Nuns Learn to Preserve and Protect Monastery Treasures

Nuns Learn to Preserve and Protect Monastery Treasures

Hotel Anand International, Bodhgaya, Bihar
24-26 February, 2016

“It is of great concern to me that over the last sixty years so much of the priceless heritage of Tibetan Buddhism has vanished, not just through theft and deterioration, but because of lack of knowledge and skill in preservation. Over the last twenty years alone far too many irreplaceable works of art such as thangkas, statues, dance costumes, texts, and other sacred artifacts have been lost to future generations.”
– His Holiness 17th Gyalwang Karmapa

At the request of the Gyalwang Karmapa, a group of 17 nuns representing all eight Karma Kagyu nunneries completed an intensive three-day training to learn techniques for documenting and preserving the treasures owned by their nunneries, such as statues, thangkas, and texts. In addition, the nuns learned to interview and video-document elders about the history and significance of various treasures; the elders are in many cases the sole holders of this knowledge. The training took place at a hotel close to Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya, following the completion of the Kagyu Monlam. 

The program was organized and funded by the Kun Kyong Charitable Trust, of which the Karmapa is the primary patron. The trust began offering annual workshops for nuns last year, with the aim of teaching them skills that will help them to uphold the dharma. Last year’s workshop was on communication and leadership. An emphasis in this year’s training was also preparing the nuns to teach and share the information on treasure preservation with others at their nunneries. For example, two or three nuns were required to present their work after every group activity. Even over three days, the nuns’ confidence in standing up in front of a group and giving a presentation improved dramatically. 

The director and lead instructor of the training, Ann Shaftel, became an expert in sacred art preservation at the advice of the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, who told her “preservation of Buddhist paintings and statues is your Dharma work for this lifetime.” That advice propelled Shaftel to receive two graduate degrees and to eventually hold advanced international standing in the field of Art Conservation. During this time she has worked with dozens of monasteries and art museums to preserve sacred Buddhist tangible culture. She also developed this Treasure Caretaker Training—normally offered as a 10-day workshop—for training monks and nuns to become leaders in the preservation of their monastery collections. 

One of the main skills the nuns learned in the training was how to create digital documentation of all the treasures in their nunnery, including those in shrine rooms and storerooms. This means taking photographs (using their mobile phones) and creating notes regarding condition, dimensions, artist, how it is used in the monastery, and other details, for each piece. This information can be used to create a digital inventory, which most monasteries do not yet have. In the case they have difficulty getting access or using the technology, Shaftel also taught the nuns how to draw images and take notes on paper about each piece. “Better to have some documentation than no documentation,” she told them. However, with mobile phones being fairly ubiquitous now, and the hands-on experience they received through the training, the nuns seemed eager and capable of creating digital documentation at their nunneries. 

Notably the favorite part of the workshop for the nuns was learning how to interview elders about their treasures. The nuns took turns interviewing each other about their precious treasures (imagination was involved), while filming each other with their phones. Part of the interview training included making the elder comfortable and offering tea, and making sure to get their permission to film and share their stories. While this part of the workshop involved much laughter and fun, the training is critical for saving many stories passed through an oral tradition regarding the history and meaning of many sacred artifacts. 

The nuns also learned practical tools for preventing damage and deterioration of the treasures in their storerooms. In particular, they learned about how to protect thangkas, texts, and other sacred objects from getting damaged by humidity, light, insects, and other factors. This knowledge is crucial for the nunneries that experience the monsoon season, when mold and humidity can create major problems for old texts and paintings. The nuns also learned labeling techniques. While it seems simple, many monastery storerooms lack proper labels, which can make things difficult to find. Without labels, certain objects can also be mysterious when found, if there is no documentation about what it is or where it came from and the oral history has been lost. 

One of the topics Shaftel emphasized in the workshop was the importance of confidentiality. In the past, monasteries often avoided creating treasure inventories because of security issues; the reasoning being that if others knew what they had in their storerooms they would be at greater risk for theft. However, not having an inventory puts treasures at risk in other ways. For one, pieces can go missing with no one noticing. And during times of natural disaster or political upheaval—such as the recent earthquakes in Nepal—inventories help storeroom keepers to make sure nothing gets left behind or lost. Having an inventory also helps with organization; knowing where a precious thangka is in a storeroom helps one avoid digging through an entire box of thangkas looking for one, which damages the fragile paintings and fabric. The digital images can also aid in conservation, or re-creation, of the artwork in the future.

