A Tour of the Tormas and the Altar for the 32nd Kagyu Monlam Chenmo

Monlam Pavilion,
29 December, 2014 – 4 January, 2015

Four main tormas were created this year. Two each rest on either side of the altar, next to the Buddha in his yellow and red patterned robe, the clear jewel in his forehead gleaming rays of light. The pinnacles of the four tormas rise up the snowy sides of Mt Kailash, the backdrop of the Pavilion stage. The figures in the tormas this year are fewer in number than before, but the surrounding ornamentation has become more beautiful. In general, these tormas are envisioned as the Wish-Fulfilling Tree, and this year delicately veined, soft green leaves overlap to form a support under the lotus seat of the main figures. At the level of the second row, two trees on either side have their trunks laced with curving flower garlands while their green-leaved canopies support four flower buds resembling the traditional norbu or jewels. The flowers have also changed according to the wishes of the Karmapa, who showed the torma makers a photo of the design he liked. Instead of the flatter flowers with curling petals that appeared previously (known as "ear flowers"), this year the petals stand more upright, curving toward the center in a dense array, the color deepening toward the core cluster in a rich, deep hue.

There are twelve figures in the tormas this year. At the top of the torma on the far left is Naropa (10th to 11th c.), the great scholar and siddha, known in the practice lineage for the Six Yogas of Naropa. There is a similar practice from his relation, Niguma, who was an important teacher of Khyungpa Naljor. We do not know much about her, but her teachings remain. One well-known verse reads:

     When you realize that your thoughts of anger and desire,
     Which churn the ocean of samsara,
     Are devoid of any self-nature,
     Everything becomes a land of gold, my child.

Khyungpo Naljor's other female teacher, Sukhasiddhi, resides at the top of the second torma. Dressed in jeweled ornaments, she sits with her left knee slightly lifted; her right hand holds a skullcup to her heart, while her left arm is raised with her index finger pointing skyward. Sukhasiddhi was born to a poor family in Western Kashmir, became a wife with six children and was locally famous for her generosity and kindness. Once when her family was out begging for food, she gave away the last morsel in the house to someone more destitute. When her family returned without food and found nothing in the house, they chased her out, so she went to the country of Uddiyana, where she begged for her food. Once she received a bag of rice and began to make beer. A yogini came regularly to buy it, and when Sukhasiddhi discovered it was for a great yogi living in the forest, she offered her best beer without accepting any money. When the yogi Virupa (not to be confused with the Sakya master) learned of this, he sent for her and gave Sukhasiddhi the complete empowerments for four main yogic practices and also the secret practices of the generation and completion phases.Just after receiving the empowerments, Sukhasiddhi became a wisdom dakini, and her body was transformed into a rainbow.

The figure on top of the third torma is Jamgön Kongtrul Lodro Thaye with a pandita's hat and his hands in the teaching mudra. From each hand extends a lotus stem: one blossoms above his right shoulder with a sword and the other above his left with a text, showing the two symbols of Manjushri. This year, the monk who created this image based it on a photograph from a previous Monlam torma, so in this way, torma tradition is gradually being shaped. In terms of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, the first Jamgön Kongtrul is the only lineage holder, yet his other incarnations have maintained a close connection with the lineage. Regarding the Jamgön Rinpoches' connection to the Shangpa tradition, though only Jamgön Kongtrul Lodro Thaye appears in the lineage-lama supplications as a primary holder of the teachings, both the second and third Jamgön Rinpoches deeply practiced and widely propagated the Shangpa teachings.

The top of the fourth torma is home to Khyungpo Naljor, whose name means "the Yogi of the Garuda clan." At birth, it was prophesized that he would go to India and receive profound transmissions. His extraordinary qualities were already manifesting when he was very young. At the age of five, he spoke of his past lives and predicted future ones, and by ten he shone in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Two years later, he studied Bon teachings and then went on to practice dzogchen and mahamudra. As predicted, he did go to India, making seven trips and enduring many hardships to study with one hundred and fifty gurus. Of these, six were paramount: the wisdom dakinis Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, and also the masters Maitripa, Rahula, and Vajrasanapa. It is the teachings of these five that to this day form the core of the Shangpa transmissions. Records speak of the amazing miracles Khyungpo Naljor performed and that he passed away at the age of one hundred and fifty.

