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Mahakala Puja Part One: Introduction, Empowerment and Reading Transmission

Februrary 12—13, 2012

For many days before the Tibetan New Year, the sangha traditionally engages in a practice of the Protector Mahakala (known as Gutor) to clear away the obstacles of the previous year and open the way for the new one to come. This year in Bodhgaya, the Seventeenth Karmapa has organized ten days of Mahakala practice, empowerments, reading transmissions and explanations to take place at Tergar Monastery, his residence here. The sessions began with empowerments on February 12 and will continue through February 21. Special this year is the text of the practice, which His Holiness has revived after this powerful ritual had lain dormant for centuries.

Empowerment, Reading Transmission, and Explanation

Traditionally, for every practice, one should receive these three: the empowerment that matures, the transmission that links to the blessings of the lineage, and the explanation that clarifies the text. On the morning of February 12, His Holiness gave the empowerment of Mahakala in Tergar’s spacious shrine hall, which, from wall to golden-medallioned wall, was filled with nuns and monks in burgundy robes. Down both sides of the high-ceiling in the central area were hung thangkas of the Kagyu masters, through whom this lineage of Mahakala practices has passed. Chanting wafted through the air, and before the Gyalwang Karmapa entered the temple, a small bird landed on the back of his throne to add its voice to the melody. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche awaited His Holiness’arrival near their seats to the side of the main throne.

His Holiness began with three formal bows to the main Buddha statue, and after the mandala offering, he began a general explanation of the practice, stating that there are worldly protectors and those who transcend the world. The former can give certain siddhis, or accomplishments, but the latter actually help one become liberated from samsara, through eliminating the afflictions and karma that imprison us in an endless cycle of rebirths. Belonging to this second type, the wisdom protector Bernakchan is not separate from the heart of the Buddha. The actual empowerment of body, speech, and mind was given through an elaborate torma, (a sculpture made of barley flour and butter), a mala, and the image of a vajra.

In the afternoon, His Holiness gave the empowerment of Mahakali, who has numerous other forms and names, such as Remati, Dusolma, and Palden Lhamo. On a relative level, she is the powerful one of the desire world. Ultimately, she is known as the Self-Arisen Queen, the one who appears from the wisdom of the expanse of all phenomena. After this empowerment, His Holiness gave a reading transmission for the required practices.

On the morning of February 13th, Gyaltsap Rinpoche began the second stage, the reading transmission, which was quite special as his first incarnation was the one who requested this practice. In the afternoon, the Karmapa continued the transmission. After finishing one section, he began with the third stage of explanation, elucidating the history of the lineage—how it started in India, spread to Tibet, and finally came into the Karmapa’s lineage through Pomdrakpa, who gave the practice to the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi. Then the Karmapa talked at length of the many different ways to visualize the deities as a self-generation or frontal visualization.

He also spoke in English of the daily commitment for the practice, yet advised that what is most important is to practice seriously. We should mix practice with daily life, so that it is not just during sadhanas that we are involved in meditation. Our behavior and our motivation should be transformed. If we recite a sadhana and there is no change, this is a sure sign that we are not practicing correctly. He then translated this advice into Chinese. The afternoon ended with a dedication of merit for the benefit of all beings throughout the world.

To understand better this historic moment in the lineage, Khenpo Garwang was asked to provide some background information for the readers of the website on the practices and the history of Mahakala.

The Origins of the Protector Mahakala

Gelong Deway Khorlo (Bhikshu Wheel of Joy) belonged to the retinue of a previous Buddha named Sangye Tsuktorchan (Buddha with an Ushnisha). The bhikshu had developed special cognitions and could also demonstrate miracles. Proud of his abilities, he competed with the Buddha and, of course, he lost, which disappointed him greatly. Then the god Shiva appeared and said to him, “If you pray to be born as my son, I will give you dominion over the three realms.” Since he desperately wanted to be victorious, the bhikshu prayed to Shiva. However, Sangye Tsuktorchan knew of this and said to the bhikshu, “Except for some temporary happiness, being born as Shiva’s son has little benefit.” So the bhikshu confessed his faults, and the Buddha prophesied that he would be born as Shiva’s son, generate the resolve to become fully awakened to benefit others, and finally become enlightened as the Buddha Telway Wangpo.

Following the Buddha’s prediction, the bhikshu was reborn as the son of Shiva and Umadevi. His skin was very dark, his appearance terrifying and his power great, so he was given the name Mahakala, The Great Black One. His sister was called Remati. He roamed the three worlds and came to Bodhgaya when the Buddha became fully awakened. There Mahakala made the commitment to guard the Buddha’s teachings, becoming a powerful protector for sincere practitioners.

