The Akshobhya Fire Ritual
3 January, 2015
During the Monlam, the booth at the back of the pavilion had seen a constant flow of people coming to make offerings on behalf of friends and relatives who had died or who were ill. Now four boxes of names, two for the dead and two for the living, were stuffed full of papers bearing their names, awaiting the final ritual of the Akshobhya cycle, the Jang-sek or purifying fire ritual, which is held in front of the shrine hall of Tergar Monastery.
During the third session of prayers on Day 6 of the Monlam, the assembly in the Monlam Pavilion recited the dharani sutras of Akshobhya Buddha. Meanwhile, at Tergar Monastery, preparations for the puja were delayed by heavy rain which pooled on the patio where the bonfire for burning the names should be. Sheltering in the shrine hall, the monks prepared the pacifying mandala, which is placed below this bonfire. Back at the Pavilion, as the rain pounded down unceasingly on the metal roof, there was some doubt whether the puja would be able to start on time and a suggestion it might be delayed to 9.00pm. Fortunately, the weather cleared, and the ritual began after a short delay at 5.20pm.
Hundreds of people clustered around to watch. This year, because of the weather, they were allowed onto the veranda itself where the Gyalwang Karmapa performed the offerings part of the ritual. He and the retreatants had completed two hours of preliminaries upstairs before they came down to complete the actual fire ritual.
On the veranda, facing a thangka of Akshobhya, a special altar had been set up, to represent Akshobhya’s pure land with a symbolic metal gate from which coloured string ran from corner to corner around the table, signifying the boundary. Within the pure land a metal bowl had been prepared to hold a small ritual fire. To the right of the altar, the offerings had been arranged ready: the five grains, pomegranate, white and black sesame seeds, small balls of tsampa for long-life, grasses, and so forth. A second table held the eight auspicious symbols and the five auspicious substances.
Outside, the pacifying mandala had been placed within the hearth and firewood carefully stacked over it. Four boxes of names, of the living and the dead, waited to be burnt.
The ritual began. Supported by the retreatants, who sat on cushions at small wooden tables, His Holiness first invoked the god of fire before lighting the small offering fire, and then made offerings to the fire god. Outside, the main bonfire was lit by monks. The Karmapa then proceeded through the prayers and offerings to Akshobhya Buddha. Some substances were cast onto the fire, some ladled carefully. Having finished the ritual, His Holiness got up and stood on the edge of the veranda to offer more prayers and recite the Akhshobyha mantra. Many of the watchers, not knowing this mantra, began a chant of OM MANI PADME HUM and some recited Tara’s mantra instead, as more sheets of names were added to the bonfire. [See accompanying photographs for more detail.]
Smoke spiralled upwards into the night as the flames rose and the fire burned fiercely. The final prayers ended, and His Holiness left, followed by the security personnel. Many of the spectators crowded around the shrine where His Holiness had just been sitting, and wafted the smoke from the purifying ritual fire over themselves. Half-an-hour later, the crowd had dispersed into the night.
The bonfire continued to burn steadily.
The following morning, as people passed on their way to the Monlam Pavilion for the final day of Monlam prayers, the fire was still smouldering.