The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2022: Day 2
3 August 2022
1. Establishing seniority in the sangha
In secular society, seniority is often given according to age or status, but in the vinaya tradition it is given according to the “seniority of vows” irrespective of age. The seniority of vows is determined by the level of the vow taken, so bhikshus who hold the most important liberation vow were considered senior to novices. It is also determined by the length of time the vow has been held.
Bhikshus who had held the bhikshu vow for the longest time were the most senior within the community. An older person who was only recently ordained as a bhikshu would be junior to a younger man who had been ordained for longer. Within the monastic community, those senior to you had to be shown respect, and monks were seated according to seniority.
Mantrayana added a further differentiation: seniority according to seniority of realisation or seniority of wisdom. Additionally, in the Tibetan tradition, rank is reflected by the height and position of one’s seat. The Karmapa explored the origins of this custom. He referred to a song in Karma Chakme’s Mountain Dharma, called “The Song of Higher and Lower Thrones and Ranks” which says that the height of thrones and so forth derives from the Chinese imperial tradition, and is neither Mahayana nor Vajrayana. The Karmapa elaborated on this. During the Yuan (Mongol), Ming and Qing dynasties, many Tibetan lamas were invited to be the principal guru to the Chinese emperors. Drogön Chogyal Phagpa, the fifth leader of the Sakya school, became the first Imperial Preceptor of the Yuan dynasty. Karmapa Deshin Shekpa was influential in the court of Emperor Cheng Zu during the Ming dynasty, and the Dalai Lama received the patronage of the Xing dynasty. There were many other lamas too. As they were the emperor’s gurus, everyone had to pay them respect and various privileges were accorded to them such as red cushions, red seals, high thrones, playing the gyalins when the lama enters and so on.
In worldly terms, these are important and to be respected, but rank and privilege are not important in terms of the dharma. The Kagyu forefathers Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa, and the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, were all buddha-like gurus, but they had no rank bestowed by an emperor, no red seals, no thrones nor privileges. Drogön Pakmo Drupa, the student of Gampopa who had the widest activity, gave empowerments and instructions while sitting on a thin meditation cushion. Rechungpa once went to a Kadampa monastery to see if he could get some tea. As a yogi, he wore white cotton robes; he had no monastic robes. He sat down at the end of the row. The discipline master spotted him not wearing robes and spoke scathingly, “You! White goat! You have no place with the sheep,” grabbed him by the arm and threw him out of the door. Before Rechungpa could get clear, they shut the door on him, trapping one of his feet. It was excruciating. Saddened and upset, Rechungpa began to sing. A Kadampa master, Geshe Jayulwa, heard him and recognised that the yogi was Rechungpa. Seeing his behaviour, Geshe Jayulwa realised Rechungpa’s special qualities and how different he was from other practitioners. He developed such faith in him that he shed tears. Afterwards, he took Rechungpa as his root guru and received teachings from him in secret.
Another time, there was a dispute about rank and who should sit where at a Sakya Monastery in Tsang. When Tsangnak Tsondru Senge, a great scholar and renowned logician, visited the monastery, he was only allowed to sit at the end of the row. He was offended by this, being a rather proud man. The following day, at the dawn puja, he arrived in the shrine room with a donkey decked out in the three dharma robes and led it to the head of the row. When people asked what he was doing, he replied, “If you need a good voice, he’s got one, so he’s worthy of sitting at the head of the row, and I’ve dressed him correctly.” He was referring to the umzes or chant masters who usually sat at the head of the row. The only special qualities they had were good voices and nice robes. Karma Chakme commented on the point that Tsangnak was making: if you have qualities and high realisation, even if you are seated at the end of the row, because of those qualities, it becomes the head of the row. That is how the buddhas and bodhisattvas will see it. Experience and realisation are the crucial factors, not seating position, His Holiness commented.
He then mentioned another tradition from Tibet called “the rushing ranks.” Instead of arranging seats according to seniority, everyone would rush in from the monastery gates, and whoever got there first sat at the head of the row. It is said this has an auspicious connection with a large monastic sangha.
Summing up, the Karmapa noted that seating ranks were a highly contentious issue in monasteries and caused many problems even at events such as the Kagyu Monlam. The Druk Gyalwang had advised, “The root of the eight worldly concerns comes from seating ranks, so have no fixed seating.” The Karmapa suggested that it was important to be flexible and accommodating to guests. To say, “The Karmapa has such a status in China and Tibet so no one can be seated on a higher throne,” shows that you lack intelligence and have a small heart, he commented. “I think the vinaya tradition of seniority based on the vows is the best way.”
