffed in free clinics in the Delhi area and their specialties covered pediatrics, internal medicine, family medicine, and general surgery.
Also participating in the camp are three Tibetan women doctors trained in allopathic medicine from Sikkim, and eight Tibetan nurses from Delhi and Sikkim, who are followers of the Karmapa. Finally and importantly, there are two senior doctors from the local Gaya Medical College, who will help during the camp and also with the people who need follow-up care. Near the Monlam Pavilion, easily accessible to the participants is the Tibetan Medical Camp, where Tibetan medical doctors provide free diagnosis and medicines as well as two Tibetan physiotherapists offering their services. In total, there are fifty people volunteering at the camps this year.
From the Karmapa’s Office of Administration, Lhakpa Tsering for many years now has been organizing the camp, which this time extends from February 14 to 18. The day starts at 9 am and finishes around 5 pm or when all the patients have been taken care of. To let people know about the camp, for days beforehand a vehicle with a recorded announcement has circulated through Bodh Gaya and the surrounding ten villages and leaflets in Hindi have been distributed in a five-kilometer radius.
Each year, Lhakpa Tsering explained, they have tried to develop their services and add value to what they are doing. This year, in addition to diagnosis, counseling, free medicine, and hospital referrals, they have added the awareness of preventative measures people can take to improve their health. The nurses have prepared presentations in Hindi, and in the main hall where the camp takes place, short movies are continually shown, covering topics such as the dangers of smoking, the importance of hand-washing, breast cancer and TB awareness as well as how to prevent malaria, hepatitis, and typhoid. Also new this year is free diagnostic testing on the advice of the doctors.
On this first day of the camp, some 100 people have arrived in the morning on a large white bus. Separated into lines of men and women, who often have children in their arms or by their sides, they are lined up in front of a long table where three nurses take their initial information. The patients range in age from two to ninety-one. Afterward they move inside to have their vital signs taken and then watch the informative films while waiting see a doctor. On this first day 600 people received medical care, and that number or more are expected for the remaining days.
Late in the morning the Karmapa arrived to tour the facilities and meet the staff. He was welcomed by Mohini Singh and Lhakpa Tsering, and invited inside to see the pharmacy and meet the staff. He entered each of the four offices, greeted all the doctors, and then walked across the street to visit the Akong Tulku Rinpoche Memorial Soup Kitchen, located at a Buddhist monastery near the medical camp, so that patients waiting to return home can have a meal.(**) The head monk greeted the Karmapa and they walked together to the outdoor shrine with a lovely statue of the Buddha to whom the Karmapa offered a white scarf. He then proceeded to view the kitchen, peering into the bags of cabbages and carrots and greeting the workers, before posing for a group photo with all the volunteers. With the Karmapa’s presence and blessing, there was a feeling of quiet joy that the camp had gotten off to a wonderful start.
The final day of Gutor for the Year of the Fire Monkey began at 4 in the morning when the stars were still out and the air had a chill in it. People were huddled in down jackets or wrapped up to their eyes in a thick woolen shawl. Jalings from behind the stage announced the Karmapa’s arrival, and after three bows, he took his seat on the black and gold throne to preside over the puja. One could often hear his voice blending in with the chant master’s.
The first text was the short Mahakala practice known as the Cinnabar Mahakala since the first parts to be chanted were marked off in a brilliant red from the long textBurning Up Hostilityby the Sixth Karmapa, Thongwa Dönden. At the end of this came a short section known as Receiving the Siddhi. At this time theNyingzuk, the huge main torma sculpture that represents Mahakala, was carried by several people to give its blessing, first to the Dorje Lopon who has guided the pujas during the entire time. Then it was offered to the Karmapa and Gyaltsap Rinpoche, before being placed back on the shrine.
The early morning’s program finished with an extensive smoke offering, known as Massive Clouds of Amrita, during which vast offerings imagined as filling the entire sky were made to every imaginable yidam deity, lamas, dakinis, Dharma protectors, and local deities of all kinds—a grand finale of offering and thanks to everyone.
During the break, after the smoke offering Massing Clouds of Amrita had ended on Sunday morning, the stage needed to be cleared and rearranged in order for Gyaltsab Rinpoche to bestow the Red Crown ceremony and the Long Life Empowerment of the Three Roots Combined. His Holiness the 17th Karmapa personally took charge of arranging Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s throne with great respect and care; he had received the Empowerment of the Three Roots Combined from Gyaltsab Rinpoche when he bestowed the Treasury of Precious Terma, or Rinchen Terdzo empowerments some years earlier.
Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s throne was placed directly in front of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s high throne. To the right, on an elegant golden table covered with brocade, sat a delicately wrought silver pavilion.
At last the stage was set, the gyalings blew, and the sangha returned from the break to take their seats. After several minutes, the Gyalwang Karmapa led an elderly Theravadin monk and his small entourage onto the stage. The monk was the head of the Buddhist Foundation in Bangledesh and had come bearing a special gift for the Karmapa: a Kadampa-shaped stupa bearing Atisha’s ashes. With reverence His Holiness placed the stupa inside the silver pavilion, and then took his seat on a throne to the front right of Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s. At last the time had come for the momentous occasion of the Red Crown ceremony. This would be of special historical importance since it was the first time that a Vajra Crown ceremony had ever been performed in Bodhgaya, the site of Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. Under instructions from the 17th Karmapa, the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche had agreed to perform the Vajra Crown ceremony this year during the Kagyu Monlam’s extended program.
A Brief History of the Vajra Crown Ceremony
Each lineage of Tibetan Buddhism has its own style of ceremonial hats with their own particular symbolic meanings. The hats can represent the guru, and they may represent the lineage. Sometimes they are symbols of the special noble qualities of the guru himself, as is true of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s Black Crown.
The Gyalwang Karmapas began the tradition of Vajra Crown ceremonies utilizing the Black Crown which is particular to them. Karma Pakshi, the Second Gyalwang Karmapa, stated that whoever witnesses the crown ceremony will not fall into the lower realms. Later, various Gyalwang Karmapas bestowed red crowns upon Shamar Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and Situ Rinpoche.
Thus crown ceremonies became an important aspect of the Kamtsang Kagyu lineage. Beholding the Vajra Crowns is said to grant liberation upon sight. However, this doesn’t mean that one is liberated in the very moment of seeing them, but rather that beholding the crowns plants the seed of future liberation in one’s being.
The Fifth Dalai Lama recounts in his biography of the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, that this master approached Gyalwang Wangchuk Dorje [the Ninth Karmapa (1556–1603)] and requested him to perform the Black Crown ceremony. Afterwards, the Dalai Lama asked if he could inspect the vajra crown, and when Wangchuk Dorje handed it to him, the crown remained suspended in space, prompting the Dalai Lama to exclaim that the Black Crown was quite special indeed!
When the crown ceremony is performed, participants are given an opportunity to sponsor the event. There is a tradition of requesting lamas to grant empowerments, teachings, and such ceremonies. Sponsorship is an expression of an individual’s interest in receiving what the lama is offering. Therefore, the opportunity to sponsor the crown ceremony is extended to all would-be participants.
Additionally, special blessing pills are distributed to the sponsors. In general, any of the pills can be taken at any time, and one is enough. They can also be crushed and put in liquids to share with others, including animals. Since these blessings contain very sacred substances blessed by many great masters and have been preserved for many generations, it is important to keep them in a clean place of respect and to take them with devotion.
There are several types of pills that may be distributed during the Vajra Crown Ceremony. The Pills of Immortality are especially beneficial for long life and can be eaten at any time, especially when someone is sick. The Four Relics and Other Special Substances contain a vast assortment of blessed substances from the New and Old Schools of Tibet. They can be taken anytime as a general blessing. The Pills of the Seven Births are made of samaya substances and are particularly beneficial to practitioners of the Vajrayana. The Cleansing Pills are meant to remove obstacles and negativity. They can be taken anytime and especially as a cleansing before important retreats or practices. The Resplendent Nectar Dharma Pills are considered extremely sacred and can be used in inner offerings and sacred drink during ganachakras. Further, just tasting a speck of this guarantees that one day one will attain the state buddhahood. The Seven Birth Mani Pills are blessed by masters of the practice of Chenrezig to create a positive connection to develop compassion and benefit beings.
Palchen Choling Labrang’s Elaborate Introduction to the Crown Ceremony
Next, three translators took their places on the right side of the stage to read this special announcement from Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s Labrang:
After the elaborate rituals of the Grand Mahakala Puja or the Tsechu Ritual, there is a tradition of the Gyalwang Karmapa or one of his heart sons performing a Vajra Crown ceremony. Therefore, as the elaborate offerings to the Kagyu Protectors have been auspiciously concluded, per the instruction of the Gyalwang Karmapa, His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche will now perform the Red Vajra Crown Ceremony.
Before His Eminence begins, please allow us to present a brief history of the Vajra Crowns, and the benefits of witnessing the Vajra Crown Ceremony.
Om svastiEmbodiment of the wisdom and compassion of all the victors,Avalokita at the summit of Mount Potala, The Glorious Karmapa in the Land of Snow,I prostrate to him whose fame stretches above all like a white parasol.
Vajrapani,, the vajra mind of all the victors, Ananda, the repository of the victor’s teachings, Regent of the supreme victor Karmapa, I prostrate at the feet of the great Goshir Gyaltsapa.
On account of their exceptional resolve and aspirations, the buddhas and bodhisattvas engage in inconceivable awakened activity. Among these acts that are meant to be seen and heard, is the ceremonial dawning of vajra crowns.. These sacred rituals that plant the seed of liberation upon sight, have ripened and liberated countless disciples. This tradition of performing vajra crown ceremonies, is particular to the practice lineage of the Karma Kamtsang and is exclusive to the Gyalwang Karmapas and his heart sons.
We find reference to crowns in both the vehicle of characteristics, the sutras, and in the vajra vehicle of the tantras. The sutras recount that before Sakyamuni Buddha appeared in this world, he was residing in the god realm of Tushita, where he was known as Lhai’I bu Dampa Tok Karpo. When departing the god realm for this world, he took his crown and he placed it upon the head of the victor Maitreya, thus empowering him as his regent. It is said that Maitreya currently resides in Tushita performing the first of the twelve deeds of the supreme nirmanakaya--teaching to benefit the gods.
In the secret mantrayana, through the crown empowerment of Ratnasambhava, one is enthroned as a great universal ruler, who lords over the three realms, and is placed upon the great lion throne of the utter victory of non-abiding nirvana, free from the extremes of both conditioned existence and peace.
The Black Crown of the glorious Gyalwang Karmapas was presented to him long ago, when he took birth as the sage, Konpa Kye, on the northern side of Mount Meru. At that time the buddhas empowered him with a crown fashioned of single strands of hair from 320 million dakinis. Beings whose obscurations are subtle perceive the Black Crown as ever present above the head of all the incarnations of the Gyalwang Karmapas. But for the benefit of childlike beings ensnared in a thicket of coarse obscurations, a physical Black Crown was fashioned, a symbolic representation of the true crown’s essence, and decorated with various precious gems and a gold blaze.
