The Examination of Monastic Forms: Monastic Sangha Practices Harmony and Stainless Conduct
Tergar Monastery and Monlam Pavilion, Bodhgaya
12, 16 February, 2016
“Upon my death and rebirth in all lives, may I go forth from home to homelessness. Following all the victors, may I train and bring excellent conduct to perfection. May I act with pure, stainless discipline that never lapses and is free of faults.” – from The King of Aspirations: The Noble Aspiration for Excellent Conduct, as translated in the Kagyu Monlam Book: A Compilation for Recitation.
If you joined the crowds peering through the windows of Tergar Monastery or the curtains surrounding the Monlam Pavilion on the nights of the examination of monastic forms this year, you would have been excused for thinking you were watching a choreographed dance—because in a sense that’s what the exam was. At each beat of a drum, monastics, neatly lined up in rows, were turning, bowing, putting on their shawls, and more. These actions followed a detailed sequence of forms the monastics encounter in daily life, and especially during the Kagyu Monlam.
The examination provides an opportunity for monastics to practice and hone their discipline. A competition between the monasteries provides a little extra incentive to perform to the best of their ability. The annual examination also allows for the Karma Kagyu order as a whole to develop a sense of unity and harmony in its monastic forms, under the careful guidance of the Gyalwang Karmapa.
This year, nearly 3000 monastics from 55 monasteries participated in the examination. Specifically, about 400 gelongs (fully ordained monks), 2100 getsuls (novice monks), and 400 getsulmas (novice nuns) participated in the exam. The 400 youngest members of the monastic sangha, called rabjungs, did not participate. Also, Karma Kagyu sangha from abroad and sangha from other Buddhist lineages were not examined.
Each group of monastics was patiently judged by four khenpos, senior monastics in the order. During the exam, the khenpos kept their eyes on the monastics as they performed the various forms. The monastics were lined up in rows, with four or five monastics in the first row especially on display. The groups ranged from about 10-50 monastics at a time. During the applause at the end of each group’s performance, the khenpos took down notes, judging the precision of the forms and the harmony of the group. During the Kagyu Monlam, the khenpos also pay attention to the monastics in everyday life, taking notes about the discipline of the monastics from different monasteries. All these notes are compiled and scrutinized, and, near the end of the Monlam, the khenpos will announce which monastery is the winner of this year’s monastic forms competition.
The examination for all monastics this year included showing how their shantabs (outer monastic skirts) were tied, putting on the red zen and yellow chögu robes, placing the sitting cloth —the dingwa— on the floor properly, performing prostrations from standing and kneeling positions, sitting, receiving tea, chanting the meal prayers, drinking tea, and standing up (ideally without putting hands on the floor!). They also had to properly fold the chögu and dingwa, and place them back on their shoulders with precise position and timing. Each movement was timed by the beat of a drum or tap of a microphone, played by each monastery’s discipline master (tsultrimpa).
The gelongs had many extra forms to demonstrate, such as donning large yellow hats (tsesha), performing a small procession while holding dharma texts (pecha), and demonstrating how to put on their extra yellow monastic robe (namjar) and warm cape (dagam). For the gelongs, each group’s examination took nearly 15 minutes to complete. By contrast, the examination for each group of getsuls and getsulmas took about five minutes.
The forms are constantly evolving each year as details are added or changed according to the Karmapa’s vision. This year, as in the past, the Karmapa personally taught one group of monastics the precise forms and details he would like to see followed. These representatives in turn trained others before the examination. One new detail this year, for example, was that monastics should fold “two-fingers width” of their zens (red monastic robe) over the top of their chögus in the front. These details and the harmony that emerges from the common forms allow the monastic sangha to represent the dharma with confidence and dignity. Hopefully their efforts will inspire all of us to practice the dharma with diligence and attention to detail as well.