A personal perspective of the Kagyu Monlam Bodh Gaya December 2006 26th 2006 to January 3rd 2007

I was highly motivated to travel to this year’s Monlam because I knew it would be possible to see His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, and meet my teacher Ringu Tulku Rinpoche and several of my Dharma friends from all over the world as well as be able to visit the site of the Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment. The decision to come to this Monlam was made much easier for me, since it is now possible to fly a two and half hour direct flight from my home base in Bangkok to Gaya airport [which is only 7 klms from Bodh Gaya].

For the past 20 years I have had the good fortune to be a student of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche this was the first time I have ever been to Bodh Gaya or the Kagyu Monlam.

For the past six years I have been living in Bangkok Thailand as a non-immigrant resident alien [retired]. Immediately prior to my retirement I was academic director of the PhD programme at Strathclyde University Business School in Glasgow Scotland. In 2004 I joined other students of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche to travel with him on an historic journey to his place birth in Rigul Kham Tibet [see www.bodhicharya.org for a full account of this journey].

This account of my pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya will cover six main issues; an explanation of the concept of the Monlam and its special significance for the Karma Kagyu school today; a summary of the daily practices which occurred during this year’s Monlam; highlights from the public teachings of HH the 17th Karmapa; details of a day pilgrimage to Vulture Peak; my personal impressions of attending in Monlam; practical travel and suggestions as to how to get the most out the pilgrimage

Readers should understand that this is a highly personal account of my experiences and any mistakes in factual information are entirely errors of my own making. This is not only a devotional account of my experiences it is also a very personal account which hopefully will persuade others, who have yet to come to the Monlam, to do so.

The Kagyu Monlam

This tradition was first inaugurated by His Holiness the 7th Karmapa some 300 years ago. Both the Monastery of Tsurphu and the Johkang Temple in Lhasa were early venues for this event. Following the cultural revolution in Tibet the Monlam tradition was reinvigorated by Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche in 1983 by changing the Monlam’s location from Tibet to Bodh Gaya India.

What is the Kagyu Monlam?

The Kagyu Monlam is a series of prayer ceremonies dedicated to increasing world peace and harmony. Since the mid 1980s it has been held in Bodh Gaya India at the great Stupa under the Maha Bodhi Tree where Sakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment. Here I have para-phrased the explanation of the Monlam as given by HH the 17th Karmapa’s on the DVD “The 23rd Great aspirational Puja of the Glouious Unequaled Kagyupa Lineage” [available from http://www.kagyumonlam.org] “The Tibetan word “Monlam” means vast aspiration of heart felt loving kindness. This vast aspiration entails tremendous power. It is the foundation of Buddha Sakyamuni’s complete enlightenment. Aspiration is the essence of all Buddhist practice. Monlam is the foundation of all the causes and results, as well as the foundation of the interrelatedness of everything. It is held during 8th to 15th days on the 11th month of the Tibetan calendar. Although the Monlam is a Kagyu initiative the organizers of the International Kagyu Monlam [www.kagyumonlam.org] extend invitations to all ordained sangha from all Kagyu monastries in every part of the world pilgrims of any tradition are also most welcome to attend. Since 2001 His Holiness the 17th Karmapa has presided over the International Monlam. Following the Monlam’s relocation to Bodh Gaya India, in addition to Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche several great teachers have attended these include; His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, His Eminence Tai Situpa, His Eminence Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche, His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Kyabje Yangsi Dilgo Khyentse, Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Kyabje Mingur Rinpoche and Ringu Tulku Rinpoche.
This year there were several thousand ordained sangha and a similar number of lay pilgrims attending the Monlam. For a more comprehensive definition of the Monlam readers should go to this website [www.kagyumonlam.org].