Each of the Gyalwang Karmapas has heart sons who are actually his emanations. As they are inseparable from him, the Gyalwang Karmapas bestowed upon them vajra crowns and commanded them to accomplish vast benefit for the teachings and beings. Together with his resolve, command of interdependence, and aspirations, the Karmapas enthroned them as Dharma Kings and thus arose the tradition of their vajra crowns.
Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s red crown originated with a prophecy. The Lotus-born Great Guru Padmasambhava prophesied to the Seventh Gyalwang karmapa Chodrak Gyatso:
If the agent of the victor’s activity—
The emanation of Karchen Pelgyi Wangchuk And Dromton Gyalwe Jungney— Dons the crown that is the command of the guru, It will create auspicious conditions For the Buddha’s teachings to flourish.
Subsequently, a red crown with a golden blze that liberates upon sight was consecrated through the practice of Lama Gondu. Having been blessed as the essence of vajra speech, Amitabha, it was placed on the head of the 2nd Gyaltsabpa, Tashi Namgyal. Gyalwang Chodrak Gyamtso then proclaimed that the mind of the teacher and student had become undifferentiated and he thus appointed Gyaltsab Tashi Namgyal as his regent to turn the wheel of dharma. He continued, saying that with the Vajra Crown remaining inseparable from the Gyaltsabpas, it will create auspicious conditions to sustain all the Buddha’s teachings in general, and in particular, the long-standing tradition that is the essence of the Practice Lineage. He then recited verses, scattering flowers of auspiciousness.
When witnessing the donning of the Vajra Crown, you should have unwavering faith in the support, the Vajra Crown, and focus one-pointedly on this exalted object. At that time and at all times, one should supplicate with devotion while meditating that the lama is the embodiment of all refuges, and situated above your head. You should sustain the mind’s natural state without altering it, and should strive to train in loving kindness, compassion, and bodhichitta. These are the attitudes to hold during the ceremony itself, and also the benefits of witnessing the ritual.
Those who possess black and red crowns, the Gyalwang Karmapas and their heart sons, are the crown jewels of the teachings and beings. By regarding them as the eyes in your forehead and the hearts in your bodies, you should rouse the three faiths: clear faith, of an utterly lucid mind that is not contaminated by any obscuration of selfish attachment or aversion, the faith that longs to truly manifest the ultimate result, and the faith of conviction welling up from the depths of your being. Giving rise to these, you should sustain the nature of mind itself, and train the mind in loving kindness, compassion, and bodhichitta.
The results of making effort in presenting clouds of offerings, in making supplications and forming aspirations when witnessing the vajra crown ceremony are as follows:
Those of supreme fortune will be grantedThe qualities of the paths and levels upon beholding it.For those of lesser fortune who have accumulated many negative actions,Witnessing the crown ceremony will eradicate misdeeds and obscurationsAccumulated over thousands of kalpas.The most desirable things of this life will be obtained according to one’s wishes.By focusing on and supplicating you,All hopes will be fulfilled accordingly.
Thus, all qualities of meditative experience and realization will arise without difficulty. All negative karma, misdeeds and obscurations will be dispelled. And all your intentions will be accomplished just as you wish. May the glorious lama’s lotus feet be firm.May happiness come to all throughout space.May I and all others gather the accumulations, remove obscurations,And swiftly be brought to buddhahood.
Following this auspicious announcement, His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche performed the Red Crown ceremony twice. At this time, the special blessing pills mentioned above were distributed to the sponsors of the ceremony, after which Rinpoche bestowed the Long Life Empowerment of the Three Roots Combined.
The Long Life Empowerment of the Three Roots Combined is one of the practices associated particularly with the Karma Kamtsang, and this is the second successive year that the empowerment has been given. Last year, His Holiness the Karmapa himself gave the empowerment, but this year it was given by Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, who originally gave the empowerment to His Holiness when he bestowed the Treasury of Precious Terma, or Rinchen Terdzo empowerments some years ago.
Before the empowerment began, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa made an elaborate body, speech, and mind offering to Gyaltsab Rinpoche. For this offering the Karmapa descended from his throne and Gyaltsab Rinpoche also came down from his throne to receive the offerings. It was a moving moment, when the two stood face to face, while the beautiful ritual offering prayer resounded in the background. After the offering was complete the Karmapa bowed deeply and reascended his throne. At this point, Gyaltsab Rinpoche returned to his seat also.
Then Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche introduced the empowerment with a brief explanation:
I’d like to ask everyone here to listen today with the attitude of bodhichitta thinking that it is for the sake of bringing all sentient beings to the state of Amitayus that you are receiving this empowerment. Today I am giving you the empowerment for the Three Roots Combined. It is a sadhana where we practice the guru as the form of Amitayus, the yidam deity in the form of Chenrezig, and the protector in the form of Bernakchan, united in a single body. When the third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje was resting in non-dual equipoise, or samadhi, at that point he received the blessings of Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, and had a pure vision of the three roots combined into a single body. He realized, he had a vision that he himself, Rangjung Dorje, was the same as the three roots. At that time the mantra of that practice also appeared in his mind. This is the pure vision that he had.
Later, the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje, when he was practicing and resting in samadhi, also had a pure vision of receiving the mantra of the three roots….Then the 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, wrote a ritual liturgy for this and practiced it as well.
Later the great terton or treasure revealer, Chokgyur Lingpa, also received this practice as a revelation or terma. The practice has the same deity and the same mantra and though the ritual is a little bit longer, otherwise it is the same. The practice that came from the mindstream of the Karmapas and the revelation of Chokgyur Lingpa are the same, and since Chokgyur Lingpa’s had some other aspects to it, all this came into the practice lineage of the Karma Kamtsang. When you receive this empowerment, since it is an empowerment of the gurus, the yidam and the dharma protectors at the same time, it is more potent and a more beneficial empowerment than other empowerments.
With that, Gyaltsab Rinpoche graciously bestowed this auspicious long life empowerment on all the fortunate ones in the assembly. At the end, dutsi and special long life pills made out of tsampa were passed out to the audience for blessing. At this point, Gyaltsab Rinpoche donned his Gampopa hat once more and a formal mandala offering was presented by the Kagyu Monlam CEO, Lama Chodrak, as well as the Karmapa’s sister, Chamsing-la, Khenpo David Chophel, Khenpo Tengye, Lama Chophel and others.
This completed the Long Life Empowerment of the Three Roots Combined.
The night session of the Mahakala puja started at 11 p.m. The pavilion was covered in deep blue drapery inscribed with golden, fiery imagery allusive of the brilliant wisdom blazing through emptiness. The blackened atmosphere of the interior blended into singularity with the quiet night outside.
Along with 5,000 monks and nuns in their usual places, about 300 determined lay practitioners remained to practice throughout the night. This night’s ritual text is called theAbridged Incinerating the Hostile(Dang ba rnam sreg las btus pa), also known as theGolden One.Rather than inducing sleep, this kind of night, with the powerful sounds of chanting and drumming, was meant to evoke lucidity and wakefulness.
Below the main statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, statues of Mahakala, Mahakali and Dorje Lekpa were guarded by an impressive, black armour flanked by golden weaponry, as if strategically placed to wage war on all human drama. The scene was reminiscent of the legend of the great protector Mahakala. The story says that his name was Gelong Deway Khorlo (Bhikshu Wheel of Joy) who belonged to the retinue of a previous Buddha named Sangye Tsuktorchan (Buddha with an Ushnisha). Having developed special cognitions and ability to perform miracles, the proud bhikshu competed with the Buddha and, naturally, lost. That caused him great disappointment, so the god Shiva appeared to him and said: “If you pray to be born as my son, I will give you dominion over the three realms.” Driven by his desire for victory, he prayed to Shiva to fulfill the prophecy. The Buddha knew of this and told him: “Except for some temporary happiness, being born as Shiva’s son has little benefit.” When the bhikshu confessed his faults, the Buddha rectified the prophecy of power into that of enlightenment saying that the bhikshu Wheel of Joy will indeed be reborn as Shiva’s son but he will generate the resolve to be fully awakened in order to benefit others and will eventually become enlightened as the Buddha Telway Wangpo. Just as the Buddha predicted, a son with very dark skin and terrifying appearance was born to Shiva and Umadevi. He possessed great power and was given the name Mahakala, the Great Black One.
The potent sounds of drums in the Pavilion exuded a sense of resoluteness calling to mind a different night of resoluteness above all other, right here in Bodhgaya. It was the night that removed the darkness of ignorance when Siddhartha Gautama sat under a tree and vowed: “Though my skin, my nerves and my bones shall waste away and my life blood go dry, I will not leave this seat until I have attained the highest wisdom, called supreme enlightenment, that leads to everlasting happiness.”
Firstly, the god Mara sent armies of temptations but Gautama did not move and, following Mara’s defeat, in the first part of the night came memories of all his past lives and in the second, the realization of truth. Once the morning star arose, it was all over. He was the awakened one.
Mahakala, who had wandered the three realms by then, came to Bodhgaya after Buddha’s awakening and made the commitment to guard the Buddha's teachings, thus becoming a powerful protector for those on the path to enlightenment.
The puja in the Pavilion continued throughout the cool night as the practitioners chanted and meditated wrapped up in blankets and jackets. Before the morning sun would bring the warmth of blessings with the familiar, powerful presence of the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, those who aspired for the benefit of others would remain in meditative poise and, with the practices of the great protector Mahakala, revel in the sea of darkness and delight.
Bangladesh is connected to two important figures in the history of Tibetan Dharma. Its town of Chittagong (formerly, Chativaho) was home to the mahasiddha Tilopa (10th to 11th century). He is the source of the Kagyu lineage and is considered the embodiment of Chakrasamvara, the main Kagyu yidam deity, whose empowerment the Gyalwang Karmapa bestowed on February 6, 2017 in the Monlam Pavilion. Bangladesh is also the birthplace of Atisha Dipankara (982-1054), the great Kadampa master who, in the latter part of his life, taught in Tibet and had a wide influence on the development of Buddhism there.
Although these days Bangladesh is mostly a Muslim country, Buddhism was the predominant faith in the area up to the 11th century, and today 3 million of its 170 citizens are Buddhist, making it the third largest religion in Bangladesh. Over 65% of the Buddhist population is concentrated in the Chittagong region, which was home to Tilopa.
HH Sanghanayaka Suddhananda Mahathero, who came to the Monlam Pavilion today, is head of Dharmarajika Buddhist Monastery and Chief Patriarch of Supreme Sangha of Mahanikaya Bangladesh. In 1978 he had traveled to China to retrieve precious Buddhist objects, which included a stupa with the precious ashes of Atisha and a very old Tibetan text of his biography in the form of a supplication, composed by Dromtönpa (1004-1064), his chief disciple and founder of the famous Kadampa lineage. The text is titled,A Supplication to Jowo Je Palden Atisha Presenting His Life Story.