2. Daily Routine
Life in the early sangha community was very different from secular life, for example, there was no eating after noon and strict rules against playing any sort of games or sport. From waking in the morning to going to bed at night, the focus was on dharma practice. After waking up and washing, the monks would put on their robes and go to study the vinaya with their khenpo or acharya. This was termed “transmission and receiving”: the teacher would recite scripture and the student would repeat it in order to memorise it. Thinking about the meaning counted as “contemplation”. Then the student would practice dhyana meditation. During the Buddha’s lifetime, students would also request dharma teachings from the Buddha and ask him questions.
In the mornings, they also had to go on the alms round and ensure that they finished eating by noon. The Vinaya texts in Tibetan give many reasons for going on the alms round. For example, walking into the town or village and back was good physical exercise. Disciplines such as not eating after noon marked them out as different and led householders to respect and praise them. Laypeople believed that making offerings to the bhikshus was a source of merit and was seen as a purification of the offerings. In particular, because they were dependent on alms from laypeople for food, the monks guarded their conduct, and their pride was diminished. The monastics only had one meal a day and were not allowed to eat after the midday meal.
According to the Tibetan Mulasarvastivadin translations, the main reason why bhikshus and novices were not allowed to eat after noon is that they would get fat if they did, which would then make them too lethargic and sleepy, and their minds would become dull, which created obstacles to contemplation and dhyana meditation. However, exceptions were made for those with particular conditions such as diabetes or low blood sugar, because if they were not allowed to eat, it would become an obstacle to listening, contemplation, and meditation.
After the midday meal, the monastics in ancient India would sit under a tree and practise meditation. As soon as the sun set, they would rise from meditation and gather in the shrine hall. There they would share and compare their meditation experiences. Alternatively, they might seek guidance from their khenpo or acharya, or ask the Buddha to resolve questions and doubts. They never wasted time in meaningless talk and idle chatter–they only spoke about matters related to Dharma and dharma practice. They would then return to their cells and continue meditating until they went to bed.
In summary, all the activities in the daily life of the sangha community must be done according to the rules of the vinaya, the codes of conduct. It was rigorous. Once someone was fully ordained, they had to make incomparable efforts to achieve nirvana. With its focus on listening, contemplation and meditation, it was very different from monastic life today, the Karmapa commented.
3. The Rainy Season Retreat (Skt. varṣāvasana; Tib. yar-ney)
The Buddha and his retinue were itinerants—they travelled long distances on foot and rarely spent extended periods in any one place. Moving constantly with no fixed abode was an aspect of Buddhist practice. Later, many great Tibetan yogis, such as Milarepa, also practised with no fixed location. However, in India the monsoon rains last for three months every year, creating difficult conditions for travel, and so began the tradition of the rainy season retreat.
At this point, the Karmapa digressed slightly to consider the length and timing of the varṣāvasana (Skt. for dwelling in houses during the rainy season). Whether for the early rains retreat or the later rains retreat, the Vinaya clearly states that the retreat should last three months. If one had no opportunity to stay for the early rains retreat, one had to stay for the later rains retreat. However, the Karmapa pointed out, nowadays most Tibetan monasteries do not meet these requirements and only keep a one-and-a-half month retreat. During the rains retreat ceremony, monastics always promise to stay for three months, but the Vinaya allows some exceptions if circumstances prevent you from continuing. The retreat is ended by the ritual of pravāraṇa, the releasing of strictures at the end of the rains retreat.
According to the Vinaya sutras, even after you have made the three-month commitment, if you hear of the threatened arrival of a combative monk, one who would cause trouble and disrupt the retreat, you are allowed to hold the ritual of pravāraṇa on either the full or the new moon, after you have held two or three poṣadha —the bi-monthly rite of confession observed by members of the monastic community. This is known as the “sudden pravāraṇa”.
Master Dharmamitra, who wrote a long commentary on the Vinaya sutras, says that after completing two or three poṣadha, if circumstances arise that prevent you from staying longer, you can do the pravāraṇa on either a full or new moon. By then you will have completed either half or two-thirds of the rains retreat and will receive all the benefits. The reason is that the Vinaya sutra and commentary say : “Doing half is doing it” is a common expression, and doing most of it is doing it, as known among the noble beings.” Similarly, Tibetan masters mention difficulties such as lack of food, medicine, helpers or the threat of a disruptive monk as circumstances where you are allowed to leave.