Why this year’s Monlam was especially auspicious

There are at least three main reasons why this years Monlam, in my opinion, was especially auspicious. Firstly, because of the growing intensity of global violence making the necessity for periods of intensive prayers all the more important. Secondly, the Kagyu lineage is re-emerging from an extended period of obstacles. This year’s Monalm see His Holiness the 17th Karmapa lead the proceedings having reached his age of majority and showing us several glimpses of his emerging wisdom. Students of Tibetan Buddhism will understand that the Kagypa sect is one several such sects. The other major ones being Gelupa, Sakya and Nyngmapa. The last few decades there have been especially difficult times for the Kagypa lineage. The difficulties began with death of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa. Then followed the protracted search for reincarnation his new reincarnation. This search was preceded by untimely death in car crash of His Eminence Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche. Following the discovery of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa in Tibet and his subsequent installation in the Tsurphu monastery in Tibet the 17th Karamapa was compelled to take a dangerous and covert exit route from Tibet to India in order to obtain teachings from great Tibetan Buddhist teachers.

Finally this years Monlam was preceded and concluded by the inauguration of a new major Kagyu Monastery in Bodh Gaya the Tergar Monastry.

A summary of the Daily Practice which took place at this years Monlam

Before I explain the main practices which took place during the Monlam I would like to mention some very significant events at the new Tergar Monastery which took place prior to the Monlam’s commencement. On 22nd December 2006 H H the 17th Karmapa gave a Chakrasamvara empowerment in the Tergar monastery to all those who made a commitment to complete the Ngondro pracrice. Although I arrived at Bodh Gaya on 26th December after these teachings and empowerments had been completed I talked to several attendees from all over the world. One of the most remarkable aspects of these teachings was the enthusiasm of HH the 17th Karmapa to have greater degree oral transmission in other languages apart from Tibetan so that there would be a greater reach of understanding of the Ngondro practice across both Eastern and Western Dharma communities. HH the Karmapa is now an accomplished Manadrin speaker and clearly pleased all the Chinese speaking peoples not only from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia. Chinese Taiwan but also from mainland China. I met people, who participated in the empowerment and teachings from several cities across China including, Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chengdu and Guangzhou. The inclusion of more Kagyu texts in Mandarin has been made easier because for a long time the whole of the Buddhist Kangjur [the teachings of Buddha] and Buddhist Tengjur [interpretations of the teachings of Buddha]. Because of the pre-existence of these teachings in Mandarin it was possible to offer all the Chinese speaking people who attending the empowerment and teachings to have all of it in Mandarin. There is no doubt that the growing linguistic competence of HH the 17th Karmapa’s Mandarin supplemented by the existence of these new texts in Mandarin created a very strong connection with the Chinese speaking practitioners. Westerners too were not forgotten. HH the 17th Karmapa, although not as fluent in as his Mandarin, each year increases his English language skills. Several different aspects of the Ngondro were also given fresh insight [via his translators] into English.

The Monlam proper was preceded on 25th and 26th December 2006 by ground blessing ceremonies at the Mahabodhi Stupa in Bodh Gaya. As all Buddhists will know the Sakyamuni Buddha gained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree at location where this Stupa in Bodh Gaya is today. The Mahabodhi Stupa is also a contains of small temple within its centre.

Although its been 2550 years since the date of the Buddha’s enlightenment its only in relatively recent times that this holy site has been the focus of global devotion. Despite this there are well documented accounts of early pilgrimages from all over Asia including the Chinese monk Fa Hien. Tradition has it that the seeds from the original Bodhi Tree were taken to Sri Lanka and later returned to the site of the Mahabodhi. Sri Lankan’s were amongst the first non India pilgrims to come to Bodh Gaya. King Silakala of Sri Lanka spent his youth in one of Bodh Gaya’s monastries. It was not until the 4th Century in the Christian era that permission was sought from a Sri Lankan King to Indian rulers for a place where Buddhist pilgrims may come and rest and worship. For many centuries there was already in existence a Mahabodhi monastery in Bodh Gaya and permission was granted to build a Stupa on the north side of the monastery compound. In later centuries the Mahabodhi monastery grew into a monastic university and became a main centre for the study of Theravada Buddhism in India. The Islamic invasion of India in 1199 [Christian Era] destroyed most of the monasteries in Bodh Gaya. Sometime during 1700’s [Christian Era] an Hinhdu swami settled in the crumbling remains of the Mahabodhi temple and claimed it as their private property. In 1877 the King of Burma received permission from the British invaders of India to rebuild the Mahabodhi temple. The Burmese in their enthusiasm to reconstruct the temple also managed to destroy much evidence of the history of the original temple. The Mahabodhi Stupa in Bodh Gaya which we see today has emerged out of these complex series of historical events. It was decided in 1949 that the affairs of the Mahabodhi Temple Stupa be jointly managed by a committee of four Hindus and four Buddhists. This continues to be the way it is managed today. Fortunately the future of the Bodh Gaya Mahabodhi Stupa is further protected at an UNESCO heritage site.

