On New Year’s eve, the area around the stupa is filled with
excitement as the final event of the 27th Kagyu
Monlam Chenmo draws near. The outer path around the stupa is so
crowded that it is almost impossible to cross the densely packed
mass of people and enter the central area where the offering of
light will take place. Inside, the different chanting groups
are having a last rehearsal on the long flight of steps that
leads down to the Bodhi Tree. These marble stairs will serve as
the stage which faces directly His Holiness. This evening he is
sitting on a lower throne that brings him nearer to everyone.
Its back is covered in a stunning vermillion colored cloth,
embroidered with a golden phoenix whose long feathers swish in
undulating curves all around him.
In the background of the evening’s sounds, you can hear the Pali
chants broadcast from the stupas’s loudspeakers; coming through
the speakers for the Monlam is His Holiness reading a text with
Chinese music behind his resonant voice. At the top of the
stairs, a screen has been set up and a projector sends images of
these last days at the Monlam: His Holiness smiling as he walks
down the stairs; Gyaltsap Rinpoche in intense discussion with
his (and His Holiness’s) teacher, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche; or
Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, now grown quite tall, smiling into the
Votive lights have been passed out to everyone. They are
smoke-free in consideration of the environment and sit a small
ceramic dish encircled by golden petals. The initial candle
will be lit by His Holiness and then he will pass this first
light to Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s candle, who will then pass the
light along to another, until everyone has a bit of the original
flame from His Holiness.
Around 7pm, His Holiness takes his throne to become the master
of ceremony. The first three groups do not appear on the
“stage” but chant from their microphones. First the Thai monks
recite in Pali The Sutra Remembering the Three Jewels,
which has been chanted in Sanskrit on alternate days during the
Monlam. Recited in Sanskrit are refuge and a praise of the
Buddha, both of which have been chanted for the last eight days
in the early hours of the morning. For Tibetan, we all chant
the short Chenrezik practice known as The All-Pervading
Benefit of Beings. As His Holiness is considered an
emanation of Chenrezik, this practice seemed specially
appropriate and a rare chance to make this precious connection
with His Holiness at the Bodhi Tree.
Next His Holiness asked the Korean sangha to come forward. They
performed “The Song of the Bell,” which wishes for well-being
and, in particular, liberation for all living beings. Chanted in
the very early morning, these verses are selected from the
writings of various Zen masters. One nun sang the verses in a
lilting rhythm and periodically rang a large bell in front of
her. Supporting her voice from time to time with long low tones,
the sangha in their grey robes and brown chogu (shawl) stood
behind her with their palms together.
The following sangha was eight monks from Vietnam dressed in
soft golden-colored robes. They carried various instruments: a
small hand bell, a little metal drum with a curved stick, a
small bowl gong with a metal shaft, and a small wooden fish with
a wood stick, all of them played to keep the beat. Their
chanting modulated through various styles, one of which was a
quick circulating sound as if the tones were turning around
His Holiness then called for the Chinese sangha, which consisted
of eight monks in their bright yellow and orange robes, and in
the back row, five lay women dressed in dark colors, carrying
bouquets of pink flowers. Three monks in front held glowing
lotuses which they raised from time to time in a respectful bow.
Their chanting of “The Prayer to the Buddhas of the Ten
Directions” was backed up by recorded music, beginning with a
solo flute and moving into several instruments. One monk with a
small bowl gong on a staff led the chanting which alternated
between the monks and the women. At the end, sprays of colored
foil were tossed in the air, catching flashes of light as they
floated to the ground.
Two women in lovely voices began the English chanting by
offering a plaintiff Gregorian chant in Latin that went right to
the heart. Then the whole group sang His Holiness’s song, “An
Aspiration for the World.”
World, we live and die on your lap.
On you we experience all our woes and joys.
You are our ancestral home of old.
Forever we cherish and adore you.
We wish to transform you into a land for all creatures,
Equal for all and free of prejudice.
We wish to transform you into a loving, warm, and gentle
Our hope in you is ever so resolute.
So please be the ground on which we all may live
So all these wishes may come true,
So all these wishes may come true.
Do not show us the dark side of your character,
Where nature’s calamities reign.
In every section of our world’s land
May there thrive a fertile field of peace and joy,
Rich with leaves and fruits of happiness,
Filled with the many sweet scents of freedom.
May we fulfill our countless and boundless wishes.
Next were a group from the Dharmapalas, (“Dharma protectors”),
young men and women from Tibetan schools who come to help with
crowd control during the Monlam. They are stationed around the
grounds and especially at the gates and along the main stairs.
They are integral to the smooth flow of events during the Monlam.
Participating in the Monlam also gives them a chance to go on
pilgrimage to the most important Buddhist site and to spend time
in the presence of His Holiness. The nine young women and nine
young men wore traditional Tibetan dress: the former in a long
grey chupa and an indigo silk bouse and the later in a white
silk shirt and black chupa. They sang in Tibetan “A Melody for
the Three Jewels” alternating between them and then ending with
them all singing together.
Finally, all the performers came back to the steps and sang “The
Lamp Prayer,” written by Jowo Atisha. In the beginning, His
Holiness read and we repeated after him the first part:
May the bowl of this lamp become equal to the outer ring of this
world realm of the great Three Thousands. May its stem be the
size of the King of Mountains, Mt. Meru. May its oil fill the
surrounding oceans. In number, may a hundred million appear
before each and every buddha. May its light dispel all the
darkness of ignorance from the Peak of Existence to the
Incessant Hell and illumine all the pure realms of the buddhas
and bodhisattvas of the ten directions so they are clearly
seen. Om Vajra Aloke An Hum (Om, vajra light, ah hum).
Then everyone chanted the remaining three verses in Tibetan,
Chinese, and English as His Holiness lit his lamp and the light
was spread to everyone, the darkness of the area around the
stupa filling with stars of light. Before he left, His Holiness
thanked everyone for coming and wished them a Happy New Year.
The sound of “Karmapa Khyenno” filled the evening air as people
slowly passed through the gates into the world outside.