Virtue in the End: the Marme Monlam Concludes the 32nd International Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya
5 January, 2015
In a place where no light has shone for a thousand years, bringing a single lamp there dispels the darkness immediately. Likewise, we have many difficulties and problems in our lives, and our aspirations are like a lamp that can dispel them all.
With these words, the Marme Monlam began, focussing attention immediately on its purpose to bring ‘virtue in the end’ to the 32nd Kagyu Monlam. At the culmination of the largest Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya, more than 12,000 people listened as the Gyalwang Karmapa told everyone:
Our programme this evening is not like an ordinary worldly show to distract us... Instead, we need to listen with awareness, and keep our aspirations and hopes in mind. This is very important.
In recent years, the final act of the Monlam has often tended towards separation from the main programme, becoming instead an entertainment with a spiritual element, reflected by some groups chanting mantra or prayers. By restructuring the event around the theme of the Seven Branch Offering Prayer, His Holiness effectively reversed this trend and restored the prime focus of our aspirations to light the world and dispel the darkness. He turned the Marme Monlam into a meditation practice session, reprising the ones both he and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche had led during the teachings.
In a second innovation this year, he placed nuns at the very heart of the Marme Monlam programme. As we were led through the Seven Branches, they became the unifying element, and assumed some of the roles previously taken by monks. His Holiness chose a group of nuns from Drubdey Palmo Chökyi Dinkhang nunnery in Bhutan, and for a month, he rehearsed them in moving, standing and sitting with dignity and stillness. In silence their long line wheeled around the rooftop patio outside his quarters, supervised by senior nuns. Simultaneously, His Holiness instructed them in the songs they were to sing at the Monlam, with the help of David Karma Choephel.
The Masters of Ceremony –in Tibetan, English and Chinese–introduced the first act:
The only source of all short-term and ultimate benefit and happiness is bodhichitta... that is the wish to bring others benefit and happiness...we must have the compassionate attitude of wishing to free all others from suffering. The best method for developing uncontrived compassion is to bring the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, embodiment of the compassion of all buddhas, into your being.
As they spoke, the nuns moved silently into their positions on the darkened stage, and then grounded the whole evening in the bodhichitta intention with their opening, the Chenresig saddhana All-Pervading Benefit of Beings sung to the melody "Tears of Faith" composed by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa.
The Seven Branch Prayer meditation began with the second act – two male Newari dancers performing the Offering Dance of Vajravarahi. This dance, brought to Nepal in ancient times and passed down from y.ogi to yogi in a secret tradition, was in two contrasting parts. First the figure of peaceful Vajravarahi swirled across the stage, long locks loose, white silken garments flowing as she danced lithely, adorned with a golden, many-peaked crown and towering topknot. Then, mid-way through the dancers changed; Vajravarahi returned in wrathful form, swathed in red silk, three eyes blazing on her face and wearing a long garland of skulls. The lyrics accompanying the dance expressed the Branch of Prostration.
For the second branch, the Branch of Offering, the nuns returned once more. Arrayed across the tiers of the stage, they proferred lotus-shaped lamps, white conches, plates piled high with fresh fruit and glittering golden stupas. Of all seven branches this is regarded as the source of greatest merit. In prefect harmony the nuns sang an offering of the five enjoyments: flowers with excellent shape and colour, incense whose scent wafts in all directions, lamps that dispel the darkness of ignorance, cooling scented water, and food that is delicious and sweet, composed by the Sixth Karmapa Thongwa Dönden. As they sang, a profusion of images of the five offering substances streamed across the stage backdrop, and strobe lights swirled around the pavilion.
The focus of the next meditation was confession. Renowned Taiwanese flautist Dr Gary Wu played a heart-searching, plaintive melody, accompanied by a trio of lute, zither and dulcimer. The Karmapa’s instructions were clear:
…think with intense regret of all the misdeeds and non-virtues you have done in the past as you listen to the plaint of the flute, and confess your past wrongs with as much fear and regret as if you had swallowed poison.
But with true regret and full confession comes hope. Quoting from the Light of Gold Sutra, we were assured:
If one who has done tremendous misdeeds
Over the course of thousands of aeons
Confesses them fully a single time,
They all will be purified.