The Mahathero, who is eighty-six years old, resolved to offer some of Atisha’s ashes to the Karmapa so that a connection could be made with Tibet. He created a golden replica of the original stupa and placed some of the ashes inside a slightly curved cup with a dome-shaped cover. Carrying this stupa and the text, the Mahathero made a long journey from his Dharmarajika Buddhist Monastery in Dhaka to the Monlam Pavilion in Bodh Gaya to offer the stupa to the Karmapa and show him the precious text. In the Mahatero’s entourage of some ten people were Dr. Kalyan Priya Bhikkhu, Abbot of Bangladesh Buddhist Monastery in Bodhgaya, Ranjit Kumar Barua, former Joint Secretary to the Government of People's Republic of Bangladesh, Nandita Barua, Vice President of the Women's Wing of Bangladesh Bouddha Kristi Prachar Sangha, and Wasfia Nazreen, who had organized the event.
Before coming to the Pavilion stage, the Karmapa met with the Mahathero whose personal warmth broke through the usual formalities as he gave the Karmapa a fatherly hug. Smiling, the two walked onto the stage, and the stupa was placed in a graceful silver pavilion on the Karmapa’s throne. Mahathero was offered a prominent seat while his entourage, all from Chittagong, sat nearby. After the Red Crown ceremony, he opened the stupa to show the Karmapa the cup with the ashes, and with great reverence, the Karmapa placed it on his head, and then on Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s as well. The Karmapa was also offered a thangka of the three deities of long life—Amitayus, White Tara, and Ushnisha Vijaya—and the Karmapa in turn offered the Mahathero a magnificent statue of the Buddha. There was a warm feeling of friendship during this time on stage, and the sense that these precious relics of the great Atisha will have a special place on the Karmapa’s shrine.
Entering the Pavilion one was struck by the long tables framing one side of the entrance, laid with hundreds of impressive terra cotta place settings. Tonight’s program was billed as a Grand Garchen Losar Feast and Chakrasamvara Ganachakra. It certainly seemed like a great feast was in store for all.
At 7:30pm the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa took his seat on a low throne on the stage with a medium-sized Buddha statue behind and above him. Stage decorations consisted of a Losar chema arrangement to his right and a large ram’s head and another Losar chema arrangement to his left. The chemaarrangements consist of ornate wooden boxes heaped with tsampa (roasted barley flour); fresh stalks of barley, wheat, and other grains; and butter sculpture offerings mounted on gold plaques. These arrangements symbolize prosperity and abundant harvests in the year to come and are standard Losar decorations in monasteries. A row of yellow stage lights beamed down upon the Karmapa, lending an air of majesty to the setting.
The evening’s festivities took place in the context of a ganachakra, a tantric feast. This puja started right away with a ganachakra text written by the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje. The first part of the text was chanted before the entertainment began.
On either side of the stage, large screens displayed the words of the puja. Then the stage lights shifted from yellow to blue, as the program segued from the puja to the evening’s cultural program.
The central screen displayed a beautiful shot of the Mahabodhi Stupa. Soft music played in the background as a monastic choir filed on to fill the stage. With Khenpo David Karma Choephel conducting, they performed a beautiful song of praise to the Three Jewels that His Holiness the Karmapa had translated from the Chinese.
Afterwards, the two Master of Ceremonies dressed in finery, Ngodrup Tsering and Sherab Tharchin, took the stage to provide the context for the evening’s events and to introduce the performances. Meanwhile, scores of young Indian waiters in uniform white shirts and blue caps issued forth and formed rows to serve the delicious dinner to the audience. This service was carried out in an orderly and timely fashion so that over the course of the next hour, thousands of guests were served a resplendent meal, reminiscent of a five-star hotel dining experience.
Now the entertainment program was in full swing. To justify the inclusion of worldly performances with the spiritual ones, the announcers shared the following quote by the great Tibetan siddha-scholar Karma Chakme:
“When practicing Dharma, the spiritual and worldly views are opposed. When benefiting beings, aside from the difference in intention, the worldly and spiritual are in union.”
Also in the King of Samadhi Sutra, Buddha said:
Always make the best of offerings without compare: Many types of excellent songs, dance, Assorted joyful speech, music, And garlands of lamps and incense.
Understanding the significance of these performances, we will now commence with the cultural programs, seeing them as a great cloud of offerings to please the buddhas.”
1. The first, from the birthplace of the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, was a song called Tendrel Cho Yang, “A Dharma Melody of Interdependence.” This was performed by performers from the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts (TIPA).
2.On the video screens appeared the famous Tibetan singer Mr Yadung who sang Tendrel Yod, a song in praise of His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa.
3. A Ladakhi song performed by singers and dancers from Ladakh
4.The Dance of Dome was performed by artists of the Central Tibetan Administration. This famous song and dance from Eastern Tibet is also known as “Making Aspirations to Be Born in This Land.”
5. The song, Karmapa, an homage to the Gyalwang Karmapa was performed by another of Tibet’s famous singers Ms Lu Mo-Tsho.
6. A Sikkimese song performed by men and women performers from Sikkim.
7. Another video of a very well-known singer from the land of snow, Sherten-la performing his song,The Prince of Peace.
8. A traditional dance from Arunachal Pradesh was performed by a group of young women and men from that region.
9. Ms Rikdzin Drolma, another of Tibet’s famous artists, sang her song A Supplication of Faith, which is praise to His Holiness, the Gyalwang Karmapa.
10. “Song and Dance of Central Tibet” performed by members of TIPA.
11. Ms Tsewang Lhamo, another of Tibet’s famous singers, will perform her song, Words of Aspiration in Praise of the His Holiness the Karmapa.
12. A traditional Bhutanese song performed by a group of performing artists from Bhutan.
13. Mr Sherten and Ms Tsewang Lhamo performed a duet, another song of praise to His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa.
14. The Great Drikpa Song of Tsang performed by artists from TIPA.
Several of these were live performances and others were video performances projected on the two large screens each side of the Monlam stage. These moving spiritual music videos featured recorded footage of the performers singing interspersed with video clips of the 17th Karmapa granting blessings in a variety of settings, such as during large empowerments.
At last, the time had come for the evening to wind down. This night of extraordinary enjoyments concluded with the ending verses of the Chakrasamvara Feast puja, followed by prayers of dedication and auspiciousness, after which, devotees streamed out of the Pavilion with happy hearts and full stomachs.
The protector Sangharama, also known by the name Guan Yu or Guan Gong, is a Chinese deity but also one of the protectors of the Karmapa’s Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet.
The connection between Sangharama and the Karmapa lineage began when the 5th Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa, travelled to China at the invitation of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Sangharama, a local Chinese deity who lived on a mountain, was so impressed by the Karmapa, he decided to follow Deshin Shekpa back to Tsurphu Monastery, where the Karmapa offered him a new home on one of the mountains behind the monastery. It then became the tradition at Tsurphu to offer a practice to Sangharama each Losar. When the 16th Karmapa fled Tibet, the ritual was lost. The 17th Karmapa wrote a new liturgy, the one performed today, which uses both Tibetan and Chinese.
1.Prostrations to Lokeshvara (Chinese) 2. Like stars, or seeing spots, or candles...” (Chinese) 3. Refuge and bodhichitta (Chinese) 4. The four immeasurables (Chinese) 5. Self-visualization and invitation of guests (Tibetan) 6. Incense offering (Chinese) 7. Request to be seated (Tibetan) 8. Visualization of the guests (Tibetan) 9. Praises of Sangharama (Chinese) 10. Offerings (Tibetan) 11. Smoke offering (Tibetan) 12. Rejoicing (Chinese) 13. Invoking activity (Chinese) 14. Invoking activity (Tibetan) 15. Request to depart (Tibetan) 16. Dedications and aspirations (Chinese) 17. Auspicious prayers (Tibetan)
For the Gyalwang Karmapa, the Tibetan New Year began in the first hours of the day, as he met in the Tergar Monastery shrine hall with tulkus, khenpos, and masters from various monasteries and received their khatas. In return he gave them his blessing and a traditional bright red cord. The monks recited prayers for peace in the world and the flourishing of the teachings as well as the very long life of the Karmapa. Afterward the entire monastic and lay Sangha gathered at 4:30 am in the Monlam Pavilion for a special long-life practice based on theThree Roots Combined, calledA Life-Force Indestructible like a Vajra. The practice was led by the Karmapa’s heart son, Gyaltsap Rinpoche, who had bestowed this empowerment the previous day.
In February of 2016 the Karmapa had also given this empowerment, and at the time commented on its importance for his Kamtsang Kagyu lineage. The short lineage is traced back to a text based on the pure visions of the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339). The Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje (1507–1554) also practiced theThree Roots Combinedand stated that through it, “especially pure visions and dreams appeared in my experiential awareness.” Mikyo Dorje expanded the practice, and the Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje (1556–1603) created an extensive sadhana by supplementing Kamtsang practices with those from the Nyingma tradition.
Later the treasure revealer Chöje Lingpa (1682–1725) discovered a terma of theThree Roots Combined, which resembled that of the Kamtsang tradition. It was this newer tradition that the Kamtsang masters came to use, so the original version almost disappeared. To revive the tradition, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813–1899) included the Kamtsang lineages of the empowerment and reading transmission in hisTreasury of Precious Terma. The Karmapa said that he had received these empowerments from Gyaltsap Rinpoche, and among the hundreds of initiations, it was this one of theThree Roots Combinedthat gave him a special feeling. The Karmapa added, “Since the Three Roots Combined constitutes an exceptional and profound text of the Karmapa’s tradition, I’ve taken a particular interest in it and made efforts to find the old texts.” Through his research, the Karmapa has found almost all of the texts.
The Karmapa also summarized an explanation of theThree Roots Combined: the aspect of thelamais Tsepakme; the aspect of theyidamis the great compassionate one, Chenrezik; and the aspect of the Dharmaprotectoris the wisdom protector Mahakala. In this way, all the three roots are complete in one form. Mikyo Dorje stated, therefore, that even if you have not received other empowerments, with this single one you would be able to care for and guide students. The Karmapa added that Mikyo Dorje gave this long-life practice another name, “Not a Lie” because it arose from a pure vision. [More about the Empowerment and Practice of the Three RootsCombined].
Today’s puja began with Gyaltsap Rinpoche leading the practice in the Monlam Pavilion. After having visualized and made offerings to the yidam deity, he left to escort His Holiness into the Pavilion, accompanied by music resembling that played for inviting a yidam deity to be present. After the Karmapa took his seat on the throne, a very long and wide, white silk scarf was offered and remained in a half circle around him. Gyaltsap Rinpoche then connected five subtly colored scarves to the Karmapa by tucking the ends underneath the cloth on which the Karmapa sat while the other ends extended in a long, gentle curve to a semi-circle of five tables draped in cloth of the same color and holding a torma of a similar hue. Behind each of the five tables stood a dakini dancer, related to the family of that particular color.
