The Examination of Monastic Forms Monastic Sangha Practices Harmony and Stainless Conduct


12, 16 February, 2016 —  Tergar Monastery and Monlam Pavilion, Bodhgaya

“Upon my death and rebirth in all lives, may I go forth from home to homelessness. Following all the victors, may I train and bring excellent conduct to perfection. May I act with pure, stainless discipline that never lapses and is free of faults.”

—From The King of Aspirations: The Noble Aspiration for Excellent Conduct, as translated in the Kagyu Monlam Book: A Compilation for Recitation.

If you joined the crowds peering through the windows of Tergar Monastery or the curtains surrounding the Monlam Pavilion on the nights of the examination of monastic forms this year, you would have been excused for thinking you were watching a choreographed dance—because in a sense that’s what the exam was. At each beat of a drum, monastics, neatly lined up in rows, were turning, bowing, putting on their shawls, and more. These actions followed a detailed sequence of forms the monastics encounter in daily life, and especially during the Kagyu Monlam.

The examination provides an opportunity for monastics to practice and hone their discipline. A competition between the monasteries provides a little extra incentive to perform to the best of their ability. The annual examination also allows for the Karma Kagyu order as a whole to develop a sense of unity and harmony in its monastic forms, under the careful guidance of the Gyalwang Karmapa.

This year, nearly 3000 monastics from 55 monasteries participated in the examination. Specifically, about 400 gelongs (fully ordained monks), 2100 getsuls (novice monks), and 400 getsulmas (novice nuns) participated in the exam. The 400 youngest members of the monastic sangha, called rabjungs, did not participate. Also, Karma Kagyu sangha from abroad and sangha from other Buddhist lineages were not examined.

Each group of monastics was patiently judged by four khenpos, senior monastics in the order. During the exam, the khenpos kept their eyes on the monastics as they performed the various forms. The monastics were lined up in rows, with four or five monastics in the first row especially on display. The groups ranged from about 10-50 monastics at a time. During the applause at the end of each group’s performance, the khenpos took down notes, judging the precision of the forms and the harmony of the group. During the Kagyu Monlam, the khenpos also pay attention to the monastics in everyday life, taking notes about the discipline of the monastics from different monasteries. All these notes are compiled and scrutinized, and, near the end of the Monlam, the khenpos will announce which monastery is the winner of this year’s monastic forms competition.

The examination for all monastics this year included showing how their shantabs (outer monastic skirts) were tied, putting on the red zen and yellow chögu robes, placing the sitting cloth —the dingwa— on the floor properly, performing prostrations from standing and kneeling positions, sitting, receiving tea, chanting the meal prayers, drinking tea, and standing up (ideally without putting hands on the floor!). They also had to properly fold the chögu and dingwa, and place them back on their shoulders with precise position and timing. Each movement was timed by the beat of a drum or tap of a microphone, played by each monastery’s discipline master (tsultrimpa).

The gelongs had many extra forms to demonstrate, such as donning large yellow hats (tsesha), performing a small procession while holding dharma texts (pecha), and demonstrating how to put on their extra yellow monastic robe (namjar) and warm cape (dagam). For the gelongs, each group’s examination took nearly 15 minutes to complete. By contrast, the examination for each group of getsuls and getsulmas took about five minutes.

The forms are constantly evolving each year as details are added or changed according to the Karmapa’s vision. This year, as in the past, the Karmapa personally taught one group of monastics the precise forms and details he would like to see followed. These representatives in turn trained others before the examination. One new detail this year, for example, was that monastics should fold “two-fingers width” of their zens (red monastic robe) over the top of their chögus in the front. These details and the harmony that emerges from the common forms allow the monastic sangha to represent the dharma with confidence and dignity. Hopefully their efforts will inspire all of us to practice the dharma with diligence and attention to detail as well.

Dedicating the Roots of Virtue: Closing Ceremony for 33rd Kagyu Monlam

22 February, 2016  — Monlam Pavilion

With over 10,000 participants chanting dedications and waving white khatas, the 33rd Kagyu Monlam came to a close today.

During his special address in the final session of the day, the Karmapa began by sharing the statistics of this year’s Monlam. Attendees included 4,600 members of the sangha and 6,100 lay people, representing 55 different countries. Of these, 1,600 served as volunteers. The Karmapa pointed out there were monastics from all four major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, including 320 Nyingma, 33 Sakya, 26 Gelugpa, and 4 Rime (non-sectarian) practitioners.

