Prayer wheels looking like paper lanterns hang suspended from the main gate leading to the stupa. In the early morning and at night they glow with coloured lights (when electricity permits). Made from wood and covered in white cloth they are painted with the mantra OM PEMO KHA BEMA LE HUNG PHAT. This mantra has powers of purification so that all who pass through the gate will receive some spiritual benefit.
Inside the grounds there is a noticeable improvement in the level of organisation and discipline Young Tibetans (dharmapalas) in dark uniforms remind you to take off your shoes and point out the appropriate areas to sit. The paths are immaculate; the mats laid out generously indicating seating areas. There’s even leg room for stretching prostration bruised knees. Volunteers in special jackets (designed by His Holiness) move deftly bearing huge teapots.
The two metre high tormas on the shrine are the central focus, looking like sculptures in a wonderland, each one tiered in five layers centring on a scene from the Buddha’s life: the Deed in Tushita Heaven, Entering the World, Taking Birth, Going Forth, Subduing the Maras, Awakening, Turning the Wheel of Dharma, Passing into Parinirvana. Each of these tiers has a different Buddha at the pinnacle, with a lineage holder underneath, a depiction of the deed, two elders on either side of a cloud of offerings and an offering goddess bearing an auspicious symbol.
In general, Karma Wangchuk, the torma master explained, tormas are an offering to represent the deities. Making the tormas takes almost one month, with 62 monks and nuns working together. Afterwards we will destroy all the tormas, he said. People will take away parts of the torma and use the butter as blessing like medicine.
One easily forgets that the huge organization called Kagyu Monlam – meaning aspiration path – started with an offering of 20,000 rupees to Lama Chodrak from Bokar Rinpoche and fifty people in attendance. It took a quantum leap in 2001 when HH Karmapa started to attend. He introduced new robes, revived the begging bowl, and organised the prayers. This year he has launched an environmental awareness program dedicating December 29th to cleaning up Bodh Gaya.
People flock to the Monlam from America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and China. There are 888 volunteers organizing and 10,000 people attending. It has spread to Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Indonesia with more Monlams planned next year in Singapore, the USA and Poland.
In HH Karmapa’s own words: “Kagyu Monlam is an avenue whereby we can spread, at times of great need, the genuine spirit of love and compassion to all the people of the world, first in Bodh Gaya, then in Bihar… As we continuously offer these prayers for world peace, it is our intention and our wish that peace and happiness extend to all.”
The theme of the Monlam this year is a celebration of the life of Milarepa. HH Karmapa has been reading aloud to the assembly the life-story of Tibet’s heroic yogi for several years and this year he plans to celebrate it with a play on January 1st, which he has written himself, dramatizing Milarepa’s life,
Milarepa underwent seemingly unendurable hardships, living sometimes at 5000 metres and 40 degrees below zero. It’s impossible to imagine surviving this, Karmapa said, but Milarepa was driven by seeing the reality of samsara. If you really have a clear trust in the nature of samsara, then the determination to practise will come. Also Milarepa thought it would create inspiration for people in the future. He said that if his followers practised dharma they would be free from obstacles because of his own practise.
The relationship between Marpa and Milarepa prompted a teaching from HH Karmapa on how to relate to the teacher. How does one relate? With devotion and respect, making offerings, and doing as the teacher explains. In a word, do what makes the teacher happy. In this degenerate time, said HH Karmapa, it’s difficult to find a teacher without faults. But weigh it up and find one whose qualities outweigh his faults.
Should we do what the teacher says even if we don’t agree? If our mind is deluded we will never see the Buddha, said His Holiness. Sometimes the teacher appears to have faults so we can see him. If we understand it this way, the fault becomes a quality. However, if we find out that it’s not really good to do what the Lama tells us to do then we should say we cannot do it. There’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t have to criticize the Lama and have bad feelings about it. The Lama is the most important element in getting enlightened, he emphasized.
‘Now meditate that above the crown of your head facing you is the essence of the Buddha in the form of your Guru radiating light of any colour and pray that I and all beings are meditating like this’.
The assembly of 10,000 sat for three minutes in the early morning sun. There is no doubt that the Buddha is back in Bodh Gaya.