Gyaltsap Rinpoche remained standing to make the extensive offerings, first to the dakinis of the five directions. With each one, the dakini dancer carried her torma down the central aisle to be offered outside. The text relates that she is surrounded by a 100,000 of her kind, expanding the dimension of the offering into vast space. After praises and offerings to each dakini, their scarf is imagined to dissolve into space and requests are made for them to perform various activities, such as extending the lama’s life, assisting in his activities, and bringing well-being and peace to the world.
At the end of the ceremony, Gyaltsap Rinpoche offered the Karmapa amrita from the kapala and then the long-life vase, and finally a round column of long life pills. All of them have been blessed by Gyaltsap Rinpoche, the practice, and the combined aspirations of everyone present. After the dakinis, extensive offerings were made to the Karmapa, including the eight auspicious substances, the eight auspicious symbols, and the seven articles of royalty. Their purpose is to extend his life and facilitate his beneficial activities throughout the world.
The mandala of giving thanks was followed by a long line of offerings from the Kagyu Monlam Committee. Tashi prayers followed to spread the goodness and benefits of the practice to all parts of the universe: “May all be auspicious through the body, speech, and mind of the Victorious Ones.” Holding fragrant incense, Gyaltsap Rinpoche escorted the Karmapa off the stage for a short break before the public audience.
While the stage was being reorganized, tea servers spread throughout the audience and the head monk read out thanks to the sponsors. Over the loudspeakers, it was announced that the Karmapa would bless each and everyone who had come and that they all would have a chance to offer him a khata. The Karmapa returned to his throne and received the second long line of offerings from, among others, the Tsurphu Labrang, Gyaltsap and Bokar Rinpoches’ Labrangs, as well as the Karmapa Khyenno Foundation.
Afterward, the first of the 6,000 people from the lay Sangha, followed by the ordained Sangha, offered their khatas and passed in front of the Karmapa, who blessed the top of their head with an elegant silk tassel at the end of a rod while the gyalings played in the background. As a young incarnation at Tsurphu, the Karmapa also blessed people in a similar way as his throne was very tall and it would have been difficult to reach each person. Today it was a way to allow all the participants to come close to him. After some two and a half hours, everyone had received the Karmapa’s blessing, a wonderful way to usher in the New Year.
Each year senior students from Tibetan Children’s Village Suja, in Bir Tibetan Settlement Himachal Pradesh, come cheerfully to Bodhgaya to serve at the Kagyu Monlam. These are the Monlam’s Dharmapalas, the protectors of the Buddhadharma.
Their numbers have grown over the years as their duties have expanded and their invaluable contribution to the smooth running of the Monlam has been recognised. This year 100 students have come, equally divided between boys and girls. The youngest is fifteen years old and the oldest is twenty. Their main responsibility is supporting the work of the security team; they help run the check-points and supervise all the entrances to restricted areas within the Monlam Pavillion. In addition, when the stage has to be changed for the next puja, they will be there, helping the young monks to heft heavy furniture or moving mattresses and seats. But you will also see them interacting with little children, fetching chairs for the elderly or helping to push someone in a wheelchair to a better place where they can see the stage, and generally helping out. The motto of the TCV school organisation is “Others before self”, and these young people can truly be said to put it into action.
Each year they form an important part of the Garchen, the Great Encampment of the Karmapas, and have their own allocation of six large blue tents. Inside each tent, students have individual net tents to protect them against the mosquitoes which plague Bodhgaya and carry malaria.
It is difficult to conceive of the situation in which many of these young Tibetans find themselves. The majority of them have come from Tibet in order to have a better chance in life and a comprehensive education. In order to do this, they have had to make great personal sacrifices, leaving behind their family, their friends and the way of life they knew.
Tenzin, for example, is from Lhasa and has been in India for eight years. During that time, he tells how he never had a chance to go on holiday until he was given the opportunity to come to Bodhgaya as a Dharmapala. “I am so grateful to His Holiness, “he said. “He gave us all the chance to get out of school and see the world.”
Tsering is also from Lhasa. He told how his mother had brought him to India when he was only five years old because the situation in his family and in Tibet was not good at that time. He is now eighteen years old and has only had contact with his mother once during those thirteen years. He has no other family in India, so while he was growing up, school holidays were particularly difficult. Other children in his hostel had relatives to visit during the long two- month winter holiday, and with whom they could celebrate Tibetan New Year. But Tsering and those without relatives in India had nowhere to go. They had to stay at school.
He praised the housemother in his hostel who had been like a real mother to him, and also the Karmapa, who has taken such an interest in the young people at Suja School.
“He visits every year and stays with us,” Tsering said proudly. “He speaks with us, and he really cares for us. He has made it possible for me to have a holiday in this sacred place.” This is Tsering’s third and final year at the Monlam. Next year he will have to stay back to study for his school leaving certificate examinations, with the hope that he will do well enough to win a scholarship to university. For now, he is just exceedingly happy and full of gratitude that he was given the chance to come yet again to Bodhgaya and didn’t have to spend the winter holiday at school.
This joy at being in Bodhgaya and the Monlam is evident on the faces of all the Dharmapalas. Sometimes they have to be on duty from 2.30am until late at night, but there are never any complaints. As one of the teachers, said, “This year is better than ever. It’s going very well. Each year it gets better and runs more smoothly because we have more experience.”
On the first day of Losar, the Dharmapalas had to be on duty by 3.00am as monks, nuns and laypeople arrived for the 4.00am puja. Each had received a special Losar gift from His Holiness the Karmapa. The boys now wore a new chuba in heavy black brocade and long-sleeved white silk shirt. The girls wore traditional, sleeved chubas in deep blue brocade and subtly colour-coordinated with pale- blue silk blouses.
These clothes will be theirs to keep; an expression of the Karmapa’s gratitude to them for their service and an acknowledgement of their shared experience as child refugees, cut off at a young age from home and family, ‘strangers in a strange land’.
On the second day of Losar, His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa acknowledged all those who share the responsibility, happiness and burden of his Office of Administration, the Tsurphu Labrang, and those who work in organising the extensive Kagyu Monlam. This ceremony, known also as the Row Ceremony because everyone is seated in rows in front of the Karmapa, was a part of the Tsurphu Monastery Losar tradition. It was a blend of a lavish Tibetan style banquet and a carefully executed monastic ceremony.
On the screen, the sky with rushing clouds covered the main wall, creating an impression that this great gathering was being held under the open skies of Tibet and a huge white decorated ram’s head placed in the center, signified auspiciousness for the next year.
The decoration of the Pavilion was much simpler as the focus shifted to the performances on the stage where rows of traditional benches were set up, like an unfolded fan, for the staff to be seated. His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa was seated in the center of the stage, beside him sat H.E. Goshir Gyaltsap Rinpoche. To the left of the stage sat the senior lay staff of the labrang and the Monlam, extending into the left wing with the remaining permanent lay Monlam staff. Rinpoches, tulkus and khenpos sat on the right side of the stage; behind them, the high-ranking monks from different monasteries sat on the tiers of the right wing.
His Holiness had requested all international staff to wear traditional dress from their own countries, in acknowledgement of the diversity of their cultures. All staff were seated at small tables laden with abundant offerings of kapsey and sweets, placed alongside unusually large tea bowls which had to be lifted using both hands.
The auspicious tea ceremony started when a row of monks in red and gold appeared with large, intricately decorated wooden jugs from which they poured tea into the comically large tea bowls. A wave of laughter broke out throughout the Pavilion as Bokar Rinpoche Yangsi drank from the bowl, disappearing entirely behind it, only his small hands showing.
At the beginning of the performances, the monks from Thrangu monastery chanted prayers to His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa, esteemed rinpoches, monks and nuns, the lay staff and the rest of the audience. Following them, members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts offered a beautiful sword dance. The next session was a spirited traditional Dharma discussion reprising a debate held at Dege. They discussed the spreading of Buddhism in India and Tibet in loud voices following the traditional style. Together, the monks and nuns from different Thrangu monasteries from India and Nepal continued with their harmonious chanting. They ended with the performance of “Three Men from Kham”, a song about the three special students of Gampopa named Dorgyal, Shogom, and Use (another name of Dusum Khyenpa, the First Karmapa). Then came turn for monks to debate. Now, the professional debaters, monks from Sherabling Monastery and Bokar Shedra, held a traditional style debate about generating bodhicitta.
Following the prayers for the long life of the masters and aspirations for well-being and auspiciousness, the entire ceremony came to an end with yet another tradition —packing huge amounts of kapsey for each member of the staff. After that, everyone dispersed to get ready for the exciting celebrations and ceremonies which would follow on the next three evenings.
The ritual preceding the Cham—an offering of the Fifth Shamar’s abridged form of the Sixth Karmapa’s textIncinerating the Hostile—began at 11.00pm on the 24th February. Vigorous chanting accompanied by the beat of both large temple drums and hand-held drums, punctuated by a crescendo of cymbals,gyalins, great horns and the wailing ofkanglins[thigh-bone trumpets] could be heard all night across the vast grounds of the Garchen, the Monlam Pavilion and Tergar Monastery. Finally, at 5.30am the ritual finished, exactly on time.
The stage was set for the next major event of the Gutor, the great Cham dance.
On one level this ritual dance, unique to Tibetan Buddhism and performed only by monastics, might seem a colourful spectacle set to a strange cacophony of instruments, drums, and the human voice. In fact, within the Tibetan Buddhist world, Cham is far from entertainment. Rather it is a profound form of meditation which opens up the possibility of experiencing the sacred. For the audience, It falls into a category of spiritual experience known asthongdrolin which the veils which obscure the clear light of the natural state of mind momentarily fall away to give a glimpse of the true nature of phenomena. For the dancers, it is a prolonged meditation in which they visualise themselves as the deity or Dharma protector.
Both the performers and the audience are intended to approach the dance in a meditative state.
At 6.30am, the Gyalwang Karmapa, seated on stage wearing his black activity hat, blessed all the dancers who would take part one-by-one. While they changed into their costumes, His Holiness spoke to the audience about the Cham dance they were about to see. He explained:
As the dancers are imagining themselves as the deity, they think that all the physical motions they make are the expressions of the deity or the deity’s motions. Likewise, the spectators of a lama dance should not think of lama dancing as an ordinary performance or ordinary dance. If you know how to practice the mantra, it is important to train in the pure perception connected with tantric practice and think that you are actually seeing the deity, meditating on faith. Purifying ourselves of the fixation on ordinary appearances is of primary importance in the mantra, so it is very important for the performers of lama dance to try to block the fixation on ordinary appearances and for the spectators as well to put effort into blocking fixation on ordinary appearances.