“We call this the Kagyu Monlam, but during the Monlam we primarily recite the teachings of the Buddha and Indian masters, and the Tibetan masters from all traditions,” the Karmapa said. “This helps us create pure vision of all the lineages, and to help all the lineages flourish.”

The Karmapa also said we should recognize that the excellence of the Monlam today is the result of the aspirations of many great masters over hundreds of years, especially the aspirations of the 7th Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso. In his prayer for the Auspiciousness of the Great Encampment, the 7th Karmapa made the aspiration

May people from different lands with different languages,

And of different races,

Frequently assemble here in joy and ease.

The 17th Karmapa advised, “We should recognize the spontaneous manifestation of the Monlam each year as the result of their blessing, and rejoice in their lives and examples.”

Next, the Karmapa offered his thanks to his heart sons  HE Jamgon Rinpoche and HE Gyaltsab Rinpoche and , and the 46 Tulkus, Rinpoches and masters who attended this year. He also thanked the 50 khenpos from various monasteries and nunneries, the sangha, and all those who have came from all across the world. Mentioning the sometimes difficult conditions and particularly the heat that everyone needed to endure this year, the Karmapa said, “You have not let it slow you down. You have been motivated by faith and devotion and I rejoice in your coming.”

The Karmapa also thanked all the 1,600 volunteers and especially Lama Karma Choedrak, CEO of Kagyu Monlam, for their dedication and hard work. “This is all the work of upholding the teachings,” he said.

Next, the Karmapa made a few announcements. First, he discussed the earthquakes in Nepal last year, and the need for the various monasteries and nunneries there to work together to raise funds for reconstruction and repairs. He asked that representatives of each group meet the following morning to discuss their various situations and come up with some ideas to share with him.

The next announcement was regarding the curriculum for nuns’ study and debate training. The Karmapa said he would be meeting with the khenpos from all the nunneries during upcoming Kagyu Gunchö to discuss this.

The third announcement was for all the sangha who received the Three Roots Combined empowerment that His Holiness offered during the pre-Monlam activities. He asked that everyone recite the Three Roots Combined mantra as much as possible between now and next year. Best would be 400,000 recitations, and a minimum of 100,000. The Karmapa said that those who complete the approach would be gathered to perform a long life offering for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, hopefully next year.

Next, the Karmapa turned the microphone over to the Khenpo Kelsang Nyima, who announced the winners of this year’s examination of monastic forms competition. He praised the performance of all the sangha, and said that there had been “astounding improvement” since last year’s competition. Since the Karmapa reformed the codes of conduct  in 2004, based on the forms described by the Buddha in the Vinaya,  “The conduct of the sangha at the Kagyu Monlam… has become something that instills faith in people across the world,” the Khenpo said.

Prizes were awarded for first, second and third place in two categories, novice monks and nuns (getsul), and fully ordained monks (gelong). The winning monasteries and nunneries received cash prizes of ₹100,000, ₹50,000, and 25,000 respectively. Nunneries took all three prizes in the novice category. “It seems like in the future, when we have bhikshunis, the nuns will win everything,” Khenpo Kelsang Nyima said, with a smile.

Next, the Karmapa asked everyone to dedicate the merit of completing the Kagyu Monlam:

Please dedicate the roots of virtue of having completed it so that the teachings of Buddhism in general can flourish a long time. That the Crown Jewel, the sole hope of Tibet, the Dalai Lama may live long. That all the lamas and all the sanghas in the ten directions be harmonious and pure in the three trainings. On a larger scale, may the universe be filled with the excellent glory of peace and happiness—may we dedicate this virtue that it become the cause of this.”

Before beginning the dedications, the Karmapa also asked everyone to keep three auspicious blessings in mind. The first was that Mingyur Rinpoche had returned from his four-year retreat, and had become one of the leaders of the Kagyu Monlam. The second was that the reincarnation of Bokar Rinpoche had been able to attend the Monlam this year. Third, the Karmapa announced that during the Tseringma puja conducted at the Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering, he felt great devotion for Tenga Rinpoche and had a “thought or minor vision of where he might be.” He said he would keep these details until he was able to share them with HE Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, but that he hoped Tenga Rinpoche would be able to return soon.

The final dedication prayers began, and with each aspiration thousands of people waved their khatas, filling the Pavilion with a sense of joy and festivity. The long horns and giant conches joined the gyalings for the final crescendo as our aspirations resounded throughout the universe.