On the final day of the workshop, the nuns’ were delighted by a visit from Karmapa’s sister Chamsing Ngodup Pelzom, who offered some words of advice: 

In all Buddhist traditions, it is said that we should not lean on others, but stand on our own two feet and walk along our path. Many of us have little education and come from small villages, but that should not stop us from trying to do whatever we can… to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves so we can become a model for others. A few nuns can make a big difference. You’ve received training, learned it well, and when you go back to your nunneries you will teach it to others so hundreds will benefit.



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Gyalwang Karmapa Presides over a Day of Chö Puja

Gyalwang Karmapa Presides over a Day of Chö Puja

Following the final day of teachings at the Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering, the Gyalwang Karmapa presided over a full-day Chö puja with all the participating nuns. The text that was chanted is called Chö: A String of Jewels and was composed by the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje.

Since the time of the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, who wrote the first commentary on Chö and who also compiled the text of this puja, the Karmapas have had a strong connection with the Chö practice. Historically they are holders of the direct Chö lineage, based on the Indian Buddhist deity Prajñāpāramitā, who is known as both the mother of all the Buddhas and the embodiment of wisdom.

Chö, which means “to sever or cut” in Tibetan, ultimately aims to cut through the ignorance of self-grasping that is the root of all our suffering, using the wisdom that realizes emptiness. It is renowned among the eight practice lineages of Buddhism as being the only lineage established by a woman, the great female master Machik Labdrön and the only one to pass from Tibet to India. Female practitioners have been known to traditionally excel in Chö practice.

Starting at daybreak long lines had formed outside the shrine entrance of people eager to participate in the puja. Many monks and lay people lined the outer and back rows of the shrine, as well as filled the space on the veranda surrounding the shrine. There were also many people in attendance clothed in the white and red ngagpa robes of lay tantric practitioners. In total it is estimated around 1000 people were in attendance.

The day was full of color and the beautiful melodies of the Chö. The Karmapa sat on the central throne, wearing his yellow outer monastic robe (chögu) and presiding for the entire day as Dorje Lopön, or vajra master. Hundreds of nuns sat in rows of raised platforms and carpets facing each other, also wearing their yellow outer robes. Nearly all the nuns also played the special Chö drums and bell used in the practice, filling the space with the green circles of the turning drums as well as the rhythmic sound. At points in the puja the haunting sound of kangling horns reverberated through the air, evoking the severing of gross attachment to the physical body that informs this practice.

As with all the practices performed during the Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering, the nuns took the key roles in the puja, such as the chant masters, and the musicians playing the large puja drums and other instruments. During the afternoon’s feast offering, a group of nuns, facing the Gyalwang Karmapa and each holding up a feast offering, offered him a song.

The ritual concluded around 5pm and created a perfect preparation for the arrival of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche who came soon after. Several lines of nuns, monks, and laypeople lined both sides of the road and the pathway into the shrine. When he came, three nuns skillfully played the gyalings horns to lead the entrance party past many people holding katas to joyfully greet this precious master.


2016.02.02 Gyalwang Karmapa Presides Over a Day of Chö Puja

Cultivating the Delight of Rejoicing and the Freedom from Prejudice

Cultivating the Delight of Rejoicing and the Freedom from Prejudice

February 1, 2016 • Tergar Monastery, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India

On this last day of teachings on Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation, the Gyalwang Karmapa completed the reading transmission for the section of Preparation, which included rejoicing, requesting the buddhas to turn the wheel of Dharma, supplicating them not to pass into nirvana, and the dedication. The Karmapa noted that Chapter Nine is the longest in the text and that he would teach the actual ceremony for generating bodhichitta later.