The Karmapa’s Connection to Mahakala

In India, the teachings on Mahakala (also known as Bernakchan) were given by the Buddha, but they had to wait for the right time to be revealed and propagated. Almost a thousand years later, one of the great mahasiddhas, Dombi Heruka (eighth to ninth century), was staying in Hahadropa Cemetery. Mahakala and his retinue appeared clearly to the Heruka and reconfirmed his commitment to protect the teachings. Dombi Heruka asked him, “Where are the sadhanas for your practice?” And Mahakala replied that they could be found in the terraced steps of a particular stupa. Dombi Heruka then retrieved the texts and spread these teachings and practices in India.

The transmission of Mahakala’s practices came to Tibet through the translator Zangkar Lotsawa (Zangsdkar lo tsa ba, also known as Mal gyo). When he went to India, even though Dombi Heruka had passed away, his wisdom body appeared to Zangkar Lotsawa. Dombi Heruka gave him the transmission of Mahakalatantras, including the empowerments and the sadhanas. This transmission eventually passed to Pomdrakpa, who was a main teacher of the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1206-1283). Through the centuries, this transmission has been passed down the lineage right up to the present day.

Karma Pakshi wrote many sadhanas for Mahakala, and one of the most important was “The Three Cycles of the Protector,” which contained all the instructions for how to meditate, how to chant, and so forth. Karma Pakshi said that the Black Hat Lama (the Karmapa) and the Black-Cloaked Protector are inseparable. As a lama, he is the Karmapa, and as the one who guards and spreads the teachings, he is the Protector Bernakchan. And so it makes no difference whether a lineage exists or not between Karmapa and Mahakala, because they are not different. Karma Pakshi said that if one wanted proof of their connection, one need only look at the Karmapa’s teachings, which were flourishing due to the activity of Mahakala.

In his spiritual biography, several events illustrate their connection. Karma Pakshi relates that one time “the mandala of Mahakala’s face appeared in a vision; it covered the earth and sky, staying present for a whole day. Further, Mahakala’s eyes appeared like suns and moons; innumerable rays of light gathered in great masses; and a thundering HUM roared from his mouth. There arose limitless activity to overpower all of apparent existence. After, Karma Pakshi went to the country of Korig where he cured many who were sick, crippled, or disabled, just by slapping them, and so his fame as a realized master spread in all directions.” (Excerpted from The Life Stories of the Karmapas by Khenpo Sherap Phuntsok.)

The Text for the Ritual

The text which has been used this year is longest ritual of Mahakala, called “Burning Up Anger” (sDang ba rnam sreg), which was written by the Sixth Karmapa, Thongwa Donden (1416-1453), at the request of the First Gyaltsap Rinpoche, Paljor Donden (1427-1489). The monks, however, named it “The Boring Mahakala” because it took so long to chant. They failed to see the great benefits it had, which included expanding the Karmapa’s activity, his resources, and renown. So the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje asked his disciple KonchokYenlak to abbreviate the ritual, which he did, giving this new text the name, “A Condensed Version of Burning Up Anger” (Sdang ba rnam sreg las btus pa). These days, this text is known as “The Ritual of Mending and Supplication” (bsKang gsol), and it is practiced widely in Kagyu monasteries and centers.

Since the longer text of the Sixth Karmapa had fallen out of practice for so many years, it was very difficult to find a copy. The Seventeenth Karmapa had looked everywhere for an original and no one, inside or outside of Tibet, had ever seen or heard of it. But the present Gyaltsap Rinpoche happened to have a photocopy of a hand-written version, which seems to be the only extant copy of the text. He lent it to His Holiness and this is the one that was input, and then five hundred copies were printed for the gathering in Bodhgaya.

The practice is being reinstated this year as it makes an auspicious connection with all that is excellent: it brings benefits to the teachings and to all living beings while bringing about prosperity and positive influences. Further, the place of Bodhgaya, the Vajra Seat of the Buddha’s enlightenment, is the perfect site, and sangha members from many different monasteries and centers, all linked to the Karmapa, have gathered here. It is a wonderful opportunity to restore this practice that has been long in decline. So from among all the myriad Mahakala practices, such as those composed by the Fifteenth Karmapa, this one called “Burning Up Anger” has been chosen to purify the negative karma of the previous year and usher in the New Year of the Dragon.

It is hoped that reinstating this longer version of Mahakala practice in Bodhgaya will cause the Dharma to flourish widely and bring benefit to immeasurable numbers of beings.

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