Offerings to the Sangha: the Alms Procession and the 16 Arhats

Monlam Pavillion, Bodhgaya
21 February, 2016

The tradition of almsgiving dates back to the beginnings of Buddhism, 2500 years ago. At that time monks and nuns were not allowed to keep or prepare food and were therefore completely dependent onwhatever they were offered to eat by the local community. Each morning they would go from door to door and collect food. By offering food to the Sangha, laypeople not only showed their respect to the spiritual values that the Sangha symbolized, but were able to accumulate merit both by the action of generosity towards the Sangha and also by sharing in the merit which the monks and nuns generated through their spiritual practice.

In some Buddhist countries, the custom of the alms round has survived to this day, but in Tibet, because monasteries were supported by the local communities, it was no longer necessary for monastics to make a daily alms round. The Alms Procession at the Kagyu Monlam is therefore a symbolic act, and was introduced by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa in 2004.  Originally it was held at the Mahabodhi Stupa and people would make their offerings to the monastics after they left the temple grounds.

In 2014, the Alms Procession was moved to Tergar Monastery and the Monlam Pavilion. His Holiness used this opportunity to revive another Karma Kagyu tradition, that of the 16 Arhats Procession. As he explained this morning, during the Monlam prayer festivals at the time of the 7th Karmapa, there was a procession known as the chakkor, probably a procession around the entire area of the Great Encampment. It seems that monks dressed in costumes as the 16 Arhats with their retinue formed part of that procession. The 9th Karmapa added the Buddha and two of his disciples to the procession.

The 16 Arhats [Tib. Neten Chudruk], also known as the 16 Elders, were personally chosen by Shakyamuni Buddha from amongst his disciples.  The Buddha asked them to remain in the world, protecting the Dharma for as long as beings were capable of benefitting from the teachings, and so, at the time of the Buddha’s parinirvana, the Arhats vowed to remain in the world and maintain the Dharma until the teachings came to an end at the appearance of the next World Buddha.

As His Holiness explained when he first combined the two processions in 2014,

We’re inviting the Arhats to join…mainly in order to help the Dharma flourish.  The Dharma teachings are the sole medicine, the sole salve for all sentient beings. It’s the only medicine to eliminate the sufferings of sentient beings.

For the ceremony today, His Holiness sat on the second tier centre stage with his two heart sons, HE Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and HE Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche. Below them on the stage itself, sat the Rinpoches and Khenpos. To their left and right sat members of the sangha including both monks and nuns, including novices.

Because of the growing heat here in Bodhgaya, today’s procession had been modified into three stages.  First, the alms procession of fully ordained monks and nuns bearing alms bowls walked from Tergar Monastery to the Pavillion, as the assembly chanted NAMO SHAKYA MUNIYE.  Then, preceded by victory banners and auspicious symbols, the Arhats entered from both wings of the stage. Masked and wearing heavy costumes, their features and the style of their robes reflected the Chinese tradition of the Arhats which was introduced into Tibet in the 10th century and recorded in a great thangka.

Each walked under a golden parasol, held by a nun attendant. Once they were seated, the Umzes began chanting the prayer of Prostrations and Offerings to the 16 Elders, and representatives of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s Labrang came forward to place great bowls of fruit on the ornately carved wooden tables in front of each Arhat. They were followed by representatives making offerings from the other major Labrangs present.

Finally, the Arhats exited the stage, took off their heavy costumes and masks, and returned to receive further offerings from laypeople, monks and nuns. The line of people waiting to offer to the arhats zigzagged   backwards and forwards across the road in front of the pavilion, back through the gate and then down the side of the pavillion, until eventually it reached the Monlam stage. Within the space of more than two hours, thousands of devotees had made offerings. 
Following the Alms Procession the fully ordained Sangha ate lunch with His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa, HE Jamgon Kongtrul and HE Gyaltsab Rinpoche, on the stage at the Monlam Pavillion.

2016.2.21 Offerings to the Sangha: the Alms Procession and the 16 Arhats 第33屆噶舉大祈願法會.「托缽行腳暨進用缽飯」


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