The Karmapa then gave details of the history and significance of the three major dances to be performed during the day, pointing out that today was unusual in that:
Today during the first dance, the Female Guardians of the Gate, a few extra dances will be inserted in order to restore any violations of samaya. When the Black Hat Drum Dance is performed at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, the Female Guardians of the Gate and Shingkyong are not usually performed along with it, but today is different and we will perform the Female Guardians at the beginning and Shingkyong at the end.
The Gyalwang Karmapa observed the dances from the penultimate tier on the right wing of the stage. Seated next to him were Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Shiwa Lha Rinpoche, and Bokar Yangsi Rinpoche, opposite him, on the left wing with the musicians, in perfect symmetry, sat the young Drupon Dechen Rinpoche, reincarnation of the abbot of Tsurphu.
But before the Cham began, the great Hazhel torma was escorted in a great procession by monks from Rumtek Monastery and lay members of Tsurphu Labrang from its booth onto a platform at the front of the stage . The Vajra Master, dressed as the Go-Ma (Guardian of the Gate), swirled a black cloth to keep any spirits from escaping as the Hazhel was moved.
Then began the Go-Ma Cham, a solo dance by the Vajra Master from Rumtek Monastery, representing the Four Female Gatekeepers. Each gatekeeper has a different weapon to ensnare the ‘enemy’ of ego-clinging and thrust it into the effigy at her feet, concealed by a red cloth. It is caught with a hook, captured with a lasso, bound in chains, and intoxicated with the sound of the bell. This effigy will be burnt later along with the Hazhel. As the Karmapa had said, the Go-Ma dance this year also incorporated the Deer Dance, the Dance of the Demons, and the Skeleton Dance. The latter are the four Lords of the Charnel Ground. Immediately they appear, the music changes, clashes of cymbals transform into the jangle of jiggling bones. The tight-fitting costumes marked with lines for bones are quite life-like, particularly the red-gloved hands, empty fingers dangling and painted white to resemble finger bones. Reminders of the Chöd practice, these skeletons too are warriors in the battle against ego-clinging.
The second major dance was the Black Hat Drum Dance performed by Benchen Monastery. It was to be the principal dance of the day and took more han five hours to perform. Based on a pure vision of Mahakala experienced by the Sixth Karmapa Thongwa Dönden, when he was only six or seven years old, the dance originated at Tsurphu and became part of the Karma Kamtsang tradition. As the 17th Karmapa pointed out:
If you watch the dance closely, you will see that there are some child-like movements, and this is because he choreographed it when he was just a child.
Additionally, this was an historic occasion:
This the first time that the great Mahakala Puja—the longest Mahakala puja—and Black Hat Drum Dance choreographed by the Sixth Karmapa Thongwa Dönden have been performed together in the Noble Land of India. You could also safely say that it probably also hasn’t happened in Tibet either for two or three hundred years.
The tradition of the dance was almost lost following the disaster which befell Tibet in 1959. Fortunately, the lineage of the dance was preserved in Tibet at TsaTsa Monastery and in exile by Tenga Rinpoche at Benchen Monastery, Nepal. It was Tenga Rinpoche who learned that the dance had been preserved at Tsa Tsa Monastery, near Derge in Kham, and suggested that the Karmapa contact them. After some research, it was discovered that there were some differences between the Benchen and TsaTsa versions of the dance, but as TsaTsa had all the text and instructions complete with a history of the lineage which proved it came from Tsurphu, they had decided to follow the TsaTsa tradition. Tsa Tsa Monastery had then sent a video of the dance for the Karmapa to study. In this way, it had been possible to follow the authentic tradition and revive it at Benchen.
Because it takes so long and requires so much energy, the dance was punctuated by short breaks during which the dancers were fed saffron rice and rich Tibetan butter tea to keep their strength up.
Just after 2.00pm, the covers on the Mahakala and Mahakali images were removed so that the Gyalwang Karmapa assisted by Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche could make the libation offering—theserkyem. His Holiness threw the great cup—attached to coloured ribbons of green, blue, white, yellow and red, signifying the five Buddha families—high into the lap of the magnificent Mahakala.
The end of the Black Hat Drum Dance segued without a break into theDance of Throwing the Torma. This Cham was choreographed by the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, based on the Mamo Tantra from the Nyingma tradition.
Then began the final rituals involving the Hazhel torma. The Black Hat Dancers with Drums danced down the aisle, facing this way and then that, as far as the entrance to the pavilion but no further. The great Hazhel of Mahakala, carried on a pallet by twelve monks, made its way slowly in a grand procession out of the Monlam Pavilion and into a field at the back, where a twenty-foot-high, triangular pyramid of hay had been prepared. It was placed inside the pyramid along with the effigy and invocations were chanted. At this point, the concentrated power of the Hazhel was released in an explosion of spiritual power known as thetorma attack. This destroys the accumulation of negativity and obstacles ‘trapped’ in the effigy. The pyramid was set on fire and immediately burned fiercely. As long tongues of flame leapt out, spectators backed away. Swiftly, the blaze reduced the Hazhel and the effigy to a pile of ash.
The final dance of the Cham, Shingkyong, was performed by a second group of monks from Benchen Monastery. Shingkyong is the lion-faced protector in the retinue of Four-Armed Mahakala. He is said to be an emanation of Chakrasamvara and of Four-Armed Mahakala, and became a protector of the Karma Kamtsang during the time of Karma Pakshi.
However, there was a specific reason why Benchen Monastery performed the dance. As His Holiness explained:
Shingkyong is considered a particular, important protector of Benchen monastery. So I have asked them to perform Shingkyong today so that the rebirth of Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche may return quickly and to pacify all the omens of obstacles to that occurring.
Since the previous Monlam, the monks of Benchen Monastery have been engaged in various pujas prescribed by His Holiness to remove these obstacles, and everyone prayed that through the positive effect of these different activities Rinpoche’s reincarnation could now be found.
The Main Shrine Hall, Tergar Monastery, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India
On this first day of the 4th Arya Kshema Winter Gathering, the Karmapa welcomed 560 nuns from nine different shedras (scholastic colleges) and their teachers, along with large groups of nuns from Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and China as well as a few from the West plus the community of laywomen. From March 6 to 18, the shedra nuns will be participating in the thirteen days of teachings, debate, and ritual ceremonies.
The Karmapa noted that there are two special aspects to this year’s event. First of all, the nuns from seven shedras will be competing for the first time. The judges will be three Geshemas, nuns who have recently passed all the exams after years of intense study of the major treatises and received the equivalent of the Geshe degree from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa remarked that having these brilliant nuns as judges indicates our respect for them and also inspires other nuns to attain the highest level of excellence.
Secondly, after years of research and discussion, the Karmapa related, we will start the historic path to full ordination for nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This year Dharmagupta nuns from Nan Lin Nunnery in Lantou on the west coast of Taiwan will assist in giving the Getsulma (novice) vows which will be held for one year. Afterward the Gelopma (special vows), which are held for two winters or two summers, will be given, and finally the full ordination of the Gelongma vows. The Karmapa emphasized the importance of following a graduated path and going carefully step-by-step to build a strong foundation.
The Karmapa then returned to Gampopa’sOrnament of Precious Liberationpicking up where he had stopped last year—the section on the ceremony for taking the bodhisattva’s vow from the ninth chapter on the “Proper Adoption of Bodhichitta.” He reminded his listeners that there are two lineages for taking the vows: one passes from Manjushri through Nagarjuna and the other from Maitreya through Asanga. The first one is usually associated with the Middle Way school and the second with the Mind Only school. The Karmapa stated, however, that this implies a hierarchy with the Middle Way being considered superior, so it is better to refer to the two as the lineage of the profound view and the lineage of vast conduct.
The ceremony for lineage of the profound view is further divided into two: a ceremony in the presence of a guru and not. When, as King Amba Manjushri was taking the vows, he did so in a ceremony without a guru. This is described here inthe Ornament of Precious Liberationas it is in Atisha’sLamp for the Path of Enlightenment. However, the scriptures on the bodhisattva vehicle state that it should not be too easy to take these vows. We should exert ourselves in searching for a guru, and if we are not successful, we can take the vows in a ceremony without one. Further, we may have found an authentic teacher, but in order to serve them, there may be a danger to one’s life or vows of chase conduct. Since this is the same as not finding a guru, in this situation we can also take the vows without a lama.
Referring again to King Amba, the Karmapa explained that the king had made offerings to the Buddha called Melody of Thunder for many years. When it came time to dedicate the merit, the king had wanted to do so for the sake of achieving the level of a sravaka or pratyekabuddha arhat. Then a voice from the sky encouraged him, “You must dedicate the merit to achieving buddhahood.” Following this advice, King Amba gave rise to genuine bodhichitta. The words he spoke, or the ceremony he performed, are found in the sutra calledEstablishing the Pure Realm of Manjushri, which is part of the Ratnakutra sutras. This is the ceremony we can do when not finding a guru.
Regardless of whether the ceremony is with or without a lama, we must first train our minds in aspirational bodhicitta so that it is not mere words, but comes from the depth of our heart. This is the actual basis for taking the vows. At a minimum, for one week beforehand, we should train our minds in bodhichitta through the pith instructions on cause and effect or in the practice of exchanging ourselves for others or the equality of self and other. Of course, it would be difficult to generate authentic bodhichitta in one week, but at least this training will create imprints in our mind. On the other hand, if we cannot say for sure what bodhichitta is, if it remains some intellectual fabrication and we merely repeat the words of the ceremony, it would be difficult to say that we have truly received the vow.
The Kadampa spiritual friend Potowa explained the stages of the practice. First we meditate to recognize that all living beings are our mothers and then feel gratitude to them for their kindness. This can bring about great love, and from this, comes great compassion. Then we can find the extraordinary intention that leads to the generation of bodhichitta.
The Kadampa master Netsulpa said the only way to bring perfect benefit to others and ourselves is to achieve buddhahood. As long as we remain in samsara, we cannot even accomplish our own aims to say nothing of benefitting others. Shravakas and pratyekabuddhas are able to partially accomplish their own aims, but they are unable to benefit others. Achieving full awakening, which comes about due to bodhichitta, is the only way that we can spontaneously benefit both self and others.
The causal chain leading to bodhichitta travels back through compassion to loving kindness, to gratitude for others’ kindness and to recognizing that they have been our mothers. This, in turn, depends on entering the view of the transitory collections, meaning that one has the view of a self (that longs to benefit others). This is said to be the tathagatas’ love. Geshe Sharwa’s explanation is basically the same as this sequence of causes, though he phrased it differently.
So rousing bodhichitta comes out of various causes and conditions, not just a single cause, and it is important to train our mind in these and develop bodhichitta in stages. Whether we are discussing Nagarjuna’s tradition of the profound view or Asanga’s tradition of vast conduct, the necessity of first training our mind remains the same.
