Lama Chöpa: Honoring the Memory of Bagyöd Rinpoche and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

 

Monlam Pavilion,
February 8, 2020

The last day of the great Kagyu Monlam is always a special occasion. There are several moving rituals: a cotton-clad procession of yogis who have completed the Three-Year Retreat, a great feast offering of gratitude to the gurus, appreciation of the festival sponsors, and prayers of dedication for the vast merit generated by a week of profound dharma practice. In years where his Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa cannot be at the Monlam in person, as is the case this year, he typically addresses the assembly via video or audio feed on this day as well.

Attendees found the Monlam stage transformed once again on this final morning, this time into a many-tiered palace into which the gurus and siddhas of the buddha-dharma in general, and the Karma Kagyu lineage in particular, would be invited by the assembly. On the main stage, His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s throne faced the assembly; rows of seats for the rinpoches and khenpos were set up to stage right, and a set of white seat cushions stage left of the main throne signaled places for the cotton-clad yogins who would process in after the “Chendren,” the supplication to appear. Behind the seats and throne, flanking both the right and left of the stage, a set of long tables with red and gold brocade tablecloths held regal silver sets of the traditional Buddhist offerings common to all traditions: the 8 precious substances, the 8 auspicious symbols, and the 7 articles of royalty. On a tier just above these, another set of tables held towers of fruit in golden bowls, ornate tall candlesticks, and a large carved bronze incense burner. Several tiers above these elegant offerings was the Lama Chöpa shrine — the focus of the morning’s activity of offering, prostrations, praises and so forth. Two photographs of recently passed great masters of our lineage, Bagyod Rinpoche and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, were mounted against a deep blue curtain garlanded with bright yellow and orange carnations in the classical Indian style. Polished wooden tables in front of the photographs held stylized decorative offerings: gold and silver wish-fulfilling trees, tall candles, silver and gold vessels, and beautiful flower arrangements. More tables, this time bearing offering bowls full of fruit, were arrayed above the Lama Chöpa shrine; and at the very top, just below the golden Buddha statue, the shrine for the golden baby Buddha was lovingly set into place. To its right and left on the upper tiers were artful piles of bright yellow carnation blossoms. The very top level was a riot of color, created by stunning arrays of flowers.

As usual, the assembly took Sojong vows, chanted the Sanskrit prayers, went for refuge and roused bodhicitta. Then, the Offerings to the Gurus According to the Sutra Vehicle, composed specifically for the Monlam by His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa, commenced. Once the ground had been blessed and the palace established, practitioners visualized the Buddha and his retinue — our gurus among them — and requested them to be present. The pace slowed and the focus shifted to the grounds outside the pavilion, where the cotton-clad yogins were processing slowly in from Tergar monastery. Once they were seated onstage, deep in meditation, the offerings, confessions, praises, and all the branches of the Lama Chöpa were completed in order as the shrine master, Chöpon-la, made offerings on behalf of the assembly. Heartfelt expressions of devotion, some of the Monlam’s most beloved verses, rose to the rafters:

It’s he whom just remembering
Conquers the evils of samsara
And brings the highest awakening—
I prostrate to my guru’s feet.

It’s he who dispels the pitch black,
The darkness of our ignorance,
Who’s like the bright orb of the sun —
I prostrate at my guru’s feet.

He takes us to the supreme city
Of undefiled great bliss. It’s he
Who’s like the precious, supreme steed —
I prostrate at my guru’s feet.

It’s he who frees us from great floods
Of birth and ageing, illness and death,
Who’s like the king of ferrymen —
I prostrate at my guru’s feet.

It’s he who permeates all things,
Not ever coming, never parting,
Who has a wisdom mind like space —
I prostrate at my guru’s feet.

It’s he, the light rays of whose speech
Open the lotus of our hearts,
Dispelling all our ignorance —
I prostrate at my guru’s feet.

During a short tea break, Khenpo Kelsang Nyima recognized Bagyöd Rinpoche and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, each in turn, expressing gratitude for their lives of commitment to the dharma and skillful work on behalf of sentient beings. Colorful bags of tsok (feast offerings) were handed to all in attendance. One final debate, one last elegant speech of praise, and many awards for the recent Kagyu Gunchö (winter debates) winners entertained the happy crowd. Then the Lama Chöpa was concluded with heartfelt prayers.

In his afternoon address to the Monlam, His Holiness Karmapa offered further words of appreciation for the lives of these two special beings honored on the Lama Chöpa shrine, and words of encouragement for their students. He commented that both rinpoches had served his predecessor, the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, giving “great service to the teachings with pure, altruistic mind.” His Holiness recounted how, when Bagyod Rinpoche fled Tibet in 1959, he was able to save and bring with him many sacred objects and ritual items. These he gave, holding nothing back, to the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. These precious dharma objects are still in use in Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, the Gyalwang Karmapa’s seat in India. They play a role in the Tsechu, Gutor, and many other pujas. Bagyod Rinpoche established a Tibetan settlement in South India and nurtured the growing monastery and surrounding community like a parent, His Holiness said. Rinpoche was also a powerful Manjushri Yamantaka practitioner. His Holiness expressed optimism that he would be able to locate Bagyöd Rinpoche’s reincarnation and said he would take responsibility for doing so. He finished, “So please do not worry.”

Turning to Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, His Holiness described Rinpoche’s tireless efforts in America on behalf of the 16th Karmapa and the lineage, working over many decades to establish a dharma center, then a monastery — Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York — and a three-year retreat center. His Holiness described how widely Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche traveled in order to teach the dharma, and commented that “His accomplishments for the teachings are greater than those of many who are called tulku these days” — a reference to the fact that Khenpo Rinpoche achieved his realization in this very lifetime, not having been a recognized incarnation of a previous lama.

In conclusion, His Holiness reminded the assembly of the deeper meaning of the Lama Chöpa ritual:

We have prayed to fulfill all the aspirations and wishes of these two great lamas who have passed, and we made vast offerings to them. If we can supplicate the gurus without forgetting, practice their instructions without forgetting, and benefit other sentient beings without forgetting, we will fulfill the gurus’ aspirations. We ourselves awaken to buddhahood by doing this, and repay the kindness of sentient beings by doing this.

In this beautiful tribute, His Holiness made clear that even though he is on retreat at present, his mind is with these great beings, and with their students. He hasn’t forgotten us.

In the Vajrayana vehicle, known as the swift path, the greatest emphasis is placed on guru devotion. It is often stated that guru yoga, the practice of mixing one’s mind with the guru’s mind in meditation, brings unparalleled blessings and realization. In the Kagyu lineage, often referred to as the Practice Lineage, guru yoga is especially crucial; and there is no more potent time to practice guru yoga than the time just after the passing of one’s own teacher. Thus, the Lama Chöpa is a most special gift to the students of the great beings portrayed on the morning’s shrine. In letting us know that he hasn’t forgotten, and in reminding us also not to forget, His Holiness held up a torch, lighting the way forward for the thousands of students of these two great lamas.

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