Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings:
17th Gyalwang Karmapa on The Life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje
March 10, 2021
Practices of the Greater Individual
To begin, the Gyalwang Karmapa spoke about the section of the autobiographical Good Deeds that describes how Mikyö Dorje practiced the path of the greater individual. This section has three different sub-topics:
a) The intention: rousing bodhichitta
b) Taking adversity as the path in post meditation
c) How he trained in the precepts of the two types of bodhichitta
The first sub-topic concerns the ninth stanza of Good Deeds:
All beings, without distinction, are the same as my parents.
It is illogical to group them into factions of friend and foe.
With uncontrived love for beings in intolerable states,
I thought, when can I bring them the benefit of true enlightenment?
I think of this as one of my good deeds.
The fifth stanza of He Searched Thoroughly has a similar meaning. The topic is “transcendent generosity, lovingkindness and so forth—and transcendent diligence of nonattachment and so forth,” according to the 5th Shamar Rinpoche. The verse reads:
His mind never free from love and pangs of compassion,
His wish for emancipation was utterly pure.
He always despaired of suffering and its causes
And pondered impermanence—to him I pray.
His Holiness noted that he had already discussed this in regard to the preliminaries of entering the Dharma, but it is also relevant to the practices of the greater individual, so he explained it again in the present context.
In the Instruction for Training in the Liberation Story, Mikyö Dorje advised his students to discard the afflictions and realize selflessness. We should try as hard as we can to do this. Limitless sentient beings are obscured by the afflictions, and many are quite far from perfect buddhahood, the highest happiness. For that reason, it is important that all sentient beings achieve buddhahood. It doesn’t help much if only a few do so. To achieve this state, we should have compassion for sentient beings who have no guide—even for the arhats who have passed into nirvana [a state of peace which transcends suffering] but who have not yet achieved complete enlightenment [buddhahood]. We need to give up the arhat’s desire for peace, and it goes without saying that we also need to abandon the desire for the richness and bounty of this life. If we have the true wish to achieve buddhahood, we would have no desire to be famous, wealthy, etc. We would not have even the slightest hope for this.
For this reason, when we see some lamas becoming wealthy and famous, we aren’t envious of them. If we have no wish for these things, there is no possibility of envy. These days, many say that they have no wish for existence nor peace, but in their hearts, they are worried about how successful other lineages are. They have real pangs over this. They think only about what to do to make “our” teachings spread and how to harm the other teachings. This is their primary practice and is completely contradictory to the ways of the bodhisattva. We shouldn’t be satisfied with just a few sentient beings achieving buddhahood. We have to devote ourselves to helping everyone achieve realization and feel unbearable compassion for all beings. Then, arousing bodhichitta is not just words but genuine practice.
The Gandhola: Its Shape, Design and History
Next His Holiness returned to the topic of the sacred Gandhola. Last time, he talked about its origins, and today he described how it appeared, its shape and design, and what happened to it after the destruction of the Great Encampment. Surprisingly—since it was given to the 4th Karmapa—the namthar written by the direct disciples of Rölpe Dorje, such as Karma Könshön, Tsurphu Kunpangpa, and Shamar Könchok Tenlak, do not mention it. Nor does it appear in the Red Annals by Tsalpa, which were probably written in the year the 4th Karmapa went to China. The 7th Karmapa’s namthar, written by Goshri Paljor Döndrup, is the first to refer to it. Goshri wrote: “the supreme support for the meditation of the successive incarnations of the Bearer of the Black Crown, the emanations of the Sixth Buddha Lion’s Roar, is called the Jowo Gandhola.” The question arises: why was it not written about earlier? His Holiness surmised that this relates to how the Gandhola came into Rölpe Dorje’s possession.
The Karmapa recently received two copies of an old manuscript by Shamar Könchok Yenlak, and the two handwritten versions of this text do mention the Gandhola. But they are disappointing because in both versions, the scribes omitted a page describing who made it and how it came into the Karmapa’s possession. However, the History of Karma Monasteries,written by Karmay Khenchen Rinchen Dargye, clearly indicates how the Gandhola came to the Karmapa.