The Karmapa then gave a reading transmission up to the third point, Taking the Special Form of Refuge. Afterward, he turned to speak about issues related directly to the nun’s gathering. It is said that our greatly compassionate teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha sacrificed one third of his lifespan so that the teachings would flourish and remain a long time. Some 2,600 years have gone by since he passed away, and until now, the teachings have remained continuous in the world, bringing great benefit and happiness to many beings. Included in the third of his lifespan that the Buddha sacrificed for the teachings are the teachings for the nuns, or those with a female body, so they could practice the three trainings or the three vows.
How we know this is based on theDharma BlazeAspiration,which is actually from a sutra taught by the Buddha called,the Sutra of the Essence of the Moon. This was not translated into Tibetan, but Atisha quoted from it in hisCompendium of the Sutrasand his citation included theDharma Blaze Aspiration. At the end of this aspiration, there are two lines: “May my retinue flourish” and “May my retinue be respected.” The Tibetan, however, simply says, “My retinue,” and it is not clear what this means. Fortunately,the Sutra of the Essence of the Moonwas fully translated into Chinese during the sixth century.
In this version, we findthe Dharma Blaze Aspirationand also an explanation of “my retinue” as indicating the four types of retinue (bdag ‘khor rnam bzhi). The aspiration states, “May my retinue be respected through the power of bringing into the proper view those who had previously held the wrong views of the extremists.”Retinuehere refers to the four types of retinue: the fully ordained monks and nuns as well as the laymen and laywomen. In brief, there are two groups of monastics and two groups of householders. The Buddha was making the aspiration that by the power of his declaring words of truth, may his four types of retinue flourish. This alone shows us clearly that the Buddha had the aspiration or hope that the community of fully ordained nuns would flourish.
It is sometimes said in Tibetan groups or in Buddhist centers that if women become nuns, it will harm the teachings. The same thing is also said about instituting the gelongma vows. However, if these steps would really harm the Dharma, the Buddha would not have wished for the nuns to flourish. If we think about these matters, we have to consider them in a spacious and broad-minded way.
The Karmapa closed out the morning with advice to the nuns on how to compete in debate without falling prey to worldly aversion and attachment. He suggested they remember that debate is for blending the Dharma with their mind. It is also good to relax a little bit to make their minds peaceful. The Karmapa offered his hopes and prayers that the Arya Kshema Winter Gathering would be virtuous in the beginning, the middle, and the end. The assembly then recited the Third Karmapa’sAspiration of Mahamudra, a profound text on the nature of mind, which, in its focus on the ultimate nature, parallelsthe Heart Sutrachanted at the beginning of the teachings. Both texts describe and celebrate the perfection of wisdom embodied by women.
Currently, many preparations are underway for the Getsulma (novice) ordination to be held during this 4th Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering. The Karmapa plans to hold the ordination on the auspicious full moon day of Chötrul Duchen, the historic day that marks fifteen days after Losar and commemorates the time when the Buddha performed a different miracle each day to instill devotion. As the Karmapa mentioned during the first day of the Arya Kshema, this year initiates the historic path to the process of full ordination, which will occur in stages over several years. This is a well-thought process that grants nuns the opportunity to practice the authentic vinaya path. They will take the Getsulma vows in the tradition of a strictly observant tradition of Mahayana Vinaya nuns, thus garnering respect for their sangha and demonstrating their life-long commitment to their vows. Since there is no lineage for fully ordained nuns in the Tibetan tradition under the Mulasarvastivada vinaya, the Karmapa has collaborated with the nuns from Nan Ling nunnery in Taiwan who follow the Mahayana tradition under the Dharmagupta vinaya. These nuns practice the strictest form of the vinaya attending to vows such as not eating after noon and not traveling alone.
In preparation for the ordination, nuns from Nan Ling nunnery including the Khenmo, who gives the vinaya, and the Lopon, who teaches the vinaya, have been teaching nineteen Tibetan nuns from six different nunneries the vinaya and the proper rituals for the ceremony. The day prior to the ordination ceremony, the nuns will participate in a confession ceremony, repenting to remove any obstacles in the path. Both this process of purification and the ritual ceremony itself are crucial aspects of generating the Getstulma vow. As described by one of the nuns, since these vows are part of the form skandha, the nuns who take these vows are like vessel, and there is a form that comes into this vessel the moment the nun receives the ordination. Due to this, there is significant effort and considerable planning and preparation to ensure that the nuns receive the vow exactly.
To do so, there have been many democratic procedures in place. The Khenmo cannot simply give the ordination. First, she makes a request to the Gelongma sangha to give the ordination from the Gelongma sangha. If this Gelongma sangha agrees that the Khenmo give an ordination, she then tells the Gelongma sangha about the nuns to whom she will give the Getsulma ordination. The Gelongma sangha, therefore, has to prove that these nuns qualify to receive the vow and the nuns themselves must demonstrate their willingness and preparedness to take the vow.
Many of the nuns taking these vows have been practicing nuns for thirty years or more, but when they take this vow, the are committing to studying from the beginning as if they are nuns from day one. This means they are learning everything from how to bow and how to walk. The Karmapa has confidence in the abilities of the nuns and he knows that they are capable of committing to practicing the strictest form of the vinaya. By doing this, the nuns will generate respect for the sangha. It also demonstrates both the sanctity of the vow and commitment of these nuns for benefitting future generations of nuns. After holding these Getsulma vows for more than one year, they will take the Gelopma vows. Following the time period of two winters or two summers, the nuns who are requesting, taking, and observing these Getsulma vows will be able to take the full Gelongma vows in three or so years with the requisite ten Mulasarvastivada monks and the ten Dharmagupta nuns.
These nineteen nuns’ efforts and commitments to their vow are vital for continuing the transmission of this lineage within the Tibetan tradition. The care exerted in the preparation and ceremony, and the years of in-depth research into the history of ordination for nuns, both inside and outside Tibet, reflect the Karmapa’s courageous commitment to gather support and respect for the nuns and create the conditions for reinstating full ordination within the Tibetan tradition.
The famous musician and composer Nitin Sawhney was invited by the Gyalwang Karmapa to perform at this year’s Marme Monlam, the spectacular end to the 34th Kagyu Monlam. In a break between rehearsals, Nitin responded to questions about his spiritual path and his music, how he came to be at the Marme Monlam, and his thoughts about the Karmapa.
Kagyu Monlam Reporter:I’d like to ask you first about your childhood. There’s a spiritual current in your work and I wonder if you can trace that back to your family and its influence.
Nitin Sawhney:My mum comes from a very strong, ancient Hindu background and had an interest in ancient Hindu philosophy. She’s a Brahmin and used to recite prayers with us every Tuesday. She taught me a lot about the Vedas, even mathematics and also yoga. She would talk to us about ideas from the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. I’m always interested in that heritage, which was quite strong in my family.
KMR:Does it influence what you’re writing now?
NS:Yes, very much. What’s interesting is that the second piece we’re playing tonight is a piece I wrote calledRiver Pulse, which is the only piece I’ve ever written that has to do with anything Buddhist. When I wrote it, I had the image in my mind of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree and the idea that the pulse of the river gave him enlightenment. Of all the songs proposed to him, the Karmapa asked me to play this piece, and he had no way of knowing that I wrote it purely about the Buddha’s enlightenment. The fact that he chose it is the main thing that made me want to come here, as I thought, “Well then, it’s supposed to happen.”
Actually, there are a lot of stories around this. Just before I came Bodh Gaya, I was staying at a yoga retreat that gave me time to prepare myself mentally and spiritually for being here. There was ayurvedic and yogic practice as well as different exposures to Indian classical music. I even read a book about Buddha while I was there.
In terms of my childhood, I think my mum and dad gave me their perspective on what Hinduism meant to them. In some ways I think religion has been difficult for me because sometimes it can get in the way of spirituality, so the two can be in conflict. But the way my mum and dad taught me about Hinduism, there was no conflict. I felt very much at peace with the idea of spirituality and the essence of it.
KMR:Is that because their approach was more experiential?
NS:Yeah, I think so. And also music has been a very, very good way for me to find a lot of truth. I think music is the voice of the universe. In my perspective, OM was the first word that was uttered. That’s very powerful, as I think it manifests itself when we’re playing “River Pulse” or even “Sunset.” There’s the concept of playing in a key, which is actually the implied OM that is around us all the time. We’re playing from that beginning always. It resembles an idea from Pandit Ravi Shankar who said, “You’re a vessel to be filled with the feeling and the sound of the universe.” It comes through you and you’re just a medium for it to manifest. I really liked this idea.
I’m also interested in the idea of being in tune with yourself. As a musician, you have to tune your guitar, and when you play with other people, you have to tune to them. I think it’s the same when you come to a new country or place. You might be in tune with yourself, but you have to tune again to the place you’re in and to the people around you. I don’t really go with the morality kind of concept of right and wrong or good and evil—this is too much of a dichotomy. I’m much more into the idea that we flow with discord or not. If we are discordant with what is around us, then it feels wrong, it doesn’t work. But if you are in tune with yourself and what’s around you, then everything flows very smoothly.
KMR:In Buddhism, there are the concepts of the ultimate and the relative, which are inseparable. You can move from the relative into the ultimate, and through the dynamic compassion, the ultimate becomes embodied as the relative.
NS:You’re right. It’s the dynamic of compassion. And to be compassionate, you have to be in tune with yourself first. Compassion cannot come from someone who is not at ease with themself, who is insecure, worried, or anxious.
It’s like music. If you’re playing music and the notes are not in tune, you just automatically stop playing because it doesn’t feel like it’s working. It’s the same thing with the way we are – I guess.
KMR:Sound is also interesting for its ontological status. It’s not a solid thing like this table and yet it’s not nothing either. It occupies a space somewhere in between.
NS:It’s interesting that you should say that. There’s a mathematician named G. H. Hardy who once said that the only true reality was mathematics, because it’s something that never changes. Like you said, the table appears to be solid, but actually 100,000th of diameter of each atom is the nucleus and that’s where most of the matter is, so actually everything we see around us is mainly emptiness.
Music is like this too. Einstein said that relativity came to him through musical intuition, so it’s actually his realization of what the universe was. This understanding of the universe came to him through musical feeling, so I think music is a very powerful voice of the universe.
KMR:And it’s used in all spiritual traditions. They all chant and sing. There’s also something about the vibrations of our own voice or a musical instrument lightening the solid sense our body, so it’s easier to tune into what’s called the body of light.
NS:I agree. I think that’s very true. When you play music there’s a transformation of your normal self into more of an extension of the universe, rather than just being an isolated being. That’s why I love playing with other musicians, because you’re communing together with the voice of the universe.
KMR:Is there a sense also of flowing out to the audience?