The Karmapa explained that we rejoice from the depth of our heart in the virtuous activities from the past, present, and future that anyone has performed: the buddhas of the ten directions, all the bodhisattvas, the self-realizing buddhas, the listeners who are on the paths of learning and nor more learning, and all individuals who have not entered the path. This rejoicing should be free of envy or it could be understood as nonconceptual. The benefit of rejoicing, the Karmapa explained, is to increase our own accumulation of virtue and also our delight in virtue itself. The Karmapa commented that rejoicing is a wonderful skillful means found on the path of the bodhisattva.

The Listeners and Solitary Realizers, the Karmapa explained, have an intense wish for liberation from samsara and so they are able to release the bonds that tie them to it. This is not easy to do, he remarked, because the habits that bind are present from beginingless time, so we should see their liberation as wondrous and rejoice in it. Although ordinary individuals are bound up in their afflictions, they still can give rise to virtuous thoughts, even as small as offering a handful of food to an animal, so we should rejoice in this as well. All of these various types of virtues are as vast as the sky and we rejoice in all of them. The Karmapa added a caution here: If we are pleased by the suffering of people we consider enemies, that is the reverse of true rejoicing.

The Karmapa related a story about rejoicing that involved the king Prasenajit, one of the Buddha’s great benefactors. The king was offering food for seven days to the Buddha and a large gathering. The Buddha asked the king, “On behalf of whom shall I dedicate the merit of this offering? The one who made the greatest material offering? Or to the one who has the greatest merit?” King Prasenajit replied, “To the one with the greatest merit.” And so for six days, the Buddha dedicated the merit to an old lady who was greatly rejoicing. This disturbed the king’s ministers no end, and so they contrived to distract the old lady on the last day. They were successful and her mind was so filled with various thoughts that she forgot to rejoice so the merit was dedicated to the king.

The Buddha then counseled him, “You are a king and have much to do. It will be difficult to study all the six Perfections, but you can rejoice in virtue and offer this rejoicing to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas and then dedicate it to all living beings. Make rejoicing your practice, and you will become enlightened.” “If we really rejoice,” the Karmapa commented, “it will naturally delight our minds. This capacity to rejoice is a jewel treasury that we all naturally have.” If we are preoccupied with things and thoughts, however, like the old lady, we will not be able to rejoice.

When the Karmapa turned to the fourth point of Preparation, requesting that the wheel of Dharma be turned, he discussed the importance of being free of bias in relation to any of the Buddha’s teachings; we should not cling to one and look down on others. There are some slight differences in tenets and ways of practicing in the different Tibetan schools, he noted, but in actuality they are essentially the same. For this reason it is important to look at them without attachment, aversion, or bias. The Karmapa quoted a verse from the first Dalai Lama Gendundrup (1391–1475) stating that there are many who consider themselves upholders of the teachings but also think of others who uphold the teachings as their main enemies. The Karmapa lamented that this is a very sad and distressing situation.

To illustrate how it should be, the Karmapa spoke of Atisha’s teaching known as carrying the four corners of the teachings onto the path. The Karmapa explained this as freedom from bias towards any aspect of the teachings and gave the classic analogy of four people holding up the four corners of a blanket, making it easy to lift. He commented that Atisha may have been recalling the situation at the monastic university of Vikramalashila, where all the schools of Buddhism treated each other with mutual respect.

The Karmapa gave another example illustrating how important and necessary all traditions of Buddhism are. Imagine, he said, a large copper vat filled with milk. It takes four people to lift up, using their strength equally so that the milk does not spill out. There may be some little difference between the four people but basically they are the same. Nevertheless, the Karmapa explained, if one of the four could not carry their side, the milk would spill out. And it would go out even faster if one of the four thought they could do the lifting on their own. So the four need to cooperate in the project of lifting the vessel, which the Karmapa explained as an analogy for the Buddha’s teachings being carried by different traditions. If one side tried to carry the entire vat and spilled the milk, the whole of Buddhism would be diminished; if even one of the other schools disappear, it means that Buddhism is disappearing, so everyone needs to work together. In sum, he said that if the teachings, which are the antidote for our afflictions, become the cause for afflictions to increase, we are finished, so we should consider this carefully.

