27th December – Bodhgaya.
For those watching the webcast, please note the picture is not out of focus! This is the fog that we’re encountering because of sudden wintry conditions across northern India. Fog at this time of year is not unusual. It often disrupts transport across northern India. However, this year it is much colder than usual and many of the poverty-stricken people across Bihar and other northern states are suffering immensely.
Sessions Two and Three: The Akshobhya Ritual Cycle
Gyalwang Karmapa arrived shortly before 9.00 am and greeted the rinpoches, lamas and khenpos already seated below the bodhi tree. Session Two began with the Short Vajradhara Lineage Prayer and then proceeded to the first part of today’s main focus, the Akshobhya Ritual and fire puja.
The Akshobhya ritual cycle is in four parts: the first three parts which take place at the stupa are the Akshobhya Self-Visualisation ritual, the Akshobhya Mandala ritual and the reading of the Akshobhya dharani and sutra. The text for the first two parts of the ritual is only available in Tibetan in the prayer books issued to the sangha as usually only the sangha takes part because of the requirement for pure conduct.
The third part of the ritual, the recitation of the ‘Dharani that Thoroughly Purifies all Karmic Obscurations’ and ‘The Sutra of the Dharani that Thoroughly Liberates from All Suffering and Obscurations,’ is open to everyone. The recitation of this dharani is believed to purify all karmic obscurations and all the karma flowing from lifetime to lifetime. Reciting it three times daily can even cleanse the karma of the five heinous deeds, the four root downfalls and the ten non-virtues. It can be used for the dead and the living. These texts were recited several times.
The Alms Procession
The Alms Procession of gelong and gelongma took place at the end of the second session. In Buddhism, almsgiving is the respectful support shown by laypeople to the ordained Buddhist sangha. The custom of alms rounds was not simply an expedient way to feed the Sangha but an expression of the interdependence between the Bhikshu or Bhikshuni and the laity. By offering sustenance to the Sangha with pure motivation, laypeople have an opportunity to be inspired by virtue, accumulate merit, and also to share in the merit generated by a monk or nun’s spiritual practice. The offering is made to the monastic ideal rather than to the individual monks and nuns, and in response, they should strive to maintain that ideal of discipline and pure conduct .During the Buddha’s time, monastics were not permitted to cook or store food, so they had to eat what was freely offered to them by the lay community. Over the centuries, the custom of alms rounds was maintained in some Buddhist countries, but was not adhered to in Tibet since the monasteries there were supported by laity and there was no longer a need for individual monastics to make alms rounds.
In 2004, the Gyalwang Karmapa incorporated the alms round into the Kagyu Monlam as a symbolic ceremony to remind participants of this ancient Buddhist tradition. In the same way he urged Monlam attendees to make a personal connection with Sakyamuni Buddha, and many of the early traditions the Karmapa revived, such as reciting prayers in Sanskrit and honoring the Gelong and Gelongma ideals, were supports for this.
Yesterday morning, in keeping with the custom of previous years, people wishing to offer alms to the Sangha gathered outside of the Stupa entrance at around 8:30 a.m. Dharmapalas and helpers had begun preparations at about 7:30 a.m., stringing a rope barrier from the shoe area outside the Stupa down to the entrance of the Jai Prahash Udyar Park . The day before, an announcement had been made about the correct procedure to follow. Participants should stand behind the rope on the right side of the procession and should not burn incense or offer hot food or money. Light packed foods or sweets in wrappers should be placed in the begging bowl gently with respect. The number of monks and nuns in the procession was expected to be 500.
At 9:30 a.m., the Gyalwang Karmapa came up the steps in front of the Stupa and entered the BTMC Reception office. A few minutes later, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche joined him there. This signaled that the time had come for the procession of monks to leave the temple towards the outer gate where lay disciples eagerly awaited with their offerings.
The procession was led by a senior monk from Ralang Monastery wearing a yellow hat and holding a bundle of burning incense. Kyabje Gyaltsab Rinpoche was next, holding a ringing staff and a large begging bowl. He was followed by three other Rinpoches holding the ringing staffs from the ancient tradition, as well as scores of Gelongs and Gelongmas carrying their alms bowls.
The procession was enhanced by Tenzin Dorje from Jamgon Kongtrul’s Labrang who scampered ahead adorning their path with flower petals strewn from a large wicker basket. The thronging crowd behind the rope was nearly bursting with excitement, trying their best to place offerings inside the begging bowls, with the usual street urchins underfoot trying to grab at the candies that missed their mark and fell on the pavement. By contrast the Sangha procession was hushed and dignified. As the procession slowly descended the steps from the outer Stupa entrance area onto the main road, the path began to narrow as it snaked past the street vendor’s stalls and led down into the entrance of the park. Once inside the park, the procession is supposed to be restricted to Sangha only, and except for the Karmapa who conducts the ceremony, no one is supposed to speak.