At the time, Karma Pakshi’s nephew, and then his lineal descendants, oversaw the running of Karma Gön. Many in this line carried the title Situ. At the time the Gandhola appeared, Situ Ārlapa was the overseer of Karma Gön. When Rölpe Dorje arrived at Karma Gön on his way to China, he taught the monks the Six Yogas of Naropa, so the place was filled with retreatants doing these practices. Situ Ārlapa went to practice in closed retreat at a place near the monastery. While he was away, seven Indian archaryas came to Karma Gön wanting to see the Karma Guru [the Karmapa]. But Rölpe Dorje had already gone to China. So they asked to meet Situ Ārlapa, but he was in retreat. The attendant said he would go ask the guru, but they replied that they would depart to find the Karmapa in China. They left a box with the attendant and asked him to entrust it to his guru until they returned. The attendant gave it to Situ Ārlapa, and he instructed the attendant to go and find the archayas. But they had disappeared without a trace. In fact, the Indians weren’t really acharyas; they were emanations of the Karmapa, and they never returned. These emanations had gone to the Tau Shel Cave and opened up a sacred treasury there. They removed the Gandhola and brought it to Karma Gön, where it sat in a box on a shrine until Rölpe Dorje came back. He asked about the box, and it was opened. The Gandhola was inside with a letter describing its history. Rölpe Dorje made offerings, and it then became the Gandhola sacred object.
All this information is in the text by Karma Khenchen Rinchen Dargye. In a previous teaching, the Karmapa showed a lineage thangka from Palpung Monastery in which five acharyas offer the Gandhola to Rölpe Dorje. But the histories reveal that the Gandhola wasn’t directly offered to Rölpe Dorje; it was entrusted to Situ Ārlapa, and the box wasn’t opened until the 4thKarmapa returned from China. Perhaps this is why the liberation stories written by Rölpe Dorje’s direct disciples don’t describe the incident. Karma Khenchen Rinchen Dargye’s source material was probably the 5th Shamar Könchok Yenlak’s Catalogue of the Gandhola or some other old manuscript. Another account is in the Golden Garland of Kagyu Biographies, which says, “Seven emanated acharyas offered the Gandhola to Situ Āryapa or Tsultrim Gyaltsen, the son of Adü, who had taken responsibility for Karma Gön.” These two accounts fit together well.
Another topic is the shape or design of the Gandhola. The Palpung thangka shows the offering in the shape of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya. Based on this picture, His Holiness initially thought that the Gandhola must be the same shape as the temple. But the liberation story of the 9th Karmapa refers to it as the Jowo Gandhola. Jowo is an honorific or affectionate term for the Buddha, the one who offers refuge, and this appellation recalls the famous Jowo Shakyamuni statues in Lhasa. This name indicates that the sacred object is a representation of the Buddha sitting inside a temple. Gandhālaya, or “Temples with a Pure Fragrance,” are places where the Buddha stayed. Furthermore, Goshri Paljor Döndrup’s namthar of the 7th Karmapa states that the image is made of wood from the Bodhi tree and depicts the Buddha inside a temple. Images of the deeds of the Buddha surround the main figure. The descriptions in this source conform to the photograph of the sculpture in the Rumtek treasury shown previously. The deeds of the Buddha appear on both sides of this work, but we only see a few indications of the Mahabodhi temple surrounding the figure. His Holiness concluded that the Gandhola’s shape is as described in the texts, not necessarily resembling what is shown in the thangka.
When the Mongol Güshi Khan destroyed the Great Encampment during the time of the 10th Karmapa, where did this object end up? After the battle, Güshi Khan and the 5th Dalai Lama’s steward Sönam Rabten went together to the Black Treasury at Tse Lhangang in Kongpo. This treasury housed all of the Karmapas’ sacred objects, which were originally gathered at Tsurphu Monastery; later the 6thKarmapa transferred the treasury to Tse Lhangang. (This was probably very much like the treasury that still exists at Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan. Made in the 8th century, the famous Shōsōin Treasury retains its many precious artifacts, including those from the Tang Dynasty.) Güshi Khan and Sönam Rabten raided the Black Treasury and seized many objects, such as the statues of the sixteen arhats made of aloe wood, which were brought to Drepung Monastery where they can still be seen today. Some statues fell into the Brahmaputra River and were lost.