The Monlam Begins

Prior to the first day of the Monlam I deliberately avoided visiting the Stupa so that I could get the full experience of the Monlam inauguration in the flood lit Stupa surrounded by the candle lit procession by 1,000s of monks. I left my hotel at 04.30 by cycle rickshaw to arrive in good time to find a place to participate in the proceedings. Once I arrived at the Stupa I was blown away by the sight of the 160 metre high floodlit Stupa surrounded by its three choras or places to circumambulate the Stupa. The outer chora was high up where great views could be had of all what was going on. Between the outer and middle choras were several thoudsand monks from all Buddhistic traditions in special places were sites for those doing their 100,000 prostrations as part of their Ngondro practice. Between the middle and inner choras was the location of the Bodhi tree where Buddha gained enligtenment. The inner chora was on the outer wall of the small temple enclosed within the stupa itself. I joined a group of Chinese Buddhist from Shanghai and took up my position to await the procession of monks. Immediately prior to the procession the air was broken by the call of “Allah Akbar” from a near by Mosque summoning their faithful to worship.
At around 05.30 , still before dawn, a procession of around 3,000 monks carrying crystal glass bowls lit with candles circumambulated around the great Stupa in Bodh Gaya. Eventually the monks took their own places so that the Monlam could begin. The main focus of the Monlam is to perform an elaborate series of aspirational prayers which are repeated 100,000s of times through out the Monlam. All the ordained monks and any of the gathered lay pilgrimages who are capable of fulfilling the commitment took the Sojong Vows. The eight vows are: Not to kill, not to steal, Not to lie, To be celibate, To avoid intoxicants, Not to be self important, Not to eat after lunch and Not to wear perfume, necklaces and not to sing or dance. The meaning of the Sojong Vows is “the vow of individual liberation”.

Shortly after day break HH the 17th Karmapa arrives at the Stupa he prostrated three times in front on the Bodhi Tree and then resumes in he seat facing the main Stupa. After that everyone also prostrated three times to HH the 17th Karmapa facing the Bodhi tree. Now the first aspirational prayers begins in Tibetan “The Prayer of the twelve excellent deeds of Sakyamuni Buddha”, “The Samantabhadra Noble Conduct and Aspiration Prayer” and finally “The Homage prayer to Buddha Sakyamuni composed by Manjushri”. After this HH the 17th Karmapa and all the ordained monks place ceremonial hats on their heads and say prayers to invite all the past Buddhas and Boddhisatvas to join in the puja. To encourage the participation of these divine bodies Tibetan wind instrument called Jarlings are enthusiastically played. HH the 17th Karmapa then offers symbolic ceremonial robes to all the divine bodies who have been summoned.
At around 09.00 there is a pause in the puja for tea. The prayers are of the “The Samantabhadra Noble Conduct Prayer” throughout the Monlam are repeated in full 100,000 times. This takes five days to complete from 06.00 to 09.00 and 15.30 to 17.00 every day. The Tibetan concept of massive multiple repetitions of holy texts are perceived to have the merits of the prayers multiplied by the number of persons in its presence and it has additional blessing when the prayers are lead by enlighten masters. To this is added the supremely sacred place of Bodh Gaya where Buddha Sakyamuni gained enlightenment. The first part of the morning Monlam sessions concludes around 09.00. Following a break for tea on certain days HH The 17th Karmapa also gave teachings on the life of Milarepa from 09.30 to 11.00. These teachings were available in simultaneous translation from a group of translators [in English and Mandarin] via FM radio whose number also included my teacher Ringu Tulku Rinpoche. After each teaching session long life prayers were also offered for all the great Buddhist masters of the past.

