The 29th Kagyu Monlam: Day One – Mahayana Sojong Vows
29 1 March, 2012 Bodhgaya
The sounds of auto rickshaws reverberated through Bodhgaya in the wee hours of March 1st, 2012 as monks, nuns and laypeople made their way to Tergar Monastery to attend the first day of the eight-day Kagyu Monlam prayer festival, and to receive Mahayana Sojong vows. Sojong vows taken for the benefit of all beings are called Mahayana sojong vows.
The Tibetan word sojong is the equivalent of the Sanskrit uposatha. The reason why the vows taken in our tradition are called the Mahayana sojong vows is the unique motivation. Ordinary uposatha precepts are usually taken with the intention to purify one’s negativities and to attain one’s own liberation. However, if we take these ethical vows with the intention of benefiting all beings, then – owing to the great power of motivation – the results of maintaining self-discipline are immeasurably bigger.
The sun was yet to rise but the sky was already luminous. Hundreds of monks of all ages – adorned in their maroon robes and yellow prayer robes resting on their left shoulders – could be seen quietly walking by the side of the road leading up to the monastery. The serenity of the moment was occasionally disrupted by the auto-rickshaws whizzing past them on the potholed roads.
After going through the security check at the gate, monks and nuns were guided by chötrimpa (monks in charge of discipline) as they made their way to their allocated seats, designated based on monasteries and nunneries as they had been in the previous three days of teachings by Gyalwang Karmapa.Senior gelongs, or ordained monks, were seated on the stage closer to Gyalwang Karmapa according to their seniority. His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and His Eminence Gyaltsap Rinpoche, two senior lamas of the Karma Kagyu school attended the session, and sat to the left and right of His Holiness’ seat respectively.
At 5:30 am, Gyalwang Karmapa arrived at the Monlam Pavilion to the accompaniment of the melody of gyaling (a Tibetan religious instrument). After an elaborate Mandala offering, he delivered an explanation on Mahayana sojong before bestowing Mahayana Sojong vows on the monks, nuns and laypeople in attendance.
Gyalwang Karmapa began by welcoming various monks and nuns from around the world who had come to Bodhgaya to attend the teachings. His Holiness spoke about the main purpose of the gathering. He said that the world is full of suffering, conflict and hatred while friendship and caring for others is less and less. His Holiness said that negative forces far outweigh the positive forces in the world. Therefore, he said the collective aspiration of the Monlam is to develop loving kindness and compassion towards others.
He said the future of the world is really in our hands. As a human being, we have the ability to differentiate between good and evil. We have to know we have to work not just for short-term benefit but must have the wisdom to work towards our long-term condition. However, we seem not to have used the wisdom to work for the long-term benefit, and thus we keep on focusing on the short term. We also tend to work only for ourselves, for our own selfish objectives. We have forgotten that we are all connected and we live in the same world, and that our lives are interdependent.
However, if we keep focusing on our own selves, we will never be free from conflicts and problems. Consequently, we have to seriously face this problem and thus work and aspire towards a better world through more wholesome activities. For instance, we all know that we eat meat and we end up killing so many animals. Therefore, I also hope that during these eight days of prayers we reflect on these issues; I also want all of us to open our hearts and think about the wellbeing of all sentient beings.
We all know if we walk along this self-cantered path, we will only end up creating more problems. In fact, he continued, you might say that we are not going to get very far. Therefore, I request everyone to think about it. All of you have the Kagyu Monlam Prayer Book in which we have prayers and aspirations from the great masters of the past. In these texts, you will know how the previous masters made aspirations and with such sincere motivation. As their followers, we should learn to emulate their qualities as we recite these texts.
In the past, we held the Monlam prayer gathering near the Mahabodhi stupa. This year we have moved to the Monlam Pavillion because we feared that it might be too hot. Even though we are not able to hold the Monlam in front of the Mahabodhi temple, we are still in the sacred place of Bodhgaya. Now it is up to us as individuals how we wish to practice and make aspirations. I hope everyone will make great and noble aspirations.
As part of this year’s Monlam the Gyalwang Karmapa will give a commentary on some of the prayers which are recited. He began with a short explanation of the Sutra in Three Sections which is part of the 20 Branch Monlam and thus is recited daily during the Monlam.
A short teaching by Gyalwang Karmapa: An explanation of the Sutra in Three Sections
The Sutra in Three Sections is also called The Confession of Downfalls to the Thirty-five Buddhas. For countless eons we have taken many different bodies and have taken births in innumerable realms. And we have so much karma and obscurations accumulated from those lifetimes, that if we were to gather them all together in a bunch the entire space would not be large enough to hold it.
Now among these karmas, some will definitely ripen and some will not definitely ripen. There are various types. According to the tradition of the foundation vehicle, they say that with those karmas that will definitely ripen there is no way to purify them if we do not confess them. So unless we confess them, they will definitely ripen upon us, just like a death that we have to pay back. Since we would definitely have to experience the result of that karma, we must make confession in order to repay those debts.