Many people were concerned about the Gandhola, which was the main object of veneration at the Encampment, but by a stroke of good fortune, it survived. Situ Chökyi Jungne wrote in his autobiography that when he gave lay and precept vows to the 8th Shamar Palchen Chökyi Döndrup in Kargyema’s back room at Tsurphu, the object was present—but he did not mention the name Gandhola. It appears that at this point, people were secretive about it. In the 15th Karmapa’s time, Kartok Situ Chökyi Gyatso went to Tsurphu and wrote about three precious sculptures. The first mentioned was “made of wood of the Bodhi Tree by Nagarjuna with the buddhas of the three times above and the Seven Buddhas below and two wrathful deities. This was offered to Rölpe Dorje by acharyas, who were emanations of the Four-Armed Mahakala.” This description of the Gandhola corresponds to the references mentioned earlier.Furthermore, although Kartok Situ wrote that Nagarjuna made the two other objects, he only mentioned Rölpe Dorje in regard to the first item; he did not say that about the other two sculptures. Since the Gandhola was offered to the 4th Karmapa, we can probably say that the first object is the one he received. But at this point, we only have one photograph that may correspond to the Gandhola. If someday we can open the treasury at Rumtek, we will be able to identify definitively all the items described by Kartok Situ.
Unlike the other great lamas who fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion, the 16th Karmapa—through his omniscience—was able to bring many sacred objects with him to Sikkim. Based on the photograph that His Holiness showed earlier, it seems that the Gandholais among these objects housed in the Black Treasury at Rumtek. The collection was catalogued at that time, and His Holiness said that he plans to keep researching this topic and would appreciate help, guidance and inspiration from anyone who has knowledge of it.
The Gandhola Offering Ceremony and the Kagyu Monlams
Next, His Holiness established that he would not be able to explain everything about the Great Encampment in this year’s teaching; instead, he will cover four important topics. He has already spoken about the Gandhola, and will next talk about the Gandhola offering ceremonies associated with the Garchen Monlam. In coming teachings, he will discuss the rules about not eating meat and drinking alcohol in the Encampment, and the Karma Gadri style of painting. Other topics associated with the Encampment—its regulations, how it increased in size, how it traveled from one place to another, the learning associated with it—will be addressed next year.
The Karmapa then spoke of the Gandhola Offering Ceremony or the Gandhola Viewing Ceremony. This was a public presentation of the Gandhola and other representations of body, speech and mind, along with elaborate offerings. At that time, the Gyalwang Karmapa or one of the heart sons like Shamar Rinpoche would explain the objects to the members of the audience, and this viewing and listening constituted the Gandhola Offering Ceremony. It’s difficult to say exactly when this ceremony began, but it is described in the namthars of the 7th Karmapa. Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa, in his Feast for Scholars, wrote that Chödrak Gyatso composed the Twenty Branch Monlam, and using this liturgy, turned the wheel of Dharma during the four festivals of the Buddha, especially during the Festival of Miracles held on the 1st to the 15th day of the first Tibetan month. All of the Encampment’s many sacred objects were arranged surrounded by offerings made from precious substances, jewels, crystals of various colors, turquoise, silver, jade and gogushi (blue turquoise)—and displayed for public viewing.
In Tibet at that time, even kings and wealthy people had never seen or heard of such a display. The offerings increased each day. Chödrak Gyatso would sit on a thin mat and prostrate to them. Later, in Lhasa and Kharu Teng in Ü-Tsang, they would make a big temple out of a sky blue tent—the size of a house of a hundred pillars—with a fabric fence around it, and canopies, vestibules, and a spire adorned with golden birds and dragons. Inside the huge tent, they placed the Gandhola in the center, surrounded by many other sacred objects—such as a statue of the Buddha consecrated by Shakyamuni himself and the meditation support of Atisha. But the main object was the Gandhola. Above it, parasols made entirely of pearls given by the Ming Emperor to Karmapa Deshin Shekpa were arranged in a thirteen-part column, each on top of the next. The size of the seventh parasol was two-and-a-half arm spans, so the lower ones had to be even larger. There were cushions and victory banners made of pearls as well. Even the lord of Ü-Tsang, Dönyö Dorje, was amazed at this. He felt that he had arrived in the world of the gods. Mentang Jangyangpa, who had written about the Menri style of painting and was very skilled at art, thought he was dreaming. He asked, “Have we arrived in the palace of Vaishravana?” All were astounded by what they saw.