NS:Very much. I think there’s electricity that happens between the musicians and between the musicians and the audience. There’s a feeling that spreads. If you have a good spirit between you on stage and it’s working, then it’s effortless for that to spread. You don’t have to try to make it spread; you just feel it and everyone can feel the same. It’s an infectious feeling rather than a performance feeling.
KMR:One of your albums is titledOneZero, which is very Zen, and your aesthetic is also minimalist. That’s quite different from the profusion of Hinduism.
NS:There are different interpretations. Hinduism was originally an oral tradition. The ornamentation of how temples look or the aesthetic of how Hinduism looks these days is like the catholic church. It’s like Martin Luther when he broke away from the catholic church. He said he was justified by faith alone. He turned around and in 1517 he nailed up theNinety-Five Theseson papal indulgences at the church in Wittenberg. In a way, the beginning of Protestantism was a breaking away from all that kind of ornamentation and opulence that the catholic church demonstrated.
I feel that as well about anything that is too demonstrative of opulence. I naturally shy away from it. I’m much more interested in a pure form of expression that comes from a feeling which is effortless. You don’t need to have lots of ornamentation or attempts to beautify anything. What is graceful is automatically beautiful. In the music you play or whatever you do in life, there should be a sense of grace to the way it works, and then there’s no effort involved.
KMR:In Buddhism, there’s the idea of approaches being elaborate or unelaborate. Emptiness is described as unelaborate, so it doesn’t have a lot of conceptual proliferation around it. It’s just very clear and simply is what is.
NS:Yeah. Absolutely. That’s the thing, and I always like to start everything from emptiness as much as I can. I like to take time before I begin a track, or anything really, to just be in the moment without rushing, because the music should come from that moment and not from panic about what happens next. That’s the danger. When music doesn’t work for me is when you can hear the panic. For me music should always come from somewhere that sounds gradual and gentle. Even if it comes with a lot of energy, the energy comes from somewhere graceful.
KMR:Do you meditate?
NS:I meditate a lot through music and I also take time to do yoga every day. During that I normally do some breathing techniques and just before I start the yoga session, I’ll have ten to fifteen minutes of silence and meditation.
KMR:Patanjali Sutra has wonderful teachings on the mind, which are similar to Buddhism.
NS:Interestingly Patanjali talked a lot about ideas that were actually impossible in modern thinking, like the idea of flying or levitating. I think that is symbolic of breaking free from or expectations of yourself or limitations you place on yourself psychologically. Everyone has insecurity about their capabilities or their context or how they relate to other people. It’s important to find your own sense of value with yourself.
Insecurity breeds fear, and fear breeds a need for power. I see this in so many places. I think this is what is going on in the world right now with certain people. It’s scary because you can see how much insecurity there is in one person and the fear that comes from it. There’s paranoia and then the need to impose power on people. This cycle creates so much hate. So I think it’s important to be at peace with yourself before you begin anything.
KMR:There’s a line in the Heart Sutra that has always fascinated me. It says that since the bodhisattvas have no afflictions—no ignorance, hatred, attachment, pride, jealousy, etc.—they have no fear. So if your mind can touch into that inner purity or emptiness, there is no fear.
NS:Buddha found enlightenment by escaping suffering and pain. He transcended the cycle of suffering and pain that we’re all in.
KMR:And that suffering comes from these negative afflictions.
NS:Yes. And I think this is one of the beautiful things about music. When you are playing music and you’re in the right space, there’s the sense that, even if it’s for a short time, you can transcend all those feelings of fear, worry and anxiety and be genuinely in tune with something much bigger, much larger. It’s those moments that are very valuable.
There’s one piece I play calledProphesy, which we are not performing today. I wrote it originally as a homage to the land that I am in. It’s about listening to the drone of the insects and the sounds around you. You gradually evolve a piece of music that speeds up in the Sufi way, like how the whirling dervishes do. They spin faster and faster and it’s the same concept with the music. There’s something about celebrating the universal power. Sometimes when you’re playing, it’s like the charging of a battery. You feel that you’re becoming more and more charged by a universal spirit that flows through you. It’s really an amazing thing.
KMR:In whirling there’s a point when the turning takes over and you’re no longer there.
NS:That’s the same withProphesybecause it’s actually a piece that speeds up in the same way. You can watch your hands and everything is working together. I’m aware of Aref on the tablas, and when we’re playing together, we’re very much as one because we’re both communing with the same thing. It’s a nice feeling.
KMR:There’s something similar in mantra practice. A seed syllable is visualized in your heart and the mantra turns around it. When you’re first working with it, you have to get used to it, think about the shapes, the colors, and the movement. Then slowly, the mantra starts speeding up and turning on its own.
NS:Exactly. It’s very powerful.
KMR:Do you think that when things go well, this gets communicated to others?
NS:I think so. As I said, when you have the right feeling between you, then that automatically, not necessarily gets communicated, but it effects the room in a good way like a benign virus. It’s more than communication, which is so linear. An infection is something that spreads, and the feeling that comes with music is like that, something that spreads around you, so it can be between people, between the air. It’s a feeling, an electricity, that’s created in a space.
KMR:You’ve also been involved in music education. Is it part of your compassionate involvement in the world?
NS:I like to do lots of work with kids, university students, and local communities. I think it’s important. With me it can be a bit selfish, too, because I learn a lot from teaching and working with younger people. You can remember what it is to learn and feel excited about something when it’s experienced for the first time. I have been showing Kara the singer how to do Vedic mathematics and mental arithmetic, for example, the 100 times table in her head. She had not done that before, and she’s been practicing and got very excited, asking me to test her. It’s nice. You think, “Oh wow. That’s what I used to feel like when I first was learning.”
It reminds you, so you don’t become complacent and take things for granted. I think it’s one of the most important things. We’re all very privileged to play music, and to play for the Karmapa in this space is a great privilege. The moment we forget that is the moment we lose ourselves.
KMR:Have you played for a spiritual teacher before?
NS:No, but one great thing that happened to me was interviewing Nelson Mandela. I think he was an amazing human being. I can’t, however, think of any spiritual teacher off the top of my head.
KMR:This is the first time then.
NS:Yes, I think it probably is. It feels very natural to be here and very good. I like how relaxed the Karmapa is. How he walks around with humility and with the sense of being with people. He’s not arrogant or anything like that, which is a great thing, because he could be but he’s not, which is great to see.
KMR:He was once asked what his mission was, and he replied, “To bring Buddhism into the 21st century.”
NS:Yes, I can see that. I get that totally. There’s a quotation fromZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in that book it says “Buddhism is not to be found only in the petals of a flower but also in the console of the computer.” It’s a great quote. It’s not the idea of pantheism, it’s more that spirituality is within and everything else is an illusion. The idea that one thing is more spiritual than the other is crazy. Bringing Buddhism into the 21st century makes a lot of sense to me. People get buried in tradition and sometimes they can think that’s where spirituality is. But actually it’s not. It’s in our everyday life, how we speak to each other, how we respect each other, how we look at the universe, how we show compassion, how we think and feel. In that respect I think the Karmapa is saying something very wise.
KMR:One of the definitions of buddhahood or enlightenment is that there is absolutely no difference between meditating on a cushion and being out in the world. The two are equal. When they were planning a new building at the Karmapa’s seat in New York, he was asked where he wished to have his rooms. One option was on the quiet side of the structure with a beautiful, long vista of the mountains and a lake in the distance, and the other overlooked the parking lot. He chose the later so he could see people.
NS:Makes a lot of sense.
KMR:You had mentioned a history of coincidences that brought you here. Could you tell about them?
NS:When I was sixteen I wrote this piece about the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. What happened was, I went to see a play of Garcia Lorca, calledYermaand there was a Punjabi translation of it, which I thought was fantastic. I felt the performance to be very strong. Afterward I went back to see the director afterwards who was a woman, called Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry and I said to her, “If you ever want me to do anything for your theater company whether it’s playing music, writing it, or even sweeping floors, I don’t care what it is, I’ll do it.” I asked her, “Where do you work?”
“We work in India,” she replied.
I said, “Maybe one day I can come there.”
“You’d be very welcome.”
Three months later, I decided that I was going to try and find her, but this was back in the early 90s, and I had no way of tracking her down. So I went to India and was staying at my uncle’s house in Gurgaon near Delhi. I said to him, “ Do you know this person? Her name is Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry and she’s a great director.” He replied, “ I have no idea how to find her, but your uncle in Chandigarh might know. I’m going there at 6 o’clock tomorrow morning. Would you like to join me?” I said, “Sure.” So we were standing on the train platform and I remember looking up and seeing a monkey silhouetted against the morning sun, and then a voice next to me said “Nitin.” I turned around and it was Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry. “How are you?” she asked. I’m all right and surprised you remembered me.”
She said, “Yes, I remember. We had a nice conversation.”
“Well,” I said, “I came here to find you.”
She didn’t seem that surprised and said, “Well, we’re going to Chandigarh now. I live there. Is that where you’re going?”
I replied, “Yes, with my uncle.” “Why don’t you join us?”
So for the next two weeks, I spent time with her at her amphitheater, and then lost track of her. Fifteen years later, I was speaking with the Indian film director called Deepa Mehta, who was talking to me about writing music for Salman Rushdie’sMidnight’s Childrenand I said I’d love to do it. At the end of our two-hour long conversation, she said, “There’s one other thing. I really want to introduce you to somebody I know you’ll get along with.” Without her saying anything else, and even to this day, I don’t know why I said this, “Is it Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry?” “Yes, she’s my best friend. How did you know?” “I don’t know,” I replied. Then we talked for a bit.
Now I was telling this same story to a person named Veer Singh, who had invited me to stay at the yoga retreat I spoke about before. He said, “That’s amazing. She’s my aunty. That place you were talking about with the amphitheater its half owned by my grandmother.” Veer had also had the Dalai Lama stay at the retreat and in my room there was one of his books on Buddhism I read whilst I was there. I told Veer I was coming to Bodh Gaya and he knew a lot about the Karmapa and Buddhism.
It was interesting as I had a great experience coming here. It was very purifying, even literally with detoxing. It’s strange because it feels like a very interesting path that has led me here that started a long time ago. I have had many, many coincidences in music that are crazy but this feels related to me being here in Bodh Gaya with the Karmapa today and interesting that he chose my trackRiver Pulseto play as he wouldn’t know it was related to Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree.
The Pavilion stage underwent its final transformation of the Monlam into a space of simplicity with just the Buddha, a tall flower arrangement on either side of him, and in front, a seat and table for the Karmapa. The rest of the stage was cleared to give maximum space for this evening’s performers at thisMarme Monlam, the Lamp Prayer. In front row of the audience were seated the Karmapa, Gyaltsap Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche’s Yangsi, and numerous other tulkus and khenpos. Also attending were two lamas from Hong Kong, the Ven. Master Kung Siu Kun and the Ven. Master Sik Yun Tsun.
