Manchester does the Monlam

By the Mahabodhi temple, a light brown, multi-tiered stupa, situated in the large square of gardens and walkways, under the branches of the Bodhi Tree, a distant relative of the tree by which Shakyamuni Buddha displayed complete realisation, over 2,500 years ago, sit 1000s of monks and nuns, aged between 6 – 85 years, wearing  saffron and maroon robes, mainly from the Himalayan region, with brown leathery skin, dark brown eyes, and dark hair shaved close to the head. 

In front of the monastic sangha is a 20 metre long and 1 metre wide shrine, on which sits elaborate offerings, including beautifully arranged orange and pink flowers, pyramids of fruit and ornately decorated tormas, with their bulbous bases and conical peaked tops. 

The offerings are made to the Buddhas and all the Kagyu Lineage Lamas, who are represented in 40 separate painted images, each framed in multi coloured brocade, known as tangkas. The images include representations of Indian siddhas, Marpa the translator, Tibet’s most famous meditator, Milerapa, the doctor/monk from Gampo,  and the line of Karmapas and Shamarpas, in their respective black and red hats.

Between the shrine and the rows of monastics is a line of wooden thrones, draped with multi couloured brocade, upon which sit the current lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the 17thKarmapa, Thinley Thaye Dorje alongside other senior teachers.

Behind the rows of robed ones, in a small, event fenced area, is an enclave of invited guests, sitting on foam mats covered in white cotton cloth. They include: western Lamas and those recognised as tulkus, wealthy sponsors, practitioners who have completed long periods of retreat or those involved in the management of dharma centres from around the world.  

Behind this group are many thousands of lay Buddhists from the Himalayan regions of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, Lhadak, China, Mongolia, in coulourful outfits, with jewels in the hair, wearing winter coats, sitting cross legged on the stone walkways or grassy areas, alongside Europeans, Americans, Australians, Malaysians and Russians. Some have brought cushions and mats to protect their ankles, others simply sit wherever there’s a space with nothing to cushion the hard floor.

The atmosphere is jovial, friends reunite, share stories of their journeys, or the year gone by, strangers become friends, share food, mats and prayer books, exchange names, family details and connect through their mutual love of the dharma, Bodhgaya and His Holiness Karmapa. 

As the thin plastic hands of the black and white clock, which hangs by the shrine, tick round to 7 a.m., the loud speakers crackle into life, the Umze, or chant master gently clears his throat, prayer books quickly open and away he goes, leading us with his deep, melodic and resonant recitation of prayers in Tibetan, some of which have been chanted for 1000s of years. 

The volume of the P.A. system is set to a loud buzzing pitch, despite which, the presence of the Umze’s warm and constant voice is the sonic equivalent of drinking hot chocolate. At moments, when he pauses to catch his breath, mid chant, the whole congregation take the lead, with the gleeful high pitched voices of young monks mingling with the tenors and baritones of the older generations, resounding and echoing off the walls of the stupa. This is similar to a rock concert when the lead singer stops and point the mic to the crowd, who all know the words and sing their hearts out. Only these songs open the heart to something vast and timeless. The chant pace is brisk, the beat steady and the melodies oscillate like waves on a deep river. 

Barefooted monks move gracefully, through the ranks, carrying large metal pots of sweet masala chai, filling, outreached, cardboard cups with ease and skill. Senior monks and invited guests are offered salted butter tea, Tibetan style, in china mugs on saucers, decorated with dragons and flowers, with bread muffins on white china plates. The chant takes a turn off the page, as the Umze leads everyone in a prayer offering the tea and bread to the Buddha, dharma and sangha. The multinational gathering pause and enjoy their refreshments. Before recommencing. 

Again the Umze’s voice pours out of the speakers, as he recites, as he has since he was a child, prayers of supplication, devotion, offering, requesting, praising, repentance, aspiration, protection, dedication and longevity, hour after hour, whilst the sweet scent of burning herbs fills the air as monastics, holding glowing incense sticks, offer the aroma to the Buddhas. 

Looking back on this scene, over the heads of the thousands of monastics and lay people seated by the Mahabodhi Stupa and Tree, chanting prayers in Tibetan, a sense of contentment and joy filled my mind. The coming together of all these auspicious factors, some albeit orchestrated and well managed, others spontaneous and felicitous, created an experience of wonder and, dare I say, pure magic! 

If you are interested to know more about the Monlam or wish to attend in 2020 please contact john.sainsbury@dechen.org