According to the Mahayana, between the karma that is definitely experienced and the karma that is not definitely experienced, that which is definitely experienced is the one that we have committed intentionally. The karma that will not be definitely experienced is the one we have not intentionally performed. In other words, since that seed has not flowered much, then it will not definitely ripen into experience.
But if we have done great and terrible misdeeds then we need to have a very strong and powerful confession to serve as an antidote. If we have accomplished a great misdeed and we have merely a small antidote, then we will not be able to purify that obscuration. For example, there is the story of the king who made confession to the buddhas for an entire eon and still he ended up in the incessant hell realm. If he had not made confession, he would have spent an even longer time in the incessant hell realm, so this illustrates the power of confession–it reduced his time there. In any case, now that we have entered the gate of the dharma, we may think that we have pure vows and have kept pure samaya commitments, but there are many misdeeds that we continually accrue. Atisha said that he had never been stained by a downfall of the Vinaya though he had had a few downfalls of the Bodhisattva vow, but the downfalls of the Secret Mantra fell down like rain. Thus, many downfalls occur all the time, even without us knowing it. If we do not properly confess them we will fall down into the lower realms. That is why the misdeeds are called “downfalls.”
So even if we do not have downfalls, but only minor infractions, if we have enough infractions it is the same as committing a downfall. And so if we do not confess our downfalls and infractions every day, then they will bring us bad karma. Even if we only commit small misdeeds, if we do not know how to confess them, they gradually accumulate and eventually become like a great misdeed. However, if we confess them, even if they are not completely purified, they are diminished. So it is said that for the wise, even a great misdeed is very light because since they know how to make confession, their misdeeds do not affect them very strongly.
When we make confession, we need to rely on the four antidotes. If we do not rely on the four antidotes when confessing then we will not be able to purify our misdeeds. The antidotes are: the power of remorse, the power of reliance, the power of remedial action and the power of the promise not to repeat the misdeeds.
The Sutra in Three Sections was taught by the Buddha himself. Before Trisong Detsen, the King of Tibet became king, he had committed many misdeeds. And since 108 wise men said that there was nothing better than this sutra for purifying misdeeds he started the practice of reciting this every day. This is how the tradition began in Tibet.
In India there was no tradition of reciting this every day, but in Tibet there is such a tradition. Because of this tradition, when visitors from India came to Tibet, they criticized the Tibetans, saying, “Everyone in Tibet must have very great misdeeds!” In any case, the benefits of reciting the names of each of the 35 buddhas and thinking of their qualities is described in the Compendium of the Disciplines written by Shantideva.
Now there are different ways in which the 35 buddhas are described, but in any case, we visualize a lotus flower in the sky in front of us. In the center of the lotus is Buddha Shakyamuni. Sitting on the petals surrounding him are the other 34 buddhas. They are all similar to the Buddha in their qualities and in their traits, such as sitting in the vajra posture, being golden, wearing the three dharma robes and so forth. We should imagine this in front of us and then we visualize that in their presence we recite the three sections: the confession, the prostration and the dedication. We imagine that we emanate many different bodies and with great remorse and shame we regret our downfalls in front of them as though a poison arrow had struck our hearts. We confess the misdeeds we have committed in this way.
In order to purify our misdeeds, we go for refuge to these buddhas. We describe their qualities, and we prostrate to them. Then after we prostrate we follow the power of the antidote. After that we think that we will never again do these deeds, not even once. We need that strong mind of commitment that we will never, ever do them again. If we do an authentic confession in this way then we will be able to purify all of our misdeeds. And so it is necessary to think in a vast way about this.
For the first four days of the Monlam this year, the second session is devoted to teachings by the Gyalwang Karmapa on the eastern and western pure realms, followed by meditation instructions.
Gyalwang Karmapa’s teachings on the pure realms to the East and West —Day 1
The teachings this week will be about the Eastern and Western Buddhafields and on the fifth day, there will be empowerments of Akshobhya and Amitabha. To begin with, all of us have the great fortune to be gathered together in the most sacred place of Bodhgaya and the most important thing is to make our motivation correct. For a teacher the motivation should not be worldly, but rather it should be a sincere wish to help others become liberated from samsara.
And as for the people who listen to the teachings, they should not do so out of the eight worldly dharmas, but in order to bring about long-term benefits. If people receive teachings just to fulfill worldly concerns, then it will not become true dharma. Therefore both the teacher and the students need to purify their motivation and make sure it is in accord with the dharma.
The Buddha Realms of the East and the West
Abhirati in the east, and Dewachen or Sukhavati in the west, are known as the Eastern and Western Buddhafields. Generally, in these degenerate times there are very few conditions to practice dharma and, even when we have some opportunities, there will be a lot of obstacles. In particular, the basis for both worldly and spiritual accomplishment is the practice of shamatha and nowadays it is very difficult to accomplish this because there is so much distraction and technical and material progress, especially in big cities. If there is no real foundation of shamatha, it’s difficult to practice vipassana. Of course, some people will understand but it is difficult for the majority to advance even in a worldly sense without shamatha. Therefore, it goes without saying that to make progress in the stages of meditation you need a stable practice of shamatha.