At around 11.00 HH the 17th Karmapa leaves the Stupa for a lunch break. The afternoon sessions begins at 13.00 when HH the 17th Karmapa returns to the Stupa. This time HH the 17th Karmapa sits facing all the monks and lay people with his back to the shrine. He does this because in the morning HH the 17th Karmapa is leading the puja to invite the sacred presence of all previous Buddhas and Boddhisattvas; where as in the afternoon he represents the Buddha himself. The afternoon proceedings begin with a Mandala offering to HH the 17th Karmapa by one of the high Lamas. From the Buddhist perspective a Mandala is a microcosm of the universe. The offering symbolizes the pure motivation of those present at the puja. HH the 17th Karmapa leaves the Stupa around 15.00 but the Monlam aspiration prayers continue until around 17.00

On most evenings throughout the Monalm HH the 17 Karmapa also gave teachings in the Tegar Monastery which were then translated into English and Mandarin.

On the second day through to the 4th day the Monlam continues.

On the 5th day the Monlam there is was a special focus on a Chenrizig [the Buddha of compassion] puja who is the one of the main protectors in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

During the 6th day of the Monlam the prayers and pujas proceded as before.

On the 7th day of the Monlam the whole text of the Kangyur [the teachings of Buddha] is divided amongst the ordained monks and nuns so that it can be recited in its entirety in one day. It has to be divided into separate sections for simultaneous recitation because the Kangyur is so vast. Prior to chanting the Kangyur in the midst of incense and the sound of Jarlings the Buddhist masters circumambulate the Mahabodhi Stupa. In the afternoon session HH the 17th Karmapa begins the Red Chenrizig Sadhana puja. This is a special ceremony in which helps all those who are deceased to be liberated from the Bardo without fear. Prior to the Monlam people have been invited submit the names of those who have deceased are printed on a piece of paper with liberation sutra and lotus seat printed on it. Then HH the 17th Karmapa burnt the names symbolizing that they are liberated instantly the moment that the lotus seat is burnt. On this day there was also an Alms offering by the lay people to all members of the ordained sangha.

Also on the day 7th day of the Monlam there is a food offering of the Lama Chopra Prayers which is an offering to the gurus. After it has been blessed the food is offered to all to enjoy. Generous donors provided these offerings.

On the 8th and final day it is the tradition of the Monlam that all those gathered around the shrine wave white silk cloth or kathas in the air as a sign that they hope to be able to come again next year to participate in the Monlam. The final ritual in the Monlam is the lamp offering prayers. It is believed that the lighting of a single candle by HH the 17th Karmapa which then past on to all those gathered there is a symbolic representation that the teachings of Buddha will spread throughout the world and last forever. The Monlam concludes by the entire gathering circumambulating around the Mahabodhi Stupa offering their light offerings to Buddha.

At special times during every day HH the Karmapa received offerings from pilgrims. I was fortunate to meet HH the 17th Karmapa as part of a larger group of some of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche’s students.

The Teachings of HH the 17th Karmapa at the newly built Tergar Monastery in Bodh Gaya

