Invoking the Blessings of the 16 Arhats: the Alms Procession Takes a New Form
Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya
The Alms Procession, an annual feature of the Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya, took on a new form and meaning this year when the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa revived another Kagyu tradition, the Procession of the 16 Arhats. Originally, during the time of the 7th, 9th and 10th Karmapas, this procession of the 16 Arhats was held on the final day of the Monlam Chenmo. During the time of the 15th and 16th Karmapas it was held on full-moon day in the first month of the Tibetan year.
The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa has given this tradition new life by incorporating it into the Alms Procession, and he invested his time and energy to ensure that it went well. On Sunday evening, amid much laughter, he personally chose the gelongs who would represent the arhats in the procession. He checked each candidate, made jokes about height and weight, and debated whether an arhat could wear glasses or not. Sadly, because of the masks they have to wear, the short-sighted didn’t qualify. He then ushered them upstairs to check that the costumes and masks fitted them. On Monday evening he stayed in the Monlam Pavilion late into the night to supervise the re-arrangement of the stage and general seating for the Alms Procession. And today, throughout, the procession, the Gyalwang Karmapa was directing – occasionally he could be seen speaking through a microphone concealed in his robes.
The 16 Arhats [Tib. Neten Chudruk], also known as the 16 Elders, were personally chosen by Shakyamuni Buddha from amongst his disciples. He asked them to remain in the world, protecting the Dharma for as long as beings are capable of benefitting from the teachings, and they vowed at the time of his parinirvana to remain in the world and maintain the Dharma until the teachings came to an end at the appearance of the next World Buddha, Maitreya.
This continues to be their role, so the prayer to the 16 Elder is usually recited during teachings:
- Arya Arhats, emanations of the Buddha,
You protect the Dharma for beings’ benefit.
16 elders, you personify compassion.
As His Holiness explained, “ We’re inviting the Arhats to join…mainly in order to help the Dharma flourish. The Dharma teachings are the sole medicine, the sole salve for all sentient beings. It’s the only medicine to eliminate the sufferings of sentient beings.”
The 16 Arhats wear costumes and masks; their features and the style of their robes reflect the Chinese tradition of the Arhats which was introduced into Tibet at the time of the restoration of Buddhism in the 10th century and recorded in a great thangka. Each of the Arhats can be distinguished by what he is holding and the size of his retinue. In order, the Arhats are:
1. Angaja(Tib. Yenlag Chung): retinue 1300; holds a small incense burner and fan
2. Ajita (Tib. Ma Phampa) : retinue 100; his hands rest in meditation
3. Vanavasin (Tib. Nagnané): retinue 1400; points his finger and holds a fan
4. Kalika (Tib. Düden Ten): retinue 1,100; has golden earrings
5. Vajriputra (Tib. Dorje Möbu): retinue 1000; points his finger and holds a fan
6. Bhadra (Tib. Pal Zangpo): retinue 1200; teaches and meditates
7. Kanakavatsu (Tib. Sergyi Be’u): retinue 500; holds a jeweled lasso
8. Kanaka Bharadhvaja (Tib. Serchen): retinue 700; his hands rest in meditation pose
9. Bakula (Tib. Bakula): retinue 900; holds a mongoose in his left hand
10. Rahula, the Buddha’s son (Tib. Drachen Dzin):retinue 1100; holds a crown
11. Chudapanthaka (Tib. Lamtren Ten): retinue 1600; his hands rest in meditation
12.Pindola Bharadvaja (Dza Sönyom Len): retinue 1000; holds a text and an alms bowl
13. Mahapanthaka (Tib. Lamten;): retinue 900; holds a text and teaches Dharma
14. Nagasena (Tib. Lüdé): retinue 1200; holds a vase and a staff
15. Gopaka (Tib. Bechepa): retinue 1400; holds a text in his hands
16. Abheda (Tib. Michepa): retinue 1000; holds a stupa
The procession started from the main shrine room of Tergar Monastery. Preceded by three incense bearers and 16 banners, the 16 Arhats and their retinues circumambulated the main temple once before making their way through the main gate and along the road towards the Monlam Pavilion. In previous years, the procession route was lined with laypeople making offerings. This year, instead, the Karmapa chose the Kagyu Monlam Members to form a guard of honour on either side of the road, to welcome the 16 Arhats.
Non-members and the sangha were directed to wait inside the pavilion, where the Gyalwang Karmapa and his two heart sons, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, sat on the stage, leading the prayers. The chant masters first recited the Refuge prayer and then began the recitation of the Prostrations and Offerings to the 16 Elders.
As the serbang passed under the welcome gate, the prayer concluded, and the gyaling, horns drums and cymbals burst into sound, echoing through the pavilion. The Gyalwang Karmapa, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche stood respectfully to greet the Arhats as the procession slowly made its way down the central aisle on the red carpet laid out especially for them the night before. At the stage, the banner bearers filed off to right and left, and the Arhats with their retinues took their places on the stage. The final retinue included foreign sangha and gelongma.
Once everyone was seated, the Arhats in pairs on cushions, their retinues behind them on carpets, the pavilion was filled once more with the prayer of Prostrations and Offerings to the 16 Elders, as representatives of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s labrang came forward to make the first simple offerings, placing them into the alms bowls placed on ornately carved wooden tables in front of each pair of Arhats. They were followed by laypeople who were allowed to come forward and make small offerings of fruit, biscuits, sweets and so forth. As their alms bowls filled, the arhats passed them back, the bowls were emptied into white plastic sacks, an empty one was passed forward, and the process began again.
After the conclusion of the ceremony, the gelongs and gelongmas ate their midday meal in the pavilion, under the gaze of the Gyalwang Karmapa, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche.