Guru Rinpoche comes to the Kagyu Monlam Part II: The Practice




Tsechu Practice from January 7 to January 10, 2014

In his Introduction to the new text, the Karmapa writes that Guru Chowang recovered the eight chapters of the Tsechu terma from a cave in Lodrak called Stairs to the Sky. Subsequently, the text was filled out with a lineage prayer to bring the blessings of the lamas by reciting their names; a torma for the leftovers during a feast; and then arranged to become the text that we know today. Noting that over the years random changes had been made in the text, the Karmapa warned that it is important to keep the traditional order and form of these practices; changes should only be made by qualified individuals like him and the heart sons, for otherwise, there is a danger of displeasing the dakinis and protectors.

In the beginning, the Tsechu text states that in order to perfect the accumulations and become enlightened, the actual practice is arranged in eight sections. These follow closely the classic structure of a major deity practice: 1. the preliminaries (refuge, bodhichitta, etc.); 2. materials needed for practice (flowers, tormas, incense, and other offerings); 3. Inviting the yidam deities to be present; 4. making offerings; 5. repeating the mantra; 6. fulfillment and reparation (offerings to please the deities and repair mistakes); 7. invoking the deities (encouraging them to engage in positive activities); and 8. the concluding practices (the feast offering, aspiration prayers, the one hundred syllable mantra of Vajrasattva, asking the deities to be patient with mistakes, prayers for auspiciousness, the dedication, and so forth).  One day of four sessions, two and a half hours long, includes all eight of these sections.

The actual practice began on the morning of January 7 at 6am with the Seven-Line Prayer and The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Wishes, one of the two most famous, longer prayers to Guru Rinpoche. In terms of the eight chapters, this first session covered the first four. The umdze (chant master) had a strong, resonant voice and often recited the first two lines alone before everyone else joined in. Generally, the chanting was quite slow and spacious, the tones drawn out in long sonorous waves that could gradually subside into silence and rise up again. This open quality of the recitation allowed the practitioner to reflect on the meaning of the words and be inspired by the haunting beauty of the lines. Around 6:30am before breakfast was served, the Karmapa came into the Pavilion and walked along the edge of the hall, making a circle around the thousands of ordained and lay sangha.

The second session from 9am to 11:30am focused on reciting the mantras associated with Guru Rinpoche and also the practices of Maning and Mahakala. For the latter, the Karmapa had kindly added interlinear translations of the numerous Sanskrit mantras, so that they did not remain a clustered series of memorized sounds, but took on meaning and could be integrated into the practice.

The third session from 1:30pm to 3:30pm was devoted to the protector Shingkyong, who guards the Pureland of Amitabha and usually resides on the mountain of Tsari Drak, spanning the border of Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. Shingkyong made a commitment to Shakyamuni Buddha and Guru Rinpoche to protect the teachings, and in particular, those of the Karma Kamtshang, so one often finds his practice interpolated into others.

The fourth session from 4pm to 6:30 continued with the Shingkyong practice and then concluded the day with a generous feast offering and long life prayers for the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and the main teachers of the lineage. The final part of the session covered the other concluding practices, which purify any errors that may have occurred; dedicate the merit to the realization of full awakening for the sake of all living beings; and send the joy and blessings of the day's practice out into the world to be shared by all.

Each day followed the same basic schedule with a few changes. On the second day, January 8, the Karmapa again came in around 6:30, and very soon after, six monks carried onto the center of the stage a hollow statue of Guru Rinpoche. They placed it on the Karmapa's elegant, white chair, set before the immense Guru Rinpoche thangka that runs straight up from the back of the altar to the high arch of the Pavilion ceiling. [http://the17thkarmapa.blogspot.tw/2014/01/setting-stage-for-guru-rinpoche.html ]

The message of this visual symbol was direct and clear: there is no difference between the Karmapa and Guru Rinpoche.

 On the third day, January 9,the Karmapa came to sit on his throne and participate in the second session. On both sides of the main aisle stretched a series of long white tables filled with offerings: in the center of the table on the right was a tall mirror that reflected from across the aisle, seven gongs set in a wooden framework. On either side of these two were huge offering bowls of silver with gold filigree ornaments; tall red tormas covered in a flurry of yellow butter flakes; lit flowers floating around in basins; three curling, gold dragons holding up an intricately carved incense bowl; nectar filled skull cups four times larger than life. Distributed among all these were tall, clear containers of various grains in their earth colors; biscuits round and square stacked in geometric patterns; candies wrapped in shades of lavender, blue, and soft green or Vicks in gold and blue, spiraling up from the table.

During the mantra recitation, hundreds of devotees made offerings, so the line down the middle aisle seemed to be magically extending itself again and again. Afterward, the main lamas put on the red moon-shaped hats of the Kagyu and stood on their thrones to face different directions.  This made it possible to see the long strings of beads that hung from the Karmapa's damaru in a swaying dance and also the style of his cape (dagam) in gold brocade with a broad swash of deep cosmic blue brocade like the nighttime sky running down the middle of his back.

After this last session, a flock of workers rearranged the Pavilion, moving the mats close together and setting up rows of red chairs at the back to accommodate all the people who would attend the lama dancing (cham) beginning at 7am the next morning of the 10th day, Tsechu itself. This night before, the Karmapa was in the Pavilion looking after the set up in all its details until 12:30am--just an hour and a half before the chanting of Tsechu practice would start at 2am. To accommodate the cham that began at 7am and finished at 4pm, three sessions had to be finished before the lama dancing began.

Getting to Tergar before 2am was not easy for people who lived outside the monastery and had to arrange special transport. At 1:30am, Bodhgaya's roads are empty of their daytime bustle of rickshaws, three-wheelers, the ungainly bulk of tourist buses, and the klip-klop of the horse-drawn tonga carts. At this early hour, you can actually see the bare road, though it's softened by a slight haze that has settled near the ground. The headlights of two isolated cars going to Tergar illuminate the burgundy robes of two monks who walk matching their strides along the dirt path that lines the road.

To make time for the cham, three of the four sessions had to be completed by 5am, so the pace of everything was faster: the music was cut short and the drawn out tones of the chanting were clipped. Seven and a half hours of practice were condensed into three. This gave two hours for the physical preparations, such as donning the elaborate costumes and rearranging the stage. The mental preparations were these four days of practice by thousands of monks and nuns. Further, those who will be dancing have been practicing for a long time as they must do the creation and completion stages of the practice. The dancers came from the monasteries where this cham is part of their practice schedule-- the Karmapa's Rumtek, Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche and Tenga Rinpoche's Benchen, Gyaltsap Rinpoche's Palchen Choling, and Bokar Rinpoche's Mirik. Khenpo Garwang mentioned that during their months of training, the dancers have to memorize a lot, learning the music, the melodies, and the movements to the point of their being second nature. This is important for their mind training and also it can happen that when the dancers put on a mask, the experience changes so completely that they can forget what is happening if they don't know everything by heart.

During the day of cham, the splendor and magic of the dance filled the Pavilion stage. 

Chanting the Tsechu text was woven into some of the dances, so the thread of the familiar lines reappeared throughout the day. After the last dancer bowed his way off the stage, there was a break and then the last session of the practice began with the feast offering, during which cloth bags, reflecting the Karmapa's concern for the environment and filled with healthy fruit were passed out to everyone. Prayers that all be auspicious and that well-being spread to every corner of the world ended the day.

As the crowds dispersed, all who were fortunate to attend the days of practice would carry away somewhere in their hearts the knowledge that the Karmapa and Guru Rinpoche are one and the same. As the Karmapa has said:

No matter what changes happened at the main seats of the Karmapa, the Tsechu practices of the creation and completion phases along with the numerous details of the ritual performance remained intact. So from generation to generation, the Karmapas' disciples have had genuine, unshakeable faith that the Karmapa is inseparable from Guru Rinpoche.
In his dedication of merit for publishing the Tsechu text, the Karmapa also emphasized a second theme of these recent days--the closeness of the Kagyu and Nyima traditions:

Through this merit, may the teachings in general, and especially those of the heart essence of the Great Seal (mahamudra of the Kagyu) and the Great Perfection (mahasandhi of the Nyingma) flourish and spread.
The Karmapa explained: "Personally, from the time I was little I have naturally felt great faith in Guru Rinpoche. So for many reasons, I myself consider it a great fortune to be able to hold this elaborate puja among a great ocean of the Sangha in this sacred place. I think it is also a great fortune for all the monastic and lay people who attend."

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