However, the Karmapa observed, all the exceptions depend on a difficulty arising; there is no source he could find in the Vinaya that allows the three-month retreat to be shorter based on custom, as happens in Tibetan monasteries. In normal circumstances, the pravāraṇa should be performed only after three months.
There are also differences in timings between the Theravada and Tibetan traditions. For example, according to the Theravada tradition, the rainy season retreat should start on the 16th day of the 5th Tibetan month, and Wesak — the festival which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and parinirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha— is held a full month earlier than Saka Dawa, the equivalent festival in the Tibetan tradition [celebrated on the 15th day of the 4th Tibetan month]. During the time of the Buddha, the monastics began the rains retreat at the summer solstice, roughly 20/21 June in the Western calendar, which falls in the 5th Tibetan month. This would correspond with the early rains retreat and the Theravada tradition.
There is a month’s difference between the Theravada and the Tibetan calendar, so these timings need to be investigated and considered. These issues are important because they are related to the three fundamental rituals of the Vinaya, which need to be practised assiduously for the teachings to be present. If they are not practised assiduously, the teachings are not present.
Summing up, His Holiness reviewed the three possible types of pravāraṇa. The first is the pravāraṇa held at the proper time after the completion of three months in retreat. The second is the sudden pravāraṇa, when the monastics vow to spend three months in retreat, but circumstances arise that lead to the retreat being terminated before three months. However, they are able to complete the pravāraṇa on either a full or a new moon, as described previously. The third is known as the “communal pravāraṇa” and is according to the Vinayavastu and the Vinaya sutras. This is when bhikshus are forced to abandon the retreat because of a threat to their lives, such as bandits or a flood. There is no time to wait for the full moon or new moon to perform the pravāraṇa ritual, so the monastics agree communally to reconvene later to perform the ritual correctly.
The Karmapa recommended that, whenever possible, all monastic institutions hold a full three-month rainy season retreat to comply with the Vinaya rules for the three fundamental rituals.
The Karmapa then discussed whether monasteries should commit to the early or later rains retreat. He emphasised that this is not a free choice. Unless there is a difficulty or danger, bhikshus should commit to the early rains retreat. However, there is no fault incurred if circumstances dictate that you have to commit to a later rains retreat. There is also no fault if you cannot hold the rainy season retreat at all because of circumstances such as the absence of bhikshus from the community.
Returning to the main topic, the Karmapa explained why it was necessary for monks and nuns in early Buddhism to stay in one place during the rainy season.
The Buddha and his disciples were itinerants and would sleep under the trees. There were no monastic buildings, and they were constantly travelling from place to place. However, the three monsoon months in India created many difficulties—a proliferation of insects and poisonous snakes and the danger of floods. To avoid harming other sentient beings or being harmed by them, it was safer to stay in one place.
The tradition of a rains retreat is found not only in Buddhism; other Indian religions also practise it. The modern Indian scholar S.R. Goyal says that a rains retreat is held in common by Brahmins, Jains and Buddhists.
During those three months of “staying for the rains”, the sangha would remain in a single location, which allowed greater interaction between the monks and local communities. The monks depended on the generosity of the local people in that area for food, and the people were able to receive dharma teachings. So the rains retreat was like a bridge that deepened and strengthened the connection between the sangha and lay followers.
These days, when monks live permanently in monasteries, many aspects of the rainy season retreat are symbolic such as the walk outside the bounds at the end of the retreat. But in ancient India, as the monsoon approached, the bhikshus would stop travelling and gather together at a fixed time each year. As the monastics subsisted on alms for food, they would need to spend the rains retreat in a location near a city or town. They began to distinguish between two types of environment for the rains retreat, āvāsa (dwelling place) and ārāma (pleasant grove). In the early period, these were only temporary places where they spent the period of the rains retreat, not permanent residences.
Gradually things changed. The sangha would return to the same places, year after year, so those dwelling places and pleasant groves became semi-permanent places for them to stay. The retreat practices such as poṣadha, pravāraṇa, and kaṭhina developed, and sponsors were eager to invite them to stay in a particular location. The monks no longer had to subsist on begging for alms but could live on donations from their sponsors. However, during the early Buddhist period, the āvāsa and ārāma were merely places for bhikshus to stay temporarily. They did establish boundaries around these places, but they were not organised monasteries like we have today.
