Mahabodhi Temple and Monlam Pavilion, February 6, 2020
In the cold, early hours of Thursday morning, Day 5 of the 27th Kagyu Monlam, the assembled monastics and lay devotees took their Sojong vows in the Monlam pavilion, had their simple breakfast of rolls and butter tea, and chanted the Sanskrit refuge prayers as usual. But, as the umdzes and much of the assembly began the Twenty-Branch Monlam, a large group of monks, nuns, rinpoches, and laypeople stood up to make their way to the Mahabodhi Stupa across the fields and byways of Bodhgaya.
By the time they reached the temple, the sun was up on a still-chilly, clear morning. Birds sang from glossy, dark-green treetops; pigeons swooped about and landed on the geometric patterns of the temple’s sandstone spire. Many of the spectators clasped katas and lotus flowers, or carried beautiful offering plates piled with red, yellow, gold, purple, and white blossoms.
At around 7:30, Their Eminences Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Zurmang Gharwang Rinpoche, and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche arrived at the stupa and were ushered into the main temple. Under the bodhi tree just behind the Vajrasana — the “diamond seat” where Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment — the more than 100 volumes of the Kangyur awaited distribution.
The Kangyur is the Tibetan version of the Buddha’s words; depending on the edition, there are between 101 and 120 volumes. At the Kagyu Monlam each year, these precious symbols of enlightenment are regally carried in a kora, or clockwise circumambulation, of the Mahabodhi temple, by specially chosen gelongs and gelongma — those monks and nuns who hold the full vows of the Vinaya. This year, the gelongma numbered 10. Before the event, the monks and nuns are rehearsed in how to process with the Kangyur. It is carried on the left shoulder; the left hand supports the front end of the text, and the right hand steadies it just before the right shoulder. As they process around the stupa with the Kangyur,
the monastics maintain a meditative state, the head is held straight but the eyes are focused downward.
The spectators, monastic and lay people alike, lined up along the “outer kora,” the upper circumambulation path running along the outer rim of the temple complex. Soon the other-worldly pleading of the gyalings signaled the start of the procession. Through the bodhi trees and across the complex, one could see the majestic procession making its way up the stairs from the temple’s lower level, to the upper kora path. Rays from the still-low sun filtered through wafting clouds of incense.
First came a group of six Tibetan devotees, sweeping and polishing the marble pathway to a shiny gloss. Next, several people strewed carnation blossoms in front of the procession; they were closely followed by two gyaling players, two monks blowing conches, and the incense bearers in their ceremonial yellow hats. Walking in inverse order of seniority, Mingyur Rinpoche, Zurmang Rinpoche, and Gyaltsab Rinpoche, wearing Gampopa hats, were the last of the incense bearers. Behind them came a line of monastics slowly bearing Kangyur Volumes. Khenpo Kelsang Nyima, walking alongside the procession, used a microphone to encourage the spectators to sing “Namo Shakyamunaye” [I prostrate to Shakyamuni] as the Kangyur filed by. There were more gelongs than the 108 volumes of the Kangyur in the procession this year, so those without a Kangyur brought up the rear of the procession, walking solemnly in single-file, with their hands clasped in prayer — the right hand folded face down over the left hand facing up.
Devotees had been asked not to touch the Kangyur volumes or bother the monks and nuns in any way; yet many could not restrain themselves from draping a kata over one of the volumes as it passed, or from offering a lotus onto the top of the Kangyur volumes, which were strewn with flowers. A few elderly Tibetans were seen touching their malas reverently to the Kangyur as it passed and some Chinese devotees pressed small money offerings into the folds of the monks’ robes. Many of the spectators fell into line at the end of the procession, singing “Namo Shakyamunaye”.
When the procession ended, the rinpoches spent a few minutes visiting in the Mahabodhi temple office, and practitioners managed an additional round or two of kora before dedicating their merit and returning to the Monlam pavilion.
After a tea break, the volumes of the Kangyur, carefully labeled, were distributed among the sangha in the pavilion for the annual reading of the Buddha’s words. The monasteries in the Tibetan system are very efficient when it comes to rituals of this sort. Monks and nuns wearing the extra crimson under-shawl of the discipline master, and with numbered, laminated signs hanging from their necks, kept careful track of the portions of text handed to each person who could read Tibetan. It was affecting watching all who could read the scriptures — from elderly Himalayan people, to budding translators from abroad, to the youngest little monks — bent over the texts. Over the course of an hour or so, the assembly read through the entire series of Kangyur volumes, which were then expertly reassembled and carefully bound up in labeled, golden text wrappers, safely put away for next year’s ritual.
It was easy to leap from the morning’s events to imagine or recall similar Kangyur readings from previous years, in other places and times. There is great merit, according to Tibetan tradition, in sponsoring readings of the Kangyur and Tengyur (the Tibetan commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings). Since the Buddhadharma entered Tibet, roughly 1240 years ago, Tibetans have sponsored the printing, inscribing, and reading of these precious scriptures as a way of accumulating merit, eliminating obstacles, and accumulating the causes for positive circumstances. Indeed, our teachers frequently remind us that the dharma is the most important element of the Three Jewels; it is the medicine, the path, the way to enlightenment. Dharma texts are placed high above our shrines, in primacy of place. Tibetans went to great lengths to preserve and maintain their Kangyur volumes amidst invasion and desecration in the mid 20th century. It is thus a fitting tribute, not only to the dharma, but to the reverence and faith in which it is held, that the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo carries out this solemn observance annually.