These teachings took place on the evenings of December 2006 27th,28th 30th and 31st, 1st January 2007. Full details of these teachings are to be found via this website http://www.kagyumonlam.org
In this article I will share with you the context and atmosphere in which the teachings took place. All the evening teachings were given in the new Tergar Gompa which was located about 3 kms out of Bodh Gaya. This meant that 1,000s of pilgrims made the daily commute between the Mahabodhi Stupa and the monastery. Some walked but many went by cycle rickshaw with the rates increasing as the time of HH the Karmapa’s teachings drew nearer. There was very strict security at the Tergar Gompa and all cameras were banned and taken from any pilgrims by security staff before they were allowed to enter the Gompa. Once ensconced in the Gompa the assembled throng began slowly chanting “Karmapa Chenno” which is the traditional prayer of evocation to seek assistance from HH the 17th Karmapa. The chanting took place for at least 20 minutes before the appearance of HH the 17th Karmapa’s so that by the time he did appear the atmosphere was quite charged with affection and a good deal of emotion. I was more than a little intrigued to see him because my only previous encounter with him was when I made a private journey to Tsurphu in Tibet some 10 years ago. Then HH the 17th Karmapa was an 11 year old boy. Now he had attained the age of majority and had been taught by the best living masters of Tibetan Buddhism. Suddenly HH the 17th Karmapa emerged from a side entrance and greeted everyone with an engaging smile and took his seat facing his devotees in the Gompa. There were so many devotees inside the Gompa that it was not possible to do the customary three prostrations so instead people improvised by doing them symbolically whilst still in a sitting position. The teachings were mainly in Tibetan with simultaneous live English translation as well as Mandarin via FM radio. His first three teachings on 27th, 28th and 30th December were based on his own experiences of practicing meditation. What struck me about these teachings was his candor and willingness to discuss his own obstacles in his mediation practice quite openly in front of his devotees. This was a source of great reassurance that obstacles can even occur for great teachers not only inexperienced practitioners. The other lasting impression I received from going to these teachings was the fascinating sight of seeing a very human 21 year old young man behaving as one might expect someone of that age to behave and yet he would suddenly transform into a very special being. There was also a sense of frustration shown by HH the 17th Karmapa at his own still limited spoken English language skills. My overall impression of seeing HH the 17th Karmapa give his teachings was that of witnessing the emergence of a great spiritual teacher whilst he was still a young man.

The teachings given on the 31st December 2006 and the 1st January 2007 focused on HH the 17th Karamapa’s wish to bring the oral transmission of the four foundations from his own lips to Western students in English. Although his English was far from perfect everyone very much appreciated his strenuous efforts in accomplishing this task. After he had given the transmission the commentaries in English were given by the team of translators. Several times throughout these last two teachings HH the 17th Karmapa publicly expressed his wish that 2007 might be the occasion of his first journey to the West.

Day pilgrimage to Vulture Peak

One of the advantages of participating in the Monlam at Bogh Gaya is that it is possible to have a very interesting day pilgrimage to several places where Sakyamuni Buddha gave important teachings. One such place I visited on 2nd January 2007. The group of pilgrims on this day excursion was to have been led by Ringu Tulku Rinpoche. Unfortunately for us he had translation duties to perform on this day so a group of us, after seeking his advice on how best to spend the day, went to Vulture Peak. Vulture Peak is located about three hours drive from Bodh Gaya. The three hour drive takes us from an arid plain to some outcrops of granite rocks raising to about 500 metres. At the base of one of these outcrops is a very flimsy cable car system that transports people to the hill above the location of Vulture Peak. It is also quite possible to make the 30 minute walk from the road up to Vulture Peak. Vulture Peak is the historic site where Sakyamuni Buddha delivered his “Heart Sutra” teaching to his main disciples. All Buddhists will know that in this teaching Buddha revealed the ultimate nature of all things;

“Form is emptiness,
Emptiness also is form,
Emptiness is no other than form,
Form is no other than emptiness,”

Clearly it is quite impossible to fully understand these teachings without having had any personal practice experience because words are only ever a crude metaphor for experience. But what these teachings can do is to give us the aspiration to really understand through genuine practice guided by a realized master. Ringu Tulku Rinpoche told us that when we arrived at the Vulture Peak site we should recite the Heart Sutra. This we did.

The view from Vulture Peak over the valley below is spectacular. It looks down on the same valley containing the bamboo forest where Buddha had his first “rains retreat”.

After lunch we also visited what was the site of the ancient Nalanda University. In its time was one of the greatest universities and libraries in the world.

My personal impressions of attending in Monlam

This was my first ever visit to both Bodh Gaya and the Monlam and I urge all who can to try and come some day to share the amazing atmosphere of the location and the event.
Although, I have been involved with Tibetan Buddhism for several years I am far from being the model practitioner. I do not still do not understand the Tibetan as chanted in the pujas and my practice experience is very limited. Yet I know that by participating in the Monlam with a good heart was an experience I gained much. The most important thing I would like to communicate is that it is quite possible to come to Monlam and have a wonderful experience even if like me you have very limited puja or skills in the Tibetan language. You do not have to attend every single puja from dawn till dusk in order to derive much benefit from being here. It is a global gathering of like minded Buddhists who gather annually in common fellowship.
But before you decide to come for next year’s perhaps you should read more about some practical suggestions as how to get the most out of the pilgrimage to the Monlam.