There were two different forms of the Gandhola Offering Ceremony—extensive and shorter. The elaborate version included the statues of the sixteen arhats offered to the Karmapa by the Ming Emperor. The pearl canopies were installed even when the Encampment was traveling. At the main monasteries, the ceremony was equally elaborate, extensive and beautiful. Even the stewards did not know the full extent of the sacred objects and offerings. Only the Karmapa with his clairvoyance could keep all of the objects in mind. In order to conduct the ceremonies, organizers had to carry the objects from place to place, packed in boxes. At the time of the 7th Karmapa, the offerings associated with the Gandhola alone required 32 boxes. There was a smaller number at the time of Mikyö Dorje, only sixteen boxes; later there were only six or seven.
To give an idea of what the arrangement looked like, His Holiness showed a drawing he had made that reconstructed the GandholaOffering altar. It showed the Gandhola in the center, with the thirteen parasols above. Representations of body, speech and mind sat on the surrounding shelves, while gold and silver offering vessels adorned with jade, pearls and so forth were on the the lower level.
Although it’s not known precisely when it began, the Gandhola Offering Ceremony was one of the activities of the Garchen Monlamduring the time of the 7th Karmapa. Goshri Paljor Döndrup wrote that when the Karmapa went to Kongpo, in a place called Lingchi in the town of Sapur, Chödrak Gyatso established the offerings for anniversaries of the Kagyu masters and for other festivals at that time. Monlams were held during the four festivals of the Buddha—Festival of Miracles; Birth, Enlightenment, and Parinirvana; Turning the Wheel of Dharma; and Festival of the Descent from Heaven. They would begin these annual celebrations on the 15th day of the 9th month, during the Festival of the Descent from Heaven. The most elaborate of these events happened during the Festival of Miracles. From the 1st to the 15th day of the first month, they would hold the Encampment Losar. In the morning there would be the Monlam, and in the afternoon, they held dramatic performances and various amusements. Goshri wrote that the Monlams were instituted first; later they added elaborate performances. For example, from the time that Chödrak Gyatso first went to Dawa Tang in Otang, the Festivals of the Buddha always included a Monlam in the morning. In the afternoon, they staged enactments of the mahasiddhas of India and Tibet, the emperors of China, Tibet and Mongolia, Indra and the four great kings, and so forth. During that time, people had visions of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. There were amazing signs and omens, such as rains of flowers and vultures circling the sky in a region where no vultures had previously been.
The Twenty-Branch Monlam written by the 7th Karmapa is the basis of the liturgy for the contemporary Kagyu Monlam. His Holiness consulted an old manuscript of the Monlam text, but a page was missing. To fill in, he used a Kamtsang prayerbook that included this missing part. So these two texts are the sources for the prayers that we recite at the Kagyu Monlam today.
In Chödrak Gyatso’s time, they performed the same Great Monlam that is in our Kamtsang prayer books, and also the Prayers of the Deceased and Living, written by the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa. The 7th Karmapa would read the Prayers for the Deceased, and everyone would listen to the dedications. In the afternoon, they staged performances of the Jataka Tales and the mahasiddhas of Tibet and India. People would watch the performances and also gaze on the Karmapa, who normally just sat in meditative equipoise without speaking. He held no worldly conversations and gave few Dharma discourses, but even then, he wouldn’t say much. Every three, five or seven days, he held very short audiences. Mostly, he stayed in meditation retreat. People didn’t even see him when he traveled. Those who lived in the Encampment also didn’t often have access to him. But during these festivals, he sat there for the whole time. It was a rare opportunity to see the Karmapa.
The 8th Karmapa Mikyö Dorje stopped the performances during the Losar celebrations. In the previous era, the performances benefited beings, but later in the region of Kongpo, people came merely to see a spectacle. Attendees would get together, men and women met and became lovers, and they killed many animals. A previous non-Buddhist king in Kongpo had performed animal sacrifices, and even though Rangjung Dorje later stopped these practices, meat eating continued in this region. So Mikyö Dorje gave up the performance tradition because it increased non-virtue; only the Monlams were held. People from outlying lands would engage in some contests and games, but the Monlams no longer included other performances. Also the 8th Karmapa reduced the number of Monlams, only holding them during the Festival of Miracles. (The first to hold a Festival of Miracles was probably Lord Tsongkhapa in Lhasa. His Holiness will speak of this later if he has time.)
