Practicing Simplicity and Contentment: the Alms Procession of the Sixteen Arhats
3 January, 2015
The winter morning is damp and foggy as the alms procession sets off from the front doors of the Tergar shrine.
The first of the 16 Arhats, who are the central figures of the procession, stands in perfect stillness at the head,grasping a small golden incense burner. Another monk holds a glittering golden parasol aloft over his head.To the front, four incense-bearers wearing yellow crested hats wait in formation to lead the way.
The Gyalwang Karmapa descends from his rooftop quarters shortly before 7am, while the monks are still making the final preparations for the procession. Ignoring his waiting car, he spontaneously decides to instead walk the short distance across to the Monlam Pavilion, past the eager crowds of Kagyu Monlam members already lining both sides of the road.
Speaking the day before on the meaning and importance of the alms procession, he taught the essential practice of being content with what we already have. “Consumerism has become like the religion of the world,” he said.
When companies make advertisements, they say you need to buy this or that. You need an iPhone or an iPad. If you don’t buy this or that, you won’t look good. We’re so heavily influenced by all these advertisements that we think it’s not okay if we don’t buy those things.
But we should reduce our desires. Advertising is always encouraging us to acquire more and more, and telling us that if we don’t we won’t be happy. They fool us with their claims.
As the Buddha said, we must be content and have few desires. We have to remember his advice and keep it in mind. In our own mind we need to do what we can to decrease our desires and be content.
The annual alms procession serves as a reminder of the practices of simplicity and contentment. During the Buddha's time, each monk daily took part in the alms round in order to receive offerings of their main meal from the laypeople. During the Kagyu Monlam it is rich in symbolism, led by figures representing the 16 Arhats who are the elders that vowed to protect and uphold the Buddha's teachings in the world after his parinirvana.
During the alms procession the laypeople are symbolically given the opportunity to make offerings to the sangha, here represented by the 16 Arhats each accompanied by hisentourage, while the sangha receivethoseofferings with appreciation and contentment.
“We should consider ourselves very fortunate to be able to practice as they did in the Buddha's times—even if it’s just for one day,” His Holiness said.“We need to recognize this.”
As they depart from Tergar Monastery, the gelongs in the alms procession softly chant the mantra Namo Shakyamuniye while walking mindfully down the drive. This year new, life-like masks have been specially created in Hong Kong for the procession. Each mask has distinct features and a different expression, although their maroon, blue, and gold silken robes are identical. Each Arhat can be identified either by the symbolic object he carries [For more details go tohttp://the17thkarmapa.blogspot.tw/2014/01/invoking-blessings-of-16-arhats-alms.html] or by the mudra he displays.
The procession slowly and mindfully makes its way through the front gate of Tergar Monastery and turns left towards the Monlam Pavilion. On both sides of the road Kagyu Monlam members stand waiting with large silken khatas in their folded hands. At the entrance to the Monlam Pavilion sixteen grand banners in vibrant multicoloured silk wait to escort the procession down the central aisle.
On stage, the Gyalwang Karmapa and the two masters Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche stand respectfully to receive the procession. After passing down the central aisle the monks in the procession then peel off to either side of the stage, before the Arhats take their seats in a curved row along the front-most edge. Each sits with their lustrous black alms bowls on a small wooden table in front, ready to receive the offerings. Victory banners line the front of the audience before the stage.
With the 16 Arhats and gelongs seated on stage, surrounding the three central thrones, the morning prayers then continue. The Arhats are seated at the front, with rows of monks clad in their yellow robes fanning out behind them to fill all the tiers of the stage, creating a perfectly balanced and powerful visual arrangement.Astunning picture of the Mahabodhi Stupa fills the large screen at the top of the stage, behind the golden statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, drawing the eye upwards to its peak. The background is filled with a glorious azure blue, a colour symbolic of the enlightened mind or dharmakaya.
As the prayers continue, the first rows of people come forward to make offerings to the 16 Arhats on stage, filing past in a slow-moving line. Around two hours later the last person has finally come forward to make their offerings, and the alms procession comes to an auspicious end.