The central level of figures in the tormas, which are always peaceful, begins with the Buddha, who smiles gently and sits in the earth-touching posture, surrounded by a golden ring studded in jewels. His backdrop is a light blue open space with dancing clouds, recalling the end of the well-known Twelve Deeds of the Buddha: "Your mind is like space."Below him, the offerings are the seven types of jewels. The next figure is Amitabha, the buddha of long life, popular throughout Asia. He has a triple-layered halo around his head, shading from orange-red to light peach, and three sets of intensely colored flowers set around him. The offerings below him are the representations of the five sense pleasures.

In the third torma, Akshobhya is adorned in monks' robes and holds his emblem, a vajra, upright on his left hand resting in meditation, while the right is in the earth-touching mudra. Akshobhya has become an important deity for the Monlam as a yearly retreat is performed beforehand by a group of specially selected people who receive direct teachings from the Karmapa. In the torma, the offerings to Akshobhya are the thirteen requisites for a fully ordained monk. Finally, it is a peaceful Vajrapani who is depicted in the middle of the fourth torma. In a landscape resembling the surrounding of Bodhgaya, he sits under a tree with his left leg extended to touch the ground and his right bent inward. His right arm is turned upward so that the palm supports his emblem, the vajra, while his left palm rests on the ground just behind him. Wearing his hair in a topknot, earrings, a jeweled necklace, and gold-patterned cloths casually draped around his upper and lower body, Vajrapani exudes the air of a siddha relaxing in the nature of his mind. The offerings to him are the well-known eight auspicious symbols.

The last and third level of figures in the tormas are the four great kings, who protect the four directions: in the east is Dhritarastra; in the south, Virudhaka; in the west, Virupaksha; and in the north, Vaishravana.  This year, they are all depicted in the Indian style.

Between the four large tormas are eight smaller ones decorated with the eight auspicious symbols and the eight auspicious substances. Below the tormas, on the next layer of the altar are placed tall, geometrically arranged offerings that are the sweets and the fruits of the earth: on the left are red apples, golden apples, green grapes, oranges, pomegranates, black grapes, green apples; on the right are molasses candy, Indian confections, cashews, orange marigolds, biscuits, dried apricots, saffron cake, yellow marigolds, cookies, and red candy.

In a central line descending from the Buddha statue meditating between the four tormas, there is a Medicine Buddha mandala, its outline of scallops lined with red flowers above and sprays of white flowers below, all of which are offered to the Medicine Buddha statue in the mandala's center. Directly below it, flanked by meter-high, ornate butter lamps, is the carved wood pavilion, its four pillars wrapped in purple-blue orchids, that shelters an image of the new-born Buddha. His right hand is raised high as he declares, "In this world I am supreme." It is here each morning that offerings are made of bathing the Buddha, drying his body, giving him robes and ointments.

Below this, on the five descending circular layers of the stage sit six and then five monks, evenly spaced on either side of the stage. Turned to face the center, the curved outline of their maroon robed figures creates an archetypal image, magnified against the white marble of the stage. In front of each monk is a small table of blond wood, holding a new edition of the texts for the Monlam, An Arrangement of the Texts to Be Recited at the Great Kagyu Monlam (sMon lam chen mo'i zhal 'don phyogs sgrig).They are bound as a notebook with four large rings running through the pages making them easy to turn. The letters are clear and elegant, the design flourishes elegant, and the paper an off-white that is easy on the eyes.

From the stunning visuals when seen from a distance down to the smallest detail of the altar, this year's offerings are as rich and diverse as the Monlam itself, which began with empowerments from Knowing One Frees All, followed by teachings on the Parting from the Four Attachments, chanting texts from all the Kagyu traditions, the alms and Kangyur processions, and the generous offerings of support  in many forms by twelve thousand members of the ordained and lay sangha arriving from fifty countries around the world. It truly has been virtuous in the beginning, middle, and end.

2014.12.29-2015.1.4  A Tour of the Tormas and the Altar for the 32nd Kagyu Monlam Chenmo 第32屆噶舉大祈願法會.四祖多瑪雕塑,禮敬香巴噶舉


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