The Karmapa noted that the fifth point of the Preparation, supplicating the buddha not to pass away from the suffering world, and the sixth point of dedication are short and clear in Gampopa’s text and do not really need commentary. After giving a reading transmission for the Third Karmapa’s Mahamudra Prayer, which has been recited daily, the Karmapa closed by emphasizing the importance of both study and practice. During the Arya Kshema Winter Gathering, the nuns engaged primarily in study, he said, and they also made the offering of practice to please the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Some think, the Karmapa noted, that study and practice are somehow separate or that one is better than the other, but he affirmed that the purpose of study is to be able to practice, and practice helps when we study and contemplate; the two are inseparable.


2016.02.01 Cultivating the Delight of Rejoicing and the Freedom from Prejudice

The Gyalwang Karmapa Teaches on Developing Confidence in the Power of Confession

The Gyalwang Karmapa Teaches on Developing Confidence in the Power of Confession

During the 18th day of teaching at the Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering, the Gyalwang Karmapa taught on the practice of purifying misdeeds, based on The Ornament of Precious Liberation by Gampopa. In particular, the Karmapa focused today on developing the confidence that it is possible to purify all our misdeeds through the practice of confession.

“Here it’s quite possible that we have a doubt,” the Karmapa said. “The reason is that up until now we have done innumerable misdeeds, so how is it that just one little confession in this life can actually purify all of our misdeeds? If we do not have complete confidence in the antidote of confession, then it has less power to purify our misdeeds.”

In response to this, the Karmapa mentioned a commentary explaining that the Buddha taught about both misdeeds and the possibility of purifying them. So it doesn’t make sense to believe one of these but not the other. “If we believe the words of the Buddha that a misdeed is a fault,” the Karmapa said, “then we also should believe the Buddha that if we apply the antidote we can purify that fault.”

The Karmapa also explained why virtues are stronger than nonvirtues. “Even a minor virtuous action is able to destroy a mountain of misdeeds as large as Mount Meru,” said the Karmapa. “I think the reason for this is that unlike virtues, unvirtuous thoughts, such as those of greed, anger and delusion, are actually erroneous and not in harmony with the way things actually are. They don’t fit with the nature of things, or you could say they are not supported by how things actually are. Virtuous intentions, on the other hand, have the support of the truth—an actual basis, a true support—and for that reason virtue becomes more powerful. These are some of the many reasons why even a minor virtue can destroy a heap of misdeeds.”

Having explained that it is possible to confess our misdeeds, the Karmapa also warned against becoming careless in our actions. He likened misdeeds to tuberculosis—just because there is medicine for it doesn’t mean we should disregard it.

Shifting the topic slightly, the Karmapa also explained what it means to create the karma of rejecting the Dharma, and how to avoid doing so. The karma of rejecting the Dharma occurs if we think that something that is not the Dharma is the Dharma, or if we think that the Dharma is not the Dharma. The Karmapa said starting to have a sectarian bias for one tradition or lineage can become the basis for rejecting the Dharma. “Thinking that foundation vehicle or other traditions are not the Dharma is rejecting the Dharma,” the Karmapa said.

Earlier in the teaching, the Karmapa also briefly discussed the upcoming commemoration for the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, which will take place on February 14. The Karmapa explained how one of the 16th Karmapa’s greatest activities was reprinting the Dege edition of the Kangyur and distributing it to all the monasteries of the different traditions. In honor of this activity of the 16th Karmapa, the commemoration this year will feature the unveiling of a reprinted edition of the Jang Kangyur, both in paper and online form. The Karmapa explained how the Jang Kangyur was the first edition of the Kangyur to be printed in a Tibetan region, and that most of the original woodblocks are now gone. “This is an important and precious edition,” he said, “and our hope is that in reprinting it the will help to revive teachings in danger of being lost.”


2016.01.31 The Gyalwang Karmapa Teaches on Developing Confidence in the Power of Confession

The Gyalwang Karmapa Discusses the Power of Remorse for Purification

The Gyalwang Karmapa Discusses the Power of Remorse for Purification

The Sutra Teaching the Four Qualities speaks of the Four Powers in the following way:

Maitreya! If bodhisattva mahasattvas have found these four things they will overcome evils that have been committed and established. What are these four? They are (1) the power of the thorough application of total remorse, (2) the power of thoroughly applying the remedy, (3) the power of renouncing harmful acts, and (4) the power of the support.