As Gary Wu faded out, the stagehands moved in and skillfully changed the sets while the Masters of Ceremony introduced the next act. Within the space of a few minutes, the solemnity of the flute solo was replaced by the energy of youth and hip-hop. Striding back and forth across the stage, Dawa Tsona, a Tibetan from the Netherlands, delivered his tongue-twisting lyrics impeccably, a twenty-first century version of Karmapa Khyenno, to the delighted cheers and applause of the young monks and nuns, and the amazement of others. This was an unexpected and unrestrained Branch of Rejoicing.
The tenor of the evening changed yet again, as the nuns returned to the stage. Jetsun Milarepa’s Song of Interdependence was the foundation for a contemplation on Requesting the Buddhas to Remain. “Listen to this while taking joy in the idea of giving meaning to your precious human life,” was the meditation instruction. His Holiness read out the doha or song of spiritual experience in Tibetan first, and then the nuns sang it. Gary Wu and his trio and a handpicked group of young musicians from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts provided a musical accompaniment, which blended with the nuns’ clear steady voices without overpowering them.
The lights faded, the stagehands moved unobtrusively, and the audience was distracted by the voices of the Masters of Ceremony, elegant in robes and traditional Tibetan felt boots, as a new scene unfolded–a dance troupe from Ladakh who offered the Branch of Supplication, in the form of a traditional song and dance called “The Fifth Interdependence”. The performers, wearing multi-coloured costumes and hats representative of different regions, came on stage each bearing a long white khata and different offering substances. In pairs they placed the offerings on a table in front of the Gyalwang Karmapa, before slowly retreating backwards, making way for another pair. They sang of the noble conduct of the ancestors, the parents who raised us, the gurus who guide us, and the leaders of great people—but in actuality, the words were a long life offering, requesting the buddhas to remain. As the dance progressed, the energy and rhythm picked up, and before long the crowd was whistling and cheering them on enthusiastically through their steps.
Dedicating merit is crucial:
Just as a water drop that falls in the ocean
Will not dry up until the ocean has dried,
Likewise a virtue dedicated to enlightenment
Will not be exhausted until you reach enlightenment.
Gary Wu and his trio of musicians returned to the stage for the Branch of Dedication, expressed through their music.
The Seven Branches were complete.
As the programme concluded with Atisha’s Lamp Prayer, the meditation came full circle, returning to the theme of light, especially the inner light. The Karmapa’s script reminded everyone:
The nature of a lamp is light. What it symbolizes is our own inner lamp—the naturally present luminous essence of the mind that is called luminous wisdom. We must realize that the nature of our own minds, the self-arisen luminous wisdom itself is the supreme and ultimate lamp.
The Gyalwang Karmapa rose from his seat in the audience and moved to sit on the stage at the feet of the golden Buddha. Concealed in the shadows to left and right of him, the choir of nuns filed in and sat waiting silently. Two nuns came forward gracefully, one from either direction, and stood before him. His Holiness slowly recited the Marme Monlam prayer three times, in Tibetan, then English, then Chinese. Taking up the lotus lamp from the table in front of him, he lit it, and from that flame lit the lamps of the two nuns, who returned to each side of the stage to spread the light. Slowly, the symbol of the true nature of mind passed between them, from nun to nun, a symbol of spreading enlightenment.
Across the Pavilion, the light spread from lamp to lamp, illuminating the darkness, as everyone joined in singing the Lamp Prayer, recalling, as they did, His Holiness’ instructions:
The lamps and candles of various different types, shapes, and colours that we hold in our hands are like a galaxy of stars that have come down to earth. We should bring our bodies, speech and mind into one, and visualize this as we recite the prayer.
The Monlam was over for another year. As the crowds drifted away, many carried their candles outside, placing them on kerbstones, railings and barricades, where they flickered and danced against the shadows. Most flames were quickly extinguished but a few continued to burn brightly and steadfastly against the encroaching night.
[Various local dignitaries attended the Marme Monlam. From the Mahabodhi Temple,they included Bikkhu Chalinda (Chief Monk), Sri Bam Bam Chaudharg, (Temple Secretary), and Sri Namsee Dorjee, (Secretary of The Mahabodhi temple Management Committee). The Ven. Tenzin came to represent Namgyal Branch Monastery, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Bodhgaya. From the administration they included Sri R.K. Khandelwal, IAS, Commissioner, Magadh Division, Gaya, and Sri Sanjay Kumar Agarwal, IAS, District Magistrate, Gaya. The latter had also shown great interest in the recent Animal Camp.]