Musical Offerings to the Buddha: The Marme Monlam

January 16, 2014
Monlam Pavilion, Bodhgaya

Right on time at 7:30, the Gyalwang Karmapa arrived to take his seat in front of the stage and the light show starts, bathing the stage in indigo blue as the spotlights find the golden statue of the Buddha who seems to float in space. On stage left appear two monks, who will be the MCs for the evening, one for Tibetan and one for English. They open with words of praise, reciting:

Your orb of wisdom fills the space of all that is knowable; your thousand rays of deeds strike the ground, clearly illuminating all the Buddha's teachings.
Precious Kagyu gurus we bow to you in respect.  

After this invocation, warm greetings are offered to all the guests, beginning with Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche, the tulkus and khenpos, continuing to the ordained and lay sangha, who have come from around the world.

The Buddha said in The King of Samadhi Sutra that we should always make unsurpassed offerings of fine songs and dance, pleasing and delightful music, and glowing rows of lamps, so performances such as musical offerings and dance are a way to bring pleasure and delight. When the great Monlams were held during the time of the 7th Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso, in the morning prayers and aspirations were recited, and in the afternoon, theatrical performances were given. In order to revive this wonderful tradition as the Karmapa wished, this Marme Monlam this year offers an extended program of music, song, and dance.

The Karmapa was then invited to speak. He walked up to a low throne in the center of the stage just below the Buddha and above the great golden sun painted on the steps. After welcoming everyone, he said that one thing all living beings wish for is to have happiness in their mind and to be freed from the suffering in samsara. Therefore, we should bring happiness to others in all the ways that we can.

One way to do this is to offer lamps to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas while making aspiration prayers. These lamps are not just ordinary or worldly lights, but lamps of wisdom, of compassion, and of peace. This evening, all of us are making this aspiration and lighting lamps with the hope that these fine qualities will pass from one person to another and travel far, so that peace, happiness, love, and compassion will fill the whole world.

Touching on some of his favorite topics, the Karmapa stated that the performances this evening are not worldly ones but intertwined with the Dharma. Speaking of the presentations in the order that they appeared, he said that one depicts the natural environment, showing us what we must cherish. The next one makes us think of how we need to benefit all living beings, including animals, and generate a love for them in our minds. The third performance demonstrates the importance of our ancestral traditions and cultures. And finally, since the teachings of Buddhism in Tibet came from India, the last presentation shows the connection between the two countries and the importance of preserving these traditions.

To underscore the spiritual dimension of the evening, the first event was a practice of Chenrezik called All-Pervading Benefit for Beings, which was recited by four umdzes (chant masters). Both the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa are said to be emanations of Chenrezik, the embodiment of compassion. This practice of opening our hearts to all living beings set the framework for the entire evening.

The presentation which followed celebrated the beauty of the natural world. The introduction by the MC also educated the audience about the importance of preserving our environment. The earth with its complex ecosystems is what sustains our life, and we need to care for it.  In particular, Tibet is suffering from the results of human activity. Tibetan glaciers are melting and they supply water to a large portion of the people who live in Asia, so we must take responsibility to protect the waters in Tibet and to preserve its environment.

On the large screen filling the back of the stage, stunning images of nature were projected ̶landscapes of vast plains and majestic mountains, clouds resting gently around their peaks.  These photos were interspersed with images of the performer’s ̶ a flautist, a drummer, a woman playing a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, and a man on an electric piano.  The music had a plaintive quality, a longing sadness for mother earth that went straight to the heart.

The next piece is about the invaluable animals that inhabit the environment. It is played by the new ten-piece orchestra the Karmapa created from traditional Tibetan and Chinese instruments. In contrast to the previous music, this composition, called Hoof Beats of the Yak, is a happy one of animals walking through nature; one can feel their lively gait in the music. The lights are in rainbow colors and the images on the big screen are of wild birds taking flight, yak herds in Tibet, and water buffalo, known by the Tibetans as the yaks' cousins in India. The MC comments that we often do not appreciate what animals give us and that they too wish for happiness and want to be free of suffering. This song of the yaks is to help us appreciate the animals' intrinsic worth and equality.