In order that we have the opportunity to practice dharma without obstacles in our future lives, we must pray and dedicate our positive actions towards that end. And if we do so, there is a possibility that we will be born in the pure realms where we can make continuous progress and never fall back.
In China there are certain schools of Buddhism dedicated to being born in the western pure realm of Dewachen. In Tibet, there is no particular school dedicated to this, but all of the lineages engage in practices and prayers to be born in pure realms.
In order to reach Amitabha’s pure land, we need to create the causes and conditions for it. What are the things that will bring about those conditions? Whether a person is a human or non-human samsaric being, as long as one has a mind that can be made more virtuous, one has the potential to be reborn in Dewachen. The Buddha said that if we make aspirations and we dedicate our merit and do positive actions, then unless we have committed the five most heinous deeds or have completely given up the dharma, we can develop the potential to be reborn in Dewachen. Furthermore, anybody, man or woman, who has devotion and respect towards the sutra of Dewachen, or towards Amitabha or his heart sons, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani, has the potential to be reborn there. According to Karma Chakme, since Chenrezig is the heart son of Amitabha, if you recite Karmapa Khyenno, then it is also easy to be born into Amitabha’s pure realm. Also it is said that Amitabha made this promise, “Unless all beings become enlightened, I will never become Buddha.” Because of the power of Amitabha’s aspiration, anybody who prays to be reborn in Dewachen, generates bodhichitta, and creates all the right conditions prescribed in the sutra, can actually be born in Amitabha’s pure realm.
Now the second point: what is the need or purpose to be born there? This will be discussed tomorrow.
The third point is related with Abhirati, Akshobhya’s pure realm. In the last few years I have taken some interest in Akshobhya and we have offered the fire puja of Akshobhya at the Kagyu Monlams. I have also created some Akshobhya retreats here with Lamas from different countries and tried to explain what I knew about this practice. One reason I did this is because technical and material progress in the 21stcentury means that the activity of human beings is very powerful and has a great effect, unlike in ancient times. We harm other beings and the environment very much. Thus it is an age when we are creating very strong negative karma. Therefore if we practice Akshobhya, I think it will help a lot because Akshobhya is a Buddha especially meant to purify negative karma.
For example, there is no comparison between hunters and fishermen in ancient times and thosee today. The hunters of ancient times had primitive weapons of stone, and then later on, simple iron weapons. Now they have guns and all kinds of poison, and killing is much swifter and more convenient. Likewise, fishermen these days have big nets and using technology can locate the largest shoals of fish. In one net they can catch thousands of fish. So this is a time when many negative actions thrive.
However, when we accumulate very strong negative karma, the power and blessings of the buddhas become that much stronger also. Their force, their blessing, and their positive influence become more powerful. Because of that, the Buddha Shakyamuni said, “During degenerate times you should do Akshobhya’s practices.” Mitrukpa, orAkshobhya, means “unmoving” or “unmoved.” His mind has never been disturbed by hatred or anger.
In the present time, there is a lot of anger, conflict, and violent minds that create negative deeds. Even though there are strong negative deeds there are also strong antidotes. The great masters of the Kagyu lineage in the past belonged to the Akshobhya family. For instance, when Milarepa received the empowerment of Gyepa Dorje, his flower fell in the east. Therefore he was called “Gyepa Dorje” and it was clear that he belonged to the Akshobhya family. And the Karmapa also belongs to the Akshobhya family. To signify this, he wears the Black Hat. Actually, the color of the Karmapa’s hat is dark blue, like the changeless nature. Changelessness is signified by dark blue because people think that the sky does not change. Everything else changes, but the sky is empty. In the same way, the true nature does not change and since in that way it is similar to the sky, the color blue signifies the changeless nature. Therefore the Karmapa’s Black Hat originally was dark blue.
Finally, even though we have the blessings of the lineage with us, we still have to practice diligently and joyfully. It is very important to practice with joy. Many people feel they have to acquire things that they do not have and they try hard to practice dharma as if it were something from the outside that we do not have within us. That is not the correct way to approach it. We need to comprehend what naturally abides within us and to look deeply within ourselves at the kindness and love that is already there rather than disregard the positive qualities we have.
From tomorrow onwards, we will talk about the Akshobhya practice.
The Gyalwang Karmapa returned to the Monlam Pavilion after lunch for Session Three, and gave a short teaching on The King of Aspirations: The Aspiration for Noble Conduct.
He then returned to his quarters at Tergar Monastery to conduct audiences during Session Four.
And finally some statistics about the 29th Kagyu Monlam This year there are:
35 Rinpoches in attendance
3600 monks and nuns registered
The monks and nuns come from 88 different monasteries, nunneries and dharma centres.
3500 laypeople registered
The laypeople come from 50 different countries
The Monlam Translation team is offering translation into twelve languages: Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Nepali, Polish, Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese.
There are more than 700 Friends of Kagyu Monlam and people still joining.
There are nearly 500 volunteers supporting Monlam activities.
There are almost 100 people in the Working Team.