During the time of the 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje, the Festival of Miracles would conclude on the full moon day with Sangha members conducting a Golden or Monlam Procession. A biography of Wangchuk Dorje recounts that beginning in the Female Wood Pig year (1575), during the Losar Monlam, participants carried images of the Buddha on an alms round, accompanied by monks in the costumes of the sixteen arhats, and along with them, there was a procession of the Sangha. So this was an auspicious ceremony to conclude the Monlam. The Garchen Monlam probably ceased with the 10th Karmapa Chöying Dorje, but the tradition of the Sangha procession on the full moon day continued into the time of the 16th Karmapa. Situ Rinpoche described in the catalogue of the sacred objects of Tibet that people wearing costumes of the Buddha, Shariputra, and Maudgalyayana would make a procession around Tsurphu monastery. The participants made various offerings to each shrine, prostrated, and received khatags. They would recite the Praise to the Buddha’s Twelve Deeds and Prostrations and Offerings to the Sixteen Arhats. Older lamas from Tsurphu told His Holiness that the sixteen Karmapas were also represented in the procession. This brings us to the Kagyu Monlam in our time.
The Monlam Today
The previous Kalu Rinpoche planted the seed for the present Kagyu Monlam, and Kyabje Vajradhara Bokar Rinpoche continued the tradition of a yearly prayer festival in Bodhgaya. After His Holiness arrived in India, he thought that this Monlam tradition was great, but when he saw the old texts, he wanted to improve and increase it—especially in accord with the way it was done during the time of the previous Karmapas. Initially the present day Monlam included a lot of Vajrayana rituals, and many people who came to visit the Mahabodhi Temple might be confused by those words. When they heard references to eating meat and drinking blood, they might wonder, “What are they saying?” So when His Holiness took over the responsibility, he changed it a little bit. But his main aim was that after Bokar Rinpoche’s passing, he would fulfill his predecessors’s aspirations for the Monlam.
Bokar Rinpoche passed away so suddenly that His Holiness couldn’t believe it; Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche was staying with him at the time, and he too said, “It can’t be.” His Holiness described his reaction:
One time I had a dream. It’s like I must have felt so uncomfortable in my mind, and it said that Rinpoche had passed away, but it was like his body was alive. When you felt his flesh, it was still very soft and supple. . . . What can we do? If I take all my blood and pour it into Rinpoche’s body, then Rinpoche’s body would become living again. . . . The reason I thought of that is that from one perspective that when Rinpoche passed away, he had really passed away, and there was no choice but to believe. But from another perspective, . . . this idea that he was still kind of alive, that he had to finish . . . I had that feeling that I had to do something. . . . I had this hope that he would return to us. . . . So I think that’s why I had that dream.
The Karmapa said he would remember this dream while he was working on behalf of the Kagyu Monlam. He didn’t have great aims for it, but the Rinpoches had already planted the seeds; they had created a good foundation for the Kagyu Monlam. There was a reason to continue and make it even better. That was His Holiness’s aim, stated in a simple and easy way. Later when he did research into the life stories of the previous Karmapas—the procession of the sixteen arhats and so forth—he decided to incorporate some things he had learned into the Monlam. It’s not the case of someone who thinks too much, has too many ideas, and just does whatever he thinks, he explained. He didn’t make up things for the Kagyu Monlam that hadn’t been done before. His Holiness concluded, “It might look like that, but when you look at the life stories of the previous Karmapas, there’s nothing that you need to make up. You can just restore the old—there’s nothing new that needs to be done.”
His Holiness indicated that he would continue speaking about the practices of the great individual in the next teaching and also about refraining from eating meat. Most monasteries have rules about not drinking alcohol, but the rule of not eating meat is a special feature of the Encampment, so he will speak a little on the subject of meat. These days, there’s a lot of conflict about the subject, but it’s not something to fight about. In the past, he’s spoken about being a vegetarian but hasn’t given the historical background. His Holiness promised he would share his opinions about this, how it was in the time of the Bhagavan Buddha, and later in Tibet.
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