An Interview with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Saturday 5th December 2009

We are extremely grateful to His Holiness for granting an interview to the Publicity Team about the forthcoming 27th Kagyu Monlam .

Q: Immediately after the conclusion of  the 26th  Kagyu Monlam  in January 2009, plans were under way for this Monlam.  Would Your Holiness  please describe the on-going work of preparation for the 27th Kagyu Monlam?

HHK: The basic schedule – for the prayers and teachings – was decided when I visited Varanasi, immediately after the 26th Monlam finished.  Then there was a further meeting of key members of the Monlam Working Team in Dharamsala during August.

Year-by- year the Monlam programme is growing and becoming more ambitious.  Many more people are involved and  preparation can now take a whole year.  Behind-the-scenes work such as that of the translation team and the publishing team, is never-ending. This year, for example, new editions of the English  and Chinese Monlam texts have been prepared,  and a Polish edition has been published, as well as several smaller booklets. The text of Letter to a Friend  will be available in  ten languages, the text for the Sangye Menla in three languages, and so forth.

Another special feature this year is the souvenir diary which reflects two themes: the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising and Buddhist heritage sites around the world. I felt the latter would be particularly valuable for Tibetans who often know little about other Buddhist traditions.  The preparation of the diary required much work and time.

In addition, each year, we need to prepare new designs  for the butter sculptures and entrance gat, and these have to be made in Bodhgaya well before the Monlam starts. 

Finally, this year we have a celebratory event on the Western New Year’s Day in which there will be a musical drama, the Life of Milarepa,  and a programme of traditional Tibetan culture, both monastic and secular.  Writing and finalizing the script for The Life of Milarepa and rehearsing the performers has taken several months.

Q: What are the unique features of the Kagyu Monlam that distinguish it from other Monlams such as the Nyingma or Jonang?

HHK: Several Tibetan Buddhist traditions hold  Monlams in Bodhgaya and, in general,  we all share the same aspirations for world peace and the well-being of all sentient beings,  for the  Buddhist teachings to flourish, and for the long-life of  the masters of the different  lineages.  There are, however, differences of scale; some are small and not so elaborate, whereas others are larger and more intricate, with a greater number of participants.  Although the Kagyu Monlam is not the largest of the Monlam gatherings, one of its special features is the great diversity of people from different countries and ethnic groups who attend.  Last , for instance, the participants came from fifty-two different countries.

Another special feature is the way we all recite the same text together, and that text itself is special because it contains prayers from great masters of all the different Tibetan lineages.   In addition the text is available in ten different languages, and we recite all the languages at the same time.

In order for our aspirations to succeed, we need to accumulate merit, and this merit has to be dedicated for the benefit of all sentient beings. We also have to remove the obscurations so we recite the Seven Branch Prayer and so forth. We make  offerings  as part of the accumulation of merit and  great  effort  goes  into making traditional Kagyu tormas  which are as beautiful and as decorative as possible, unstained by indolence. Though these are not unique features, they are  important, and many people come to see them.

Of course, it is important to have a good text, but of far greater importance is that the people who attend the Monlam keep pure conduct and have good intentions. Thus, we place particular stress on the good conduct of sangha members, not only on their general behavior but on their whole demeanour, whether they walk correctly, or sit correctly to recite the texts and to meditate, because  recently, we have included periods of meditation, and so the latter is concerned primarily with providing the physical basis for the mind to direct its attention inwards one-pointedly. We also focus on the correct way to wear the robes. Each year we provide training in all of these aspects and send a team out to the monasteries to check that the monks and nuns are doing these correctly. Everyone in the sangha adopts this conduct voluntarily during the Kagyu Monlam, and when I see this, it makes me really happy.

Another particular feature of the Kagyu Monlam is  that during the Monlam, everyone is encouraged to take the Mahayana Sojong vows daily, both sangha and laypeople, without distinction. We develop the bodhicitta intention every day, take the vows, and follow  the precepts, including abstaining from food after noon. 

The organising team is another distinguishing aspect of the Monlam.  I think of all the organising teams, ours is the largest; some members are salaried but most are volunteers, and  several hundred people are involved. The team is divided into smaller teams, each with its own areas of responsibility.

Although some of these features could be considered as special, in no way is Kagyu Monlam to be regarded as superior to other Monlams.  I want to reiterate that the most important thing is our good conduct and pure motivation. The Monlam is an  opportunity for us to serve and help. Indeed all the hard work which goes into Monlam is dedicated to serve those who attend.

Q: What is the theme for this year’s Monlam?