A formal invitation had been sent to Indian dignitaries and many were present. Among these honored guests seated near the Karmapa were Amitabh Mathur, advisor to the Ministry of Home Affairs on Tibetan affairs; the District Magistrate of Gaya, Kumar Ravi (Indian Administrative Service, IAS); Senior Superintendent of Police of Gaya, Garima Malik (Indian Police Service, IPS); Airport Director, Dilip Kumar; Bodhgaya Temple Management Secretary, Nangsal Dorjee (retired IAS); Indian Government Liaison Officer, Lalit Kumar; and Central Tibetan Administration, Department of Religion and Culture, Karma Thinley. Also adding their presence to this concluding ceremony were the leaders of all the main monasteries in Bodh Gaya as well as heads of the major NGOs in the area.
In the beginning, the Karmapa was invited to speak, and after extending a warm welcome to everyone, he spoke about the purpose of the Kagyu Monlam.
By training in compassion for three countless eons, the Buddha brought compassion to its perfection. Due to this, when he engaged in taming and subduing living beings, he was not limited to a single method but knew many different ways to benefit beings. This could be seen as a special aspect of the Buddha. Though we cannot do it exactly as the Buddha did, we are trying to use a variety of ways to plant the seeds of liberation, to create Dharmic imprints within the being of all those who have come.
The Karmapa remarked:
We were joined by the Sanghas of many different countries. This is to send the clear message of our wish to have strong and harmonious connections with all religious traditions, especially other Buddhist Sanghas. We have given considerable thought to this, and it is good that everyone here know of this intention as well.
As examples of these relationships, the Karmapa mentioned the memorial service for the King of Thailand; the visit of the Bangladeshi monks who brought Atisha’s ashes; and the Sangharama ceremony that incorporated Chinese monks and prayers. Turning to a favorite topic of the environment, the Karmapa explained:
The theme for this evening is the environment, so the performances tonight will depict the situation of the environment and how important it is. Especially in our 21st century, protecting the environment is the biggest challenge we face.
Finally the Karmapa described how the Monlam had been arranged and the feeling he hoped it would evoke:
The main point I’d like to make is that this evening’s program resembles the preparations parents make for the time when their children return home after a long absence. The parents cook the best food possible and do all they can to make the occasion enjoyable. It is the same for us here at the 34th Kagyu Monlam. We have tried to make everything as meaningful and beneficial as possible. We thought, “Oh, an empowerment would be good,” so we added that to the schedule. “Dharma teachings would bring blessings,” so we included them.
Making the schedule like this is easy, but implementing it is much harder. Sometimes I even get angry with myself for filling it so full. But I think it should resemble the feeling parents have in anticipating the return of their children. I hope you all feel the same way, that you enjoyed the programs we have set up, and that they will benefit you in the short term and ultimately.
During the Marme Monlam, it has become traditional at the Monlam to begin the evening’s program with the practice of Avalokiteshvara known as Benefitting Beings Throughout Space, the greatest method for receiving his blessing and developing compassion. As the lights came up, the burgundy and yellow-robed Sangha filed in to array themselves in perfect rows, fanning out along the semi-circle of the marble steps below the Buddha. The chanting began with the nuns from Drupde Palmo Chökyi Dingkhang Nunnery of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso in Bhutan, and then the monks from the Vajra Vidya Institute of Thrangu Monastery joined in. At one point their traditional chanting shifted into a lovely western harmony that was a new touch.
Afterward Mr. Zheng Yong Chen on the suano (resembling a simple, straight trumpet) and Ms. He Yi Jie on the mouth organ played a traditional Taiwanese melody entitled, The Hundred Birds and the Phoenix, to remind everyone of the enjoyable qualities of celebrating the New Year, and the need to maintain and spread such joy.
Protecting the environment includes being stewards to the snowy mountains, the crown jewels of the earth, which according to Tibetan tradition host gods, nagas, local deities, spirits, heroes, and dakinis. Li Kong Yuan from Taiwan, composed the song, Flowing Water, for the zither, a stringed musical instrument, placed and played horizontally. He plucked and strummed as if recreating the sound of water dripping slowly and descending down the snowy mountain, reminding the audience of the importance of mountains for nourishing our water supplies and sustaining our climate.
In the spirit of demonstrating both a commitment to the interconnected relationships among the various lineages across Buddhist communities world-wide and an on-going concern for the environment, the well-known Bhutanese playback singers, Mr. Karma Phunstok and Ms. Chimi Wangmo, composed a new duet especially for the Marme Monlam entitled, A Song Dedicated to the Karmapa. Both performers expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to create and perform their offering to His Holiness.
Next, two Mongolian artists performed a song that touched on the relationship between humans and animals. As Mrs. Khongor Zul sang in a piercing, high voice, loved by Tibetans, too, Mr. Munkhzaya played the Mongolian horse-head fiddle with the resonant sound of a viola, rendered complex by feedback cycles playing against their own overtones. The story behind the name of his instrument is that once there was a poor boy who fell in love with a girl whose father did not like him. The boy was riding his horse to come and see the girl, so the father killed the horse. From it, a musical instrument was fashioned: the horse’s head became the sounding box, the hair of its tail became the strings, and so forth.
Wherever we look in samsara and nirvana, we see how significant the sun and water are but we still need to remind ourselves to respect and cherish them. To celebrate these basic elements of our lives, the well-known composer/performer Nitin Sawhney was joined by special guests Aref Durvesh on tabla, Ashwin Srivasen on Bansuri flute, and Kara Marni, on vocals as they performed two songs,Sunset and the famous River Pulse. When he introduced River Pulse, Nitin Sawhney commented, “I wrote this piece when I was sixteen about the Buddha’s enlightenment and never imagined that I would come to Bodh Gaya to play it. Thank you.”
In an earlier interview in Bodh Gaya Nitin spoke about this music:
The second piece we’re playing tonight is a piece I wrote called River Pulse, which is the only piece I’ve ever written that has to do with anything Buddhist. When I wrote it, I had the image in my mind of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree and the idea that the pulse of the river gave him enlightenment. Of all the songs proposed to him, the Karmapa asked me to play this piece, and he had no way of knowing that I wrote it purely about the Buddha’s enlightenment. The fact that he chose it is the main thing that made me want to come here, as I thought, “Well then, it’s supposed to happen.”
Q: Have you ever played for a spiritual teacher before?
NS: No, but one great thing that happened to me was interviewing Nelson Mandela. I think he was an amazing human being. I can’t, however, think of any spiritual teacher off the top of my head.
MM: This is the first time then.
NS: Yes, I think it probably is. It feels very natural to be here and very good. I like how relaxed the Karmapa is. How he walks around with humility and with the sense of being with people. He’s not arrogant or anything like that, which is a great thing, because he could be but he’s not, which is great to see. [Read thecomplete Nitin Sawhney interview here.]
The surging waves of River Pulse flowed out through the crowd and into the space beyond, where the distant Mahabodhi Stupa illuminated the night sky.
The Mongolians returned augmented by Mr. Liter from the area of the Blue Lake in a Tibetan and Mongolian cultural area, and by Mr. Yavgaan, father to Mr. Munkhzaya, and famous throughout his homeland for his throat singing. His long blue robe reflected the deep azure of the vast Mongolian skies. At 71 years old, he has been singing for 64 and performing for 50. Music is in his family’s tradition so he learned the special techniques of throat singing from his brother and has passed the love of music to his son, performing with him tonight.
In an earlier interview, Mr. Yavgaan spoke about throat singing and how he makes this especially resonant sound. He indicated his belly, heart, throat, and forehead saying that they all have to resonate together as a whole, so there’s a flow like a river’s current; otherwise, the sound does not come. For the listener, the singing cycles up high and down low, and often it is difficult to tell exactly where the sound is coming from.
The group gave a rousing performance of a song about the Mongolian landscape, its grasslands, a tall mountain, the nomad life of changing residences in the summer and winter, and the great vistas in areas so isolated, one can go for 100 kilometers and not see anyone. At the end of their piece, the artists raised up their instruments with both hands, making an offering of their music.
Karma Sönam Palden from Taiwan performed a song that juxtaposed the effects of earthquakes caused by buddhas and bodhisattvas, which are harmless and generate mental and physical equanimity, against those created by the shifting and accumulated friction of the earth’s plates that are the source of immense suffering and pain for communities world-wide. The lyrics were composed by His Holiness and the music by Karma Sonam Palden.
Before His Holiness concluded the 34th Kagyu Monlam, the penultimate act included two well-renowned guitarists and twenty performers. These musicians from China and artists from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) performed two songs about recalling and supplicating the guru with devotion and beseeching the great master for blessings. His Eminence Pawo Rinpoche, one of the heart sons of His Holiness, composed the Classical Mandarin lyrics for the first song, which the musicians set to traditional Chinese music. Following a solo, performers joined a young professional Chinese singer in accompaniment to this devotional song, whose refrain was Karmapa Khyenno.
The final song was a rock performance that began with dueling guitars that transitioned into Tibetan lyrics taken from mantras and the refrain Karmapa Khyenno. A young Tibetan monk and Chinese child performer stole the final act with their eager smiles and earnest off-beat clapping. For the finale, all the performers descended the stairs and lined up across the front of the stage swaying while rallying the crowd into rhythmic clapping, bringing the performances to an up-beat and lively closure before a final supplicating bow to His Holiness.
As usual, the evening closed with the offering of lights. The master of ceremonies explained that the forms of light we usually offer actually represent a very profound lamp. As a lamp is essentially luminous, so the essence of our minds is luminous wisdom. Within the nature of this luminous wisdom, the unceasing display of wisdom is called the vast realm of the dharma expanse.
The ultimate teaching is to rest freely in the luminous essence of the mind itself without altering anything. When devotion—the quality that is sufficient on its own—reaches the critical point, luminous wisdom—the self-arisen, essential nature of mind—is revealed free of obscuration. This is merely designated as the ultimate result, the dharmakaya. In actuality, the ground to be realized is the luminous essence of mind; the path to practice is the luminous nature of mind; and the result is realizing the luminous nature of mind. The essence of luminous, self-arisen wisdom that is the nature of our minds is the greatest lama of the definitive meaning.
With this profound understanding, the audience was asked to sing the Lamp Prayer, composed by Atisha, whose relics were recently offered to the Karmapa. First he read the text in sections, which disciples repeated in Tibetan followed by English and Chinese. Then the prayer set to music rose from the depth of those present. The Karmapa held his lotus lamp at his heart as two nuns walked up the stairs to his seat and, lighting their lamps from his, passed the light to the sangha on either side of the Karmapa. Through the expanse of the audience, one by one the lamps were lit, becoming constellations of moving flames to illuminate the night.
The last prayer supplicated:
May the essence of the teachings, the teachings of the Karmapa, The activity of the victors, victorious over the four maras, In uninterrupted fullness fill all directions to their ends. May this always flourish and may this flourishing be auspicious! Sarva mangalaṃ.