The purpose of living such difficult lives as mendicant itinerants was for the bhikshus to decrease their greed and attachment, to have few desires, and to be content with very little. Instead of focusing their energies on getting food and clothing, they could concentrate on practising the dharma. The aim of the monastic lifestyle was very clear. Their lifestyle was simple, easy to understand and practical, and did not create obstacles to practice. These days the vinaya seems to have accrued more rules, His Holiness commented, becoming more complex and difficult to practice. In contrast to the Brahmins and Jains who gave up even the most basic needs for a living and practised asceticism, the lifestyle taught by the Buddha and practised by the early sangha did not fall into extremes.
4. Poṣadha (Tib. sojong)
At the time of the Buddha, Brahmanical religion was predominantly dependent on the external aspects of religion: complicated rituals, sacrifice, praises and offerings to the gods. The Buddha viewed these as pointless. It has been suggested that one of the main reasons for the initial spread of Buddhism was its lack of emphasis on external rituals and its focus on internal practices that increase the experience of realisation of the mind.
The Buddha taught that you should focus on achieving liberation. External rituals lost their importance: internal practice was the most important focus. In the beginning, even the rituals for taking vows were extremely simple. When the sangha met together, it was to encourage and advise each other. They also performed some rituals together. There were two important rituals. The first of these was poṣadha; (Tib.sojong) and the second was pravāraṇa.
Originally, poṣadha was a ritual observed by the Brahmins. How then did it become a Buddhist ritual? According to Professor S. R. Goyal one explanation is that the Buddha made the rule about observing poṣadha at the suggestion of King Bimbisara. In the early days, during the poṣadha, the monks would recite the most important of Buddha’s instructions, such as the Four Noble Truths, several times.
After the vinaya developed, the precepts of the vinaya would be recited, over and over again, in order not to forget them. During the poṣadha ceremony the monks reviewed the vinaya together. If there were any violations of a precept, it had to be admitted to the sangha without concealing anything. The sangha would then consider the severity of the offense and either set a punishment, advocate leniency, expel the monk, or make them confess.
There were six days of special observance each month when poṣadha was held: the 8th, 14th, and 15th days in the waxing phase of the moon, and the 23rd, 29th, and 30th days in the waning phase. In the Vajrayana, there are two additional days, the 10th in the waxing phase and the 25th in the waning phase. On those days, the lay community would come to the sangha who would give them the five precepts and dharma teachings. These are what are known in Tibetan tradition as the “auspicious days”.
There were two occasions each month for the monastic poṣadha. The evening before an observance of poṣadha, only the bhikshus would gather and recite the Pratimoksha Sutra.
The Tibetan vinaya tradition differs slightly: the evening before the poṣadha, bhikshus and novices would gather to spend the entire night discussing the abhidharma. The Karmapa said that he didn’t know whether this was so in early Buddhism as the abhidharma is usually dated to the later era of Nikāya Buddhism. Since poṣadha is held twice monthly, the abhidharma discussions were also held twice monthly, so these dharma discussions became important.
Then in the first dawn session, around 2.00 am, the Buddha or senior elders would come. Novices would stay outside while the bhikshus recited from memory the Pratimoksha Sutra— the sutra that lists the 253 precepts of a bhikshu, the basis of vinaya discipline. In the beginning, however, there was no Pratimoksha Sutra, so, during the poṣadha, they recited these three verses:
Do not commit any wrongs.
Perform abundant virtue.
Completely tame your own mind.
This is the buddhas’ teaching.
Restraint of the body is excellent;
Restraint of speech is excellent, too.
Restraint of mind is excellent.
Restraint in all is excellent.
A bhikshu who is restrained in all
Is liberated from all suffering.
Guard your speech and restrain your mind.
Do not perform non-virtues of the body.
If you purify these three paths of action,
You will gain the path the Sage has taught.
As the precepts gradually became more numerous and the entire Pratimoksha was compiled, the tradition of reciting the sutra from memory probably developed. Memorising is extremely important, the Karmapa added, as it makes instant recall possible and there is no need to carry a text.
After the sutra had been recited, the novices would enter for the novices’ poṣadha. They would confess any offenses committed in the last fortnight, and if a novice thought they had not committed any offenses, they had to explain. This was known as “offering purity”.
When the poṣadha could not be held during the first dawn session, it might be held in the second dawn session at about 3.30 am, or if circumstances prevented that, in the last dawn session at about 5.00 am. The rule was it must be finished before sunrise. The reason for holding it so early was that laypeople would not attend. It was thought that if householders were to hear the monks’ confessions, they might lose faith in the Dharma. But there is an exception to this rule: if there was no danger of loss of faith and attending the monastic poṣadha could increase faith, the public would be allowed to attend.
“I have explained these according to the Tibetan Mulasarvastivadin scriptures,” the Karmapa stated and concluded the session.