Traditions are a font of knowledge passed down through generations, an inheritance of wisdom that we need to preserve. The next group is singers and dancers from the Bhutanese Royal Academy for Performing Arts. They offer a dance to accompany a song written by the seventieth Je Khenpo of Bhutan. It is a happy and delighted performance reflecting the auspiciousness that song celebrates.  In a brief translation, it says:

The sky has the sun and moon
That illuminates everything impartially.
May there be the auspiciousness of this never changing
And the auspiciousness of well-being in the world.

If the atmosphere is filled with clouds,
The rain they bring gives a fine harvest.
May there be the auspiciousness of this never changing
And the auspiciousness of well-being in the world.

Dharma is practiced in Bodhgaya, the place of enlightenment
For a thousand buddhas of this fortunate era.
May there be the auspiciousness of this never changing
And the auspiciousness of well-being in the world.

Bhutan has sacred sites of Guru Rinpoche;
The lucky ones who go there find realization.
May there be the auspiciousness of this never changing
And the auspiciousness of well-being in the world.

The themes of this bright song fit well with the setting this evening: it took place in Bodhgaya; before the Monlam, there were two Guru Rinpoche empowerments, three days of his practice, and lama dancing; and concern for the environment has been an important part of this evening and the Karmapa's work in general.

The orchestra returned for the next piece, which offered a poem, called A Joyful Aspiration, along with a melody composed by the Karmapa. Both of these came to him as he was leaving Tibet. He wrote:

"One night in the illusory appearance of a dream, there arose a lake bathed in clear moonlight and rippling with blooming lotus flowers that served as a seat for three Brahmins, wearing pure white silk and playing a drum, guitar, and flute. Created in pleasing and lyric tones, their melodious song came to my ears, so I composed this aspiration prayer."
 In January of 2000, about three weeks after the Karmapa arrived in India; this song became his first composition performed by TIPA to celebrate a special conference of the senior Kagyu lamas.  The song also became quite popular as an English translation spread widely through the Internet. The poem encompassed an aspiration for Tibet, for the Dalai Lama, for culture and knowledge, and for the world []. This evening the poem is sung by a group four women and one man with the two flutes joining in parallel to their voices.  The screen displays classic images of Tibet celebrated in the Karmapa's song ̶ Tibetan faces of all ages, mani wheels, monks blowing conch shells, a woman making a prostration, and prayer flags lifted by the wind.

The final performance of the evening celebrated the connection between India and Tibet with a Doha (spiritual, or vajra, song) of the Indian master Tilopa, who was a forefather of the Kagyu lineage. Many Tibetan translators, including Marpa, the source of major Kagyu tantras still practiced today, disregarded the danger to life and limb in journeying to India. In turn, many Indian pandits have made the arduous trip up to Tibet. Thus there is a mutual connection of wisdom between the two lands. In appreciation of this relationship, the Karmapa has encouraged the tradition of singing these dohas in Sanskrit and in 2010 invited Dr. R.S. Nandakumar to sing this Tilopa doha at the Karmapa 900 celebration. Dr. Nandakumar is returning this evening along with his wife, Dr. Radhika Nandakumar, a superb classical Indian dancer, whom the Karmapa asked to perform as well. Including the feminine in this second presentation of the Doha, the Karmapa extended his support of women from the nuns in the lama dancing to this vivid and beautiful performance of a female artist offered to the luminous Buddha above her.

The final event of the evening is the Lamp Prayer. In full monk's robes, the Karmapa walks up to his place in the middle of the stage, just below the Buddha, and sits holding a radiant lotus at his heart. As during an empowerment, he recites the Lamp Prayer phase by phrase, which the audience repeats. He then leads the singing in a resonant and lovely voice, performing for the first time at the Monlam. The audience joins in while holding up lotus shaped lights or round candles in small ceramic cups. The Pavilion becomes a night-time sea with thousands of stars reflected in it. And on stage the Karmapa sits in golden light, a Buddha beneath the Buddha.

2014.1.16 The Marme Monlam  點燈祈願法會


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