Today, His Holiness the Karmapa continued the teachings from yesterday’s topic on confessing one’s misdeeds, specifically focusing on two of the Four Powers. Reading through the transmission of Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation, which today covered the first power of remorse and its three divisions, the Karmapa took up the question asked in the text, “How do we stimulate the power of remorse?” In sum there are three ways: by considering the pointlessness of one’s wrongs, by considering fear, and by considering the urgent need for purification. The discussion today focused primarily on these points.

“We need to confess all of our misdeeds from beginningless samsara, not just one or two of them,” the Karmapa said. However, it is important not to be overwhelmed by thinking of all the misdeeds we have done as it will prevent us from taking action. “If you simply become depressed by contemplating your misdeeds, thinking, ‘I am not a worthy person,’ this is not very beneficial.” His Holiness explained, “Actually, from one perspective, [giving rise to these thoughts] is very good.” When one contemplates all, or even one, of the misdeeds one has done in this or previous lives, that recognition becomes the starting point to be able to purify it. We should confess our past wrongs with all Four Powers, he said: “The Four Powers are like the four pillars of a house.” When all four are used, the confession is more potent.

Of the Four Powers, remorse and the resolve not to do it again are the two most important ones. Of these two, “Remorse is even more important,” the Karmapa said, because “the resolve not to do it again is dependent upon feeling remorse.” When one feels remorse for the wrongs they have done, it is easier to have the resolve not to do it again.

Regarding the wrongs that we have done, the main point, the Karmapa said, is to separate the actions from the person that committed them. There is no need to think “I am a bad person.” It is important to recognize it was the action that was harmful, and not to consider a person to be completely bad or evil due to what they have done. There is no need to feel guilty or hopeless. The point of recalling our past wrongs is to “increase our inspiration, to increase our hope.” When we have done something wrong, the Karmapa explained, it is similar to the moon with clouds—it is not that the moon has gone black; rather, it is a temporary condition when the moon has been hidden by clouds. We at times also become obscured by “temporary adventitious conditions;” however, by confessing what we have done and recognizing it as wrong, we can again shine forth.

The term for confession in Tibetan is “shakpa,” the Karmapa explained. “When I hear it, I think that ‘to cut off’ is literally what it means.” So we can think of it as cutting off or removing the misdeed from our mindstreams. He gave an analogy: “It is like a cancerous tumor. When someone has cancer, you do not kill that person, but remove the tumor. You don’t kill the whole person because they have cancer.” If we can remove the bad parts, whether it is a cancer in the body, or a misdeed in the mindstream, “they cannot fester and grow.” the Karmapa explained, “and they will be cut off from maturing in the future.”

“It is important to distinguish between the person and the act,” His Holiness reiterated. “It does not fit with the Dharma to call someone a bad person. [We have to realize] that person was not at fault, but under control of their afflictions.” We ourselves, as well as other individuals, are similar to the moon that has been obscured by clouds. Once the clouds of the afflictions have been cleared away, our brightness is apparent again.

Another piece of helpful advice that the Karmapa gave, was regarding the times when we have doubts about whether we can give up certain misdeeds or not. “We need to make a distinction between the wish to resolve and refrain from something and actually being able to do so.” Making the heartfelt aspiration to stop committing bad deeds, is beneficial, even if at times, one is unable to keep that promise. His Holiness explained: “If the wise commit even a large misdeed, it can be purified or diminished. But for an ignorant person who does not know how [to confess and purify their misdeeds], even a small misdeed will grow larger.” From the Karmapa’s teaching today, we learn the immense value there is in contemplating our past wrongs and misdeeds. Attempting to resolve never to do them again has great power and benefit, even if one is not always successful. Making the effort to resolve is better than not attempting at all.


2016.01.30 The Gyalwang Karmapa Discusses the Power of Remorse for Purification