HHK: The theme of this year’s Monlam is gratitude. Basically, we owe gratitude to four groups: to our parents, to the buddhas, bodhisattvas and spiritual friends, to our country, and finally to  all sentient beings. We should also have gratitude to the Kagyu forefathers – Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa.  Over the last few years we have been studying the life of Milarepa, and as this transmission will conclude this year, we have the opportunity to remember his life particularly with gratitude.

Q: Your Holiness has been very active in environmental protection over the last few years.
 Are there any special features of this year’s Monlam related to this?

HHK: This year we have started the Kagyu organization for environmental protection – Khoryug- and the  official website-www. will be  launched on January 1st, 2010. We have also tried to make the Monlam itself environmentally friendly by printing  texts on recycled paper whenever possible. There is room for improvement but we are doing the best we can.

Q: A great deal of effort has gone into preparations for the Milarepa dramatic production on January 1st, 2010.  Could you please comment on your purpose in writing the Milarepa play and why this production is so important?

HHK: Presenting the Milarepa namthar the Life of Milarepa-  musical drama on Western New Year’s Day is actually a revival of a Tibetan tradition from the time of the 7th Karmapa, Choedrag Gyatso, when the Festival of Miracles  was held during the first fifteen days of the Tibetan New Year.  In those days they used to hold the Monlam gathering in the morning and then have dramatic performances based on the lives of the Buddha and  great masters in the afternoon.  This year’s Life of Milarepa is a way of ensuring that that ancient tradition is not lost. 
Secondly, it will be a reminder of Milarepa’s qualities, his purity and wholesomeness.   People have read his story but now they will be able to see it and this should bring it alive for them. My hope is that it will plant a small seed of future liberation in all who watch it.

There are many different versions of the life of Milarepa but I have based the script for the  play on the most famous one written by Tsang-Nyon-Heruka.    It took me several months to write the script. I have changed the literary Tibetan into colloquial so that everyone can understand, and combined traditional Lhamo with contemporary drama.

Q: What is the importance  of Milarepa for practitioners today? What can we learn  from his life?

HHK: When we look at his life, meditating in sub-zero temperatures on a high mountain, eating minimal food and wearing only one piece of ragged, flimsy cloth, it may seem impossible to practice like that today. However, Milarepa  dedicated all his own accomplishments for the benefit of all sentient beings, and, in the same way, we too, can dedicate whatever practice we are able to do for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Q: The teaching for foreign students this year will be on Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend. Why did  Your Holiness chose this text, and what is its importance?

HHK: When we were setting the schedule we couldn’t decide on a topic for the pre-Monlam teachings, but, later, when I returned to Dharamsala, I remembered that it was the custom in ancient India that ,  as soon as someone took the five  refuge precepts, they would memorise  this text.  Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend was written for a king, with laypeople primarily in mind. Hence, it is very helpful in that it addresses the conduct of laypeople, explaining how they should behave in their day-to-day lives. 

Q: The Menla (Medicine Buddha) puja plays an integral part in this year’s Monlam. Why do we practice Medicine Buddha and what is the origin of this particular text?

HHK: When Buddhism first spread in Tibet, the Medicine Buddha practice was very widespread, and existed in three forms:  long, middle length and short form. King Trisong Detsen himself practised the middle length one, and the Medicine Buddha practice was used extensively in  monastic universities and by the Kadampa Masters.

Nowadays we live in a degenerate age when there is firstly much suffering, secondly  much illness, and , thirdly, because people’s conduct is  degenerate,  it is very difficult to maintain ethical discipline. Medicine Buddha practice can help us with all three.

In the Monlam we will be using a shorter practice by Karma Chakme taken from the sutra tradition.

Q: Is it possible for people to continue the Menla practice individually or at their dharma centres? Can it be practiced without the wang?

HHK: It would be good for people to do this practice and, as this particular Medicine Buddha practice comes from the sutra tradition it is not necessary to have either the lung (transmission) or the wang(empowerment) in order to practise it.

Q: Who are the Dharmapalas?   

HHK: Usually the term “dharmapala” refers to the genyen (upasikas-holders of the lay precepts) who  protect the sangha in degenerate times, but  here we mean the young people who come as  unpaid volunteers to serve during the Kagyu Monlam.  They are selected from those students in the Tibetan Children’s Village Schools who have arrived from Tibet, some quite recently, and who do not have relatives or friends in India.  For these students holidays can be a very difficult and depressing time. Their classmates go off to enjoy a vacation with family or friends and not only are these students left behind in the school, but, In addition, their classmates return to school with lots of new things and  gifts they have been given while on holiday.  Some students from Tibet, with nowhere else to go,  have been forced to spend many  holidays like this. Thus, one aspect of the Dharmapala system is to give these students,  who are relatively poor, and do not have a lot,  the opportunity to have a holiday.