Inside the park were eight rows of mats, four on each side of a center aisle. At the head of the mats, the Gyalwang Karmapa stood next to a blue canopied tent with his golden chögu over his left shoulder. The blue tent was decorated with the Kagyu Monlam logo and draped with flower garlands. As Gyaltsab Rinpoche entered the dining area of the park, he took his place to the left of Karmapa. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche was already seated on the Karmapa’s right. They sat at small tables on either side of the Karmapa’s tent.
As the monks filed in behind the Rinpoches, they were holding their begging bowls in their left hands with the fingers of their right hands grasping the rim of the large bowl. They took their seats quietly and as their columns slowly filled up the Karmapa strolled along the rows of monks. The two groups of Sangha (four rows each) faced each other as they sat in meditation. They said the meal prayer with their hands folded, repeating it over and over, led by the Monlam’s discipline master, Khenpo Kelsang from Rumtek Monastery.
After the meal prayer, the helpers came out with their pails of food and ladled it into the Sangha’s bowls. Karmapa walked around holding a microphone, while the Refuge prayer was recited. Finally the Sangha began to eat the food in their bowls with wooden spoons. In the meantime, Karmapa circled the group of diners acknowledging the lay helpers lined up in blue vests and red head scarves along the back. Servers continued to serve the Sangha seconds from the food pails. After a while, the Karmapa sat down and started to eat. The meal was eaten in silence with mindfulness in the spirit of Mahamudra meditation practice. After the meal was finished, the Karmapa spoke briefly, followed by the group chanting the Heart Sutra. Then there were dedication prayers, which signaled the end of the ceremony. The monks and nuns rose, adjusted their robes and chögus and filed out of the park. Afterwards, the Karmapa called the serving staff up for a group photograph. There had been about 90 helpers participating in this event. The vegetarian meal had been prepared in the morning at Tergar monastery and brought over to the park by the monlam helpers. Gyalwang Karmapa returned to Tergar after the third session in order to complete the private audience schedule from yesterday. Although he met more than three hundred people on Wednesday, time ran out and about a hundred had to be sent away, according to an attendant. These people were invited to attend for a specially scheduled audience this afternoon.
The Akshobhya Retreat
A group of specially invited people, usually those who are ordained or who have completed the three year retreat, complete a two week retreat prior to Monlam, and then take part in the Akshobhya fire puja. As this is the second Akshobhya Ritual Cycle of 2012, the previous one was in March, the retreat this time was very small, only six people: Chime Dorje Rinpoche, four monks and a laywoman, Tashi Sangmo.
The Akshobhya Ritual
According to the Buddhist teachings the present age is one of degeneration when all beings in samsara [the cycle of existence] are suffering because of negative thoughts and actions. The Akshobhya ritual is a very powerful purification practice done for the benefit of all sentient beings. It can liberate not only the practitioners themselves from the fear of an unfortunate rebirth, but other beings as well. The Buddha Akshobhya promised that the merit generated by reciting one-hundred-thousand of his long dharani mantra and making an image of him could be dedicated to other people, both living and dead, and this would assure their release from lower states of existence and rebirth in spiritually fortunate circumstances.
Gyalwang Karmapa has commended this practice as very suitable at a time when negative forces are increasing in the world.
The Akshobhya ritual is in four parts: the first three parts took place at the stupa, where a special altar, displaying some of the offerings needed for the fire puja, was set up in front of a thangka of Akshobhya Buddha. The three parts at the stupa were:
A. The Akshobhya Self-Visualisation
B. The Akshobhya Mandala ritual
C. The reading of the Akshobhya dharani and the Akshobhya sutra
The text for the first two parts of the ritual is not available to the general public. The third part, the recitation of the ‘Dharani that Throroughly Purifies all Karmic Obscurations’ and ‘The Sutra of the Dharani that Thoroughly Liberates from All Suffering and Obscurations’ is open to everyone. The recitation of this dharani is believed to purify all karmic obscurations and all the karma flowing from lifetime to lifetime. Reciting it three times daily can even cleanse the karma of the five heinous deeds, the four root downfalls and the ten non-virtues. It can be used for the dead and the living.
The Akshobhya Jang-Sek [fire puja]
This took place in the evening. Before and during the Monlam friends and relatives had been making donations and giving the names of the deceased and the living who were experiencing great difficukties such as illness, in preparation for the Akshobhya Fire Ritual. The purpose of this type of fire puja [jang-sek] is purification and pacification.
The Gyalwang Karmapa conducted the main puja on the porch of the temple.
Below the steps, a brick fire pit was constructed and a ‘pacification’ sand mandala drawn in it. Then logs were piled on top. The fire was lit during the second half of the puja, and the names of the living and the dead were piled onto the flames.