Buddhists from around the world who follow the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism come together each year in Bodhgaya for a prayer festival which lasts several days. This international celebration is held at the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and is led by His Holiness Thrinley Thaye Dorje, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, who is the leader of our tradition. Here, Mary, Viera, Anne, Maggie, Leanne, Hannah and Ken share their experiences of attending, supported by photographs from Derek and Sylvia.
Day 1 – Mary
Dechen’s delegation to Bodhgaya began to gather for the Monlam from Saturday 9 December 2017. Our main teacher, Lama Jampa Thaye and his wife Benie were attending the South Asia Buddhists Association conference on 10 and 11 and we students were fortunate to be invited to spend time with them at the Mahabodhi temple, the place where Buddha achieved enlightenment. After paying homage to the Buddha in the temple we practiced the Chenrezig puja together. We also made use of Leanne’s expert eating house knowledge for a happy lunch together!
The Monlam began on 14 December. It was a marvellous celebration of praise to the Buddha, attended by several thousand Buddhists from many traditions and nationalities, with a substantial number of monastics.
Happily, the rest of our group arrived just in time for the last session of the day and were pleased to be able to see Lama Jampa and Benie before they returned to England.
Day 2 – Viera
After arriving in overwhelmingly busy and colourful Bodhgaya, we registered at the Monlam Office which is in a prominent position opposite the Mahabodhi temple. A wristband entitles us to food at the Karma temple (breakfast, lunch and dinner if you can fit all that in).
The Monlam morning session prayers run from 7 to 11am with a break at 9, after which tea and bread is distributed. There is a 2 hour lunch break and the afternoon session is 1pm to 5pm, again with tea offered mid way.
There are plenty of spaces to settle for the prayers and even a few staircases to perch on for those who are knee challenged. We all found the prayers very beautiful and the 4 hour sessions seem to fly by.
There are plenty of opportunities for contributing to the Monlam. Food and blankets are distributed daily to the poor.
Day 3 – Anne
Kitty arranged for us to meet with the Karmapa at the Karma Temple! We were among hundreds of other groups of monastic and lay people from all over the world but HH Karmapa took time to talk to each one individually and even have group photos taken. When we got outside afterwards we saw that hundreds of people were still queuing.
Day 4 – Anne
We are gaining more familiarity with the Monlam prayers which begin at 7am and finish at 5pm each day. Lama Jampa and Benie kindly left their copies of the prayers for us to share so we have been attuning to the Tibetan accents and, with the help of some of the Tibetan families around us, managing to keep up with the proceedings.
Tonight as we left the Temple darkness fell very quickly. The birds were making their voices heard, people were still making prostrations on the many boards on the grounds, monks were meditating in pop-up mosquito tents and everywhere was lit up beautifully.
Day 5 – Mary
Seven of us hired a minibus to visit Rajgir and Nalanda, which are two hours away from Bodhgaya.
Rajgir is the site of Vulture Peak where Lord Buddha gave the Mahayana teaching, thus marking the second turning of the wheel of Dharma. His recitation of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra is repeated by visiting pilgrims. We joined with a succession of groups in their devoted recitations before moving on to a thali lunch.
The afternoon found us in Nalanda, the recovered ruins of the 5th to 13th century Buddhist University. Nalanda was the greatest of monastic educational institutes for oriental art and learning of the Buddhist world. Associated with Nalanda are many notable Buddhist scholars such as Nagajuna, Asanga, Shantideva and Naropa.
Sylvia and Maggie took an informative guide for the afternoon while the rest of us made our own attempt at pilgrimage while trying to dodge the school girls and boys wanting selfies with us.
The long drive back to Bodhgaya as evening fell transformed the roadside shanty villages into cosy homes illuminated by their cooking fires.
Quote of the day – Ken: ‘Maybe I’m being a bit pernickety here, but I do wish the driver would keep his hands on the wheel!’
Day 6 – Maggie
Kitty had kindly arranged for our group to make food offerings at the Mahabodhi temple. Last night she introduced us to Lama Kelsang and we gave him donations to shop on our behalf.
This morning we joined the queue of devotees during the Monlam break. The monks had prepared bowls which had been filled with fruit, biscuits and drinks and wrapped in kataks (the ceremonial scarves which Tibetans use when they offer something or welcome an honoured guest). With each bowl there was a beautiful golden cloth to clothe the massive Buddha Rupa (statue) in the temple.
We lined up with our offerings. Lama Kelsang took the bowls from us after we had offered them to the Buddha Rupa on the shrine, then we handed the golden robes to the priest to dress the Buddha. Our malas (prayer beads) were all passed to the priest to be placed on the Buddha for blessings. Lama Kelsang led the offering prayers while we remained silent and mindful of our motivation in taking part in the Monlam, making the offerings and our continual practice. It felt such a privilege to be representing Dechen during this very special occasion.
This afternoon His Holiness Karmapa bestowed the initiation of Chenrezig at the Karma Temple. When we arrived the crowds were gathered outside the gate and the courtyard was packed with hundreds more. After a bit of a crush, with our British reserve proving a hindrance against Tibetan devoted enthusiasm, we managed to get into the courtyard. There was room for everyone in the end but it was packed to capacity. There were loud speakers and huge video screens to relay what was going on in the temple.
After the initiation everyone received a blessing and the security arrangements worked efficiently so there was a calm but joyful atmosphere in the several hours that it took.
Quote of the day from Anne ‘ I have never witnessed such attention to each individual in a huge crowd before – words can’t begin to describe it.’
Day 7 – Viera
The final sessions of the Monlam were extremely powerful. The atmosphere in the grounds was joyous and full of energy. Groups of monks positioned themselves among the laypeople and their wholehearted chanting was uplifting and, to some of us, emotional. The devotion and pride in the Kagyu lineage was infectious. The final closing prayer, accompanied by showers of flower petals, laughter and shouts of joy, was a wonderful bonding experience for us with our neighbours.
Some reflections on the Monlam
Having moved on from Bodhgaya, our bloggers reconvened on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi to reflect on the week. Below are their conclusions:
Our reflections on the week were unanimous in that the Karmapa’s presence and his qualities were something wonderful to witness.
We recalled him saying that he had hoped to meet with many of his followers at the Monlam and most afternoons we saw the queues of people at the Karma Temple waiting to do just that. There were people of all nationalities and it was heartening to see the reach of the Kagyu teachings under the Karmapa.
We felt part of a huge Kagyu family, with strangers looking out for each other. We all have memories of acts of kindness we witnessed. As well as the Monlam prayers, the other activities in the temple grounds added to our experience:
– the constant line of devotees presenting offerings in the Mahabodhi temple, circumambulating or chanting, according to their traditions
– within the Karma Kagyu area the monks and laypeople prostrating all day on prostration boards
- – in the evening after the throng had gone, watching monks of all traditions sharing the tasks of cleaning around the temple and the Monlam area.
We also gained an appreciation of the vast compendium of Kagyu prayers and we all appreciated the help and guidance from Kitty for this, our first Monlam.
Quote of the week: Mary – ‘ The Monlam is like the flowering of a lotus’
Viera, Anne, Maggie, Mary, Sylvia and Derek.
To see more photos from this trip, check out this page
To read more about the Monlam, check out the Karmapa’s own site