The Peerless Gurus: Sixteen Arhats Procession and Offering

Monlam participants arrived on day six to find the pavilion transformed. The wide central aisle with its red carpet was strewn with flower petals. Garlands of orange and gold marigolds arranged as scrollwork framed the central medallions representing the eight auspicious symbols: the parasol, golden fish, vase, utpala flower, conch, glorious knot, victory banner, and eight-spoked wheel. White, pink and deep blue petals radiated glorious color in these sacred images.

The stage was set for the arrival of the 16 arhats. In the center, a peaked pavilion awaited the golden, standing Buddha statue which the procession would carry in procession from Tergar. To each side were four, long, low, elegant lacquered seats. Each could accommodate two arhats, with space for offerings in between. Mats were arranged on the tiers of the stage behind the arhats, for the gelongs and gelongmas who would join the alms procession.

Friends of the Kagyu Monlam were invited to line up outside the pavilion, along the road to Tergar, to greet the alms procession with katags. They found the entire path arranged in flower petal imagery. Sacred symbols were outlined in marigold garlands; as the devotees waited, monks came through with fresh flowers to fill in these outlines.

The assembled devotees held up their katags and chanted “Namo Shakyamunaye” as the procession passed in stately and dignified silence. First came the gyaling players, followed by victory banners and parasols, and then the incense bearers. Each arhat was accompanied by a parasol bearer in similar dress. In their beautiful robes, designed by a famous Chinese costume maker, the arhats were regal and magnificent. Their masks, made to reflect the character of each arhat according to His Holiness Karmapa’s painting, made them seem larger than life. They turned slowly from side to side as they walked, displaying their hand symbols, indicative of their activity, to the waiting spectators. Each arhat was followed by his retinue, in the form of the gelongs and gelongmas, the number of monastics representing the correct number in the retinue according to the Kagyu Monlam text. The monastics held begging bowls in precise style: left hand under the bowl, right hand resting on the rim of the bowl. They looked down or straight ahead, chanting mantras and walking meditatively. Finally, a carriage conveyed the standing Buddha, gleaming in the early morning sun, a parasol swirling just above his head. The entire procession turned into the pavilion and processed down the aisle.

The assembly chanted an invitation to the buddhas while the golden statue was placed in the pavilion. The arhats were seated, and the gelongs and gelongmas were arrayed on the tiers of the stage behind and to the sides. Patrons offered baskets brimming with fruit, nuts, and other delicacies. Then, as the assembly chanted Prostrations and Offering to the Sixteen Arhats, followed by praises and auspicious prayers, each lay devotee had the precious opportunity to make offerings. The pavilion was packed, and for about an hour, the young dharmapalas patiently directed a stream of people. The procession was orderly and joyful.

As the morning session ended, the arhats exited and sixteen gelongs took their seats on the lacquered low thrones. The monastics holding full vows then ate their noon meal in meditative silence on the stage, under the watchful eyes of Gyaltsap Rinpoche.

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