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Mahakala Puja: Clearing away Obstacles

16 – 21 February, 2012

The morning of February 16th began with the participants formally assuming their seats (gral ’dzin) in the shrine hall. Standing outside the shrine hall and before more than one thousand monks and nuns, the discipline master read out the names of those taking responsibility for the various aspects of the practice. They are given a specific place so that they can do their respective work. The list began with Situ Rinpoche and continued all the way to the younger monks, who pass up and down the aisles offering tea. After the list of names was called out, the rest of the sangha moved quickly into their places. In general, the discipline master oversees the proper functioning of the practice within the shrine hall, and so once everyone was settled into their places, he gave a Dharma Talk (tshogs gtam), explaining what each person could and could not do.

When the Gyalwang Karmapa came in to the shrine hall for the ceremony, he was wearing The Activity Hat (las zhwa), which he does on especially important occasions, thereby signaling how very significant he considers this practice of Mahakala. This morning the new prints of the long version of “Burning Up Anger” were carried into the shrine hall and distributed to the sangha. They are at the core of the Karmapa’s effort to revive this practice, just as the Kagyu Monlam Book is at the heart of his effort to rekindle the recitation of the Twenty-Branch Monlam compiled by the Seventh Karmapa. The monks quickly pass up and down the rows distributing the maroon and gold texts. The chanting begins with a recitation of the lineage for this practice, tracing it back through the centuries to make a link between the nuns and monks here and those of the distant past.

In front of His Holiness, two rows of monks line the central aisle. At the head of the left row is a throne for Situ Rinpoche. Next to him is Gyaltsap Rinpoche, the Vajracharya, or vajra master, who guides the practice. Across the aisle, the Fourth Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche leads the other row. Following in a line from these thrones on both sides of the central aisle are seats for rinpoches and khenpos from Kagyu monasteries all over the world. Flowing down from them to the ends of the rows are some thirty long-handled drums (lag rnga) with meadow-green skins; they rest on tables behind the monks and rise up in a six-foot wave to be played in unison with the two main drums (rnga chen) whose immense circles, reaching up to the ceiling, punctuate the ends of these two main rows. Their ivory-colored skins span seven feet and are set in a tall, impressive frame of dark wood with golden metal embellishments. Brought from Japan, the drums are an offering from Södo, Mingyur Rinpoche’s elder attendant, who passed away just weeks ago.

In front of the shrine hall, on the elevated floor of the altar, five tall paintings framed in gold are arrayed behind the Gyalwang Karmapa’s throne. The Buddha in the middle is flanked by images of the main teachers in each of the four schools, who are in turn surrounded by their main disciples below and their yidam deities above. These images are a visual sign of His Holiness’ deep commitment to a non-sectarian approach to the Dharma.

Then starting on the far left of the shrine, seated on a throne is a life-size statue of the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje, so life-like that one naturally bows when seeing it. The same is true for the statue of the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, placed on a throne just to the other side of the Tara shrine. This statue presided over the Karmapa 900 celebrations last year at Tergar. After the central statue of a golden Buddha, come the protector shrines: the first one has rows of offerings depicted in paintings of black and gold and also in metal replicas; the second altar presents four red tormas, sculpted offerings that are four feet high. The main image is the heart-shaped torma embodying Bernakchan himself and the other three represent offerings to him of medicine, torma, and rakta.

Not far from the protector altars, in the far right corner of the main shrine hall, stands an awe-inspiring torma of the head of Bernakchan. It belongs to the general category of a torma offered to the fire (rgyag gtor) and in particular, it is known as the Mouth Opened-Wide with Ha (Ha zhal). The torma is surmounted by two tiers of intricately interwoven thread-crosses in the shape of umbrellas, which are known as the palace of Bernakchan. The area below the head is considered to be that of the mundane world. A fence of interlaced black and red sticks surrounds this bottom square to prevent any captured negative spirits from escaping. Underneath everything are the visualized mandalas of the elements.

The purpose of this practice is to benefit living beings and the teachings, so Bernakchan consumes all that is negative, all adverse conditions, all who make obstacles for the Dharma and for those who practice a true path. Everything that is adverse, especially from the previous year, is eliminated. The Hazhal torma will be offered on the last day of the practice, February 20, which is the twenty-ninth day of the Tibetan lunar calendar and especially dedicated to protector practice.

Returning to the practice of February 16, in the afternoon the monks reconvened to chant for about three and a half hours the shorter version of “Burning Up Anger.” It is known as “The Cinnabar One” (mTsal ma) since the first parts of the longer text to be recited are indicated in vivid red. The middle length text is known as “The Golden One” (ser ma) since these first parts are marked in Gold, (it will be chanted on the last day), and the long version is the full length text of “Burning up Anger,” (sDang ba rnam sreg).

After a short break, Gyaltsap Rinpoche led a short practice to bless the Ha zhal torma. He had overseen all phases of its creation and completed the process with this consecration. This ceremony ended the preliminaries for the long practice of “Burning Up Anger.”

Starting the next day, February 17, and continuing through the 19, the sangha followed a rigorous schedule of six sessions a day, which began at four in the morning and finished around nine-thirty at night. Breakfast was served in the shrine hall, and as is traditional, the first tea offering and offering to the Sangha was made by the Gyalwang Karmapa. On February 18, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche were present, and His Holiness came for the final session during which thukpa (noodle soup) is served. The following day followed the same schedule and numerous offerings were made to the sangha. Usually during the tea offering, the discipline master stands between the two large drums and holds his yellow cockade hat flat in front of him. On top of it is a sheet of paper with a poetic statement of the purpose of the offerings—for the long life of the lamas, for the spread of the Dharma, and also for the finding of a reincarnate lama, such as Khyabje Bokar Rinpoche. These good wishes are then multiplied through the practice of the sangha that day.

Following tradition, the following day lama dances were performed and they will be covered in a separate report.

On February 21, the last day of the Mahakala rituals began in the dark hours of the early morning, the stars ranging wide in the navy sky. As the pulsing of the large drums and the rolls of the cymbals woke the quiet countryside, there began the phase of taking the siddhi or accomplishments that have accumulated through these many long hours of ritual. The large Mahakala torma was lifted from the altar and brought to the side of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s throne. He touched his head to the torma and took a small piece of it to eat as a blessing. The torma was then offered to Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche. With many tashi prayers for auspiciousness to spread throughout the universe, the ceremony came to a close.

After a brief break, the sangha reassembled for the smoke offering puja, known as “Massing Clouds of Amrita.” Such a practice usually ends the rituals before the New Year, its purpose being to cleanse all negativity and to make vast offerings to all levels of deities from the Buddha to the local protectors of the land. As the Karmapa and sangha recited this puja, smoke billowed from the two vase-shaped hearths in front of the monastery gates and rose into the morning sun.

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