Practical suggestions as to how to get the most out the pilgrimage

The most important prerequisite before attending the Monlam is to visit the official Monlam website [www.kagyumnlam.org]. Here you will find comprehensive details of all matters concerning the Monlam. In addition I strongly recommend that [via this same website] you make a purchase, in advance of your participation in the Monlam of the excellent DVD entitled “The 23rd Great Aspiration Puja of the Glorious Unequaled Kagyupa Lineage”. At the Monlam website you will be invited to become a member of the Monlam by paying a fee of around 120€. It’s a good idea to become a member even if it is not possible for you to attend the Monlam in person. Those who do attend not only get access to all of HH the 17th Karmapa’s teachings but also receive 3 very good meals on each day of the Monlam. This year it also included an accommodation help service in Bodh Gaya. As each year goes by and more and more people join the Monlam I believe that this service will possibly disappear. In view of this I recommend as I did to make your own individual accommodation bookings to suit your own budgets. There are all types of accommodation from basic monastic dormitory through to three star hotels. I stayed at the Sujata Hotel which was a very good standard which cost me around 2,000 INRs.

Getting to Bodh Gaya
Bodh Gaya is located in the Indian state of Bihar. Bihar is the poorest state in all of India and is plagued by corruption and lawlessness. Therefore planning your travel here must be done with care. It is not considered safe to travel anywhere in the State of Bihar at night. The easiest way to get to Bodh Gaya from Europe is to fly direct to Bangkok and then to fly direct in 2.5 hours to Gaya airport by one of the following three airlines; Thai International Airlines, Druk Air or Indian Airlines. Gaya airport has recently been upgraded and is located just 7 klms from Bodh Gaya. The other ways to get to Bodh Gaya from Europe involve transiting either through Kolkata or New Delhi followed by the prospect long train journeys to the city of Gaya. It is also possible to fly to Patna from Kolkata and New Delhli followed by a six hour bus ride to Bodh Gaya.

Once you have arrived in Bodh Gaya its best to go to the Mahayana Hotel because this is the location of the organizers of the Monlam. Here you register and obtain updates about the dates and times of the upcoming events at the Monlam.

What to take with you to the Monlam in Bodh Gaya
First remember that although India often has a very hot climate in summer in winter Bodh Gaya can be quite cold. Night time lows reaching 2C and day time highs struggling to reach 18C are to be expected. The worst aspect of the weather at this time of year is the dust. The dust can cause flu and many other respiratory disorders. It can be avoided by bringing with you a high quality face mask. The next most important thing to bring with you are layered clothing that can keep you warm and comfortable at all times of the day and night. I now live in the tropics so I also brought with me a down sleeping bag. Here is a list of other necessities to bring:
[1] Flash light or head torch
[2] Hard cushion to sit on
[3] Medi wipes
[4] Gloves
[5] Warm head gear
[6] Aluminum flask water bottle

Several of the above items can be purchased locally at modest prices.

The Indian Rupee is still not a fully convertible currency so caution should be used when changing into local currency. If you change all your €s into INRs on arrival in India then you will have retain this receipt if you wish to reconvert unspent INRs into €s. Instead I recommend that you only change a small amount of €s into INRs on arrival and then purchase INRs via the ATM in Bodh Gaya as you need them. What ever you do always avoid using travelers cheques. They are an expensive inconvenience which is not always exchangeable in India Banks.

Going to the Monlam with an open heart can be a life changing experience. I urge all those who can to do this as soon as possible.


2 Responses to “Andy’s report”

  1. 1 Ben Borges February 18, 2007 at 9:51 am

    Thanks for your story, it was a great pleasure to read you 🙂

  2. 2 Anne McG February 12, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Thank you Andy. I have never been to Bodhgaya or attended the Monlam, but you gave me a sense of participation.

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