A second aspect is to create spiritual imprints in the minds of the new generation. This is particularly  important for those from Tibet who may have had little chance to hear dharma teachings before.  Coming to Bodhgaya  gives them the chance to go on pilgrimage.  Although these students  now live in India, they haven’t had the chance to go on pilgrimage, because of their impoverished circumstances.

TCV Suja School has been providing  dharmapalas for two years now, and this year 110 will be  coming.  We have increased the numbers in order to extend the opportunity to more students.

In the Theravada tradition, in Thailand for example, when they have large gatherings, they call on people holding the lay precepts to act as volunteers to welcome people. In the Tibetan diaspora, we are unable to call on such groups of laypeople but we do have school students.

Q: Kagyu Monlam could not function without the volunteers who come from all over the world and give their services free.  Do you have a special message for them?

HHK: Kagyu Monlam is a large gathering requiring many helpers. We would be unable to pay a large number of people, so we rely on the work of volunteers.  Motivated by faith and devotion to the Dharma, people come from all over the world, sometimes from very far away, to volunteer at  the Kagyu Monlam. Sometimes they work so hard that they don’t have time to attend the teachings even. Without such people, their pure motivation and generous spirit, Kagyu Monlam could not function.

We want to be of benefit to all sentient beings worldwide. There are two ways in which we can do this, directly and indirectly. If we have a good motivation in all that we do in Bodhgaya,and make sincere aspirations, a stable imprint will be left on our minds, and  when we return to our own countries, this imprint will be there whatever we are doing. It will have a continuing effect and benefit which will help the entire world. It’s like the butterfly effect–a butterfly flaps its wings and eventually that small movement of air transforms into a hurricane.  Making sincere aspirations in a gathering of people with pure motivation and good intention has a powerful effect, bringing peace and happiness to the whole world.

It is not essential to come here and volunteer. If you are unable to attend the Kagyu Monlam, you can still share in making the aspirations sincerely and with pure motivation at that time.
Most importantly, Kagyu Monlam demonstrates that we are all one world, one extended family. There are no distinctions made between countries or ethnic groups. We are all here to make a mandala of unbiased love and compassion for all sentient beings. Indeed, the Seventh Karmapa Choedrag Gyatso made the aspiration that all nationalities would gather together and bring each other happiness, and now we have the opportunity to make this happen.
We must demonstrate our unity, bound to one another within this one mandala, breathing the same air.

Q: Your Holiness, could you say a few  words of advice, firstly for those who are attending  the 27thKagyu Monlam here in Bodh Gaya and, secondly, for those who are unable to attend but will be watching the webcast?

HHK: There are always many difficulties for everyone who comes here; there are problems making the arrangements to get here, sometimes difficulties travelling here, and then problems with accommodation when you get here. Yet, people still come in spite of the problems, and I think that is truly wonderful.

Monlam always falls at the end of the year so it is an appropriate time to take stock and reflect on what we have done during that year. We need to increase the good that we have done, and recognise our faults with the determination to do whatever we can to rid ourselves of them. If people use their time during Monlam to do that, then coming here is like taking a spiritual holiday.

The people who come here show great spirit and enthusiasm; even though they often become ill, the so-called Bodhgaya blessing, they still  take delight in the Dharma,
However, there are many people who are unable to come, especially from countries such as China. They may wish to come but they cannot get a visa. For this reason we have the on-line webcast, and I am delighted that they will be able to watch it.

Even if you are not here, it will be possible for you to imagine that you are sitting with us at the Mahabodhi Temple  in Bodhgaya, under the shade of the bodhi tree. Then we can all make sincere aspirations together and dedicate our merit to you in the great hope that one day in the future you will all be able to come.

Q: Finally, Your Holiness, 2009 has been a very difficult year for many people worldwide, with natural disasters as well as man-made problems such as the financial crisis. What message can Kagyu Monlam send out to the world at this time?

HHK: The word monlam means having the hope and aspiration for happiness, peace and well-being in the world.  There have been many difficulties this year but  the most important thing is that we  transform our minds and change them in a positive direction. The majority of the difficulties this year are the consequences of human activity and behavior, driven by our greed  and desire.  Even  extreme weather and environmental disasters can be seen as the result of  the impact of human behaviour on the environment.  It is essential that we learn to exercise restraint  and to live in balance with nature.  We have to transform our motivation and our behaviour very quickly.  Holding this  Monlam and  reciting the aspiration prayers is like taking the wheel of a car and steering it in the right direction.


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