Kagyu Monlam

The ancient tradition is proving its relevance in today’s world.

(This is an unedited version of my article Praying for Peace – Reflections from the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo published on Buddhistdoor in April 2017.)

We are what we think. All  that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak and act with a wholesome mind and happiness with follow. — The Buddha’s words in the Dhammapada

Monlam is a Tibetan word translated into English as ‘aspiration prayer’. The ancient Tibetan canon boasts a plethora of texts of this category, written in verse with strict rhythm and meter, whose content is dedicated to generating a positive attitude of the mind towards the world and oneself. The Buddha revealed the basic truth of existence, which is that everything arises inter-dependently from causes – the primary cause being the mind. The efficacy of Buddhist practices is based on this principle. Generating wholesome thoughts and emotions and acting from the positive space within leads to a better world outside as a result.

Group prayer practice, moreover, is thought to amplify this causal potential. The original purpose of the Monlam Chenmo (the Great Prayer Festival)  – a 600-year-old tradition from Tibet – was to gather practitioners far and wide to pray for the long life of Dharma teachers, for the flourishing of the holy Dharma, and for auspiciousness in general. Today, it is one of the many ancient traditions that Tibetan monasteries in the Indian exile keep alive and thriving. This February, for example, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, led the annual Kagyu Monlam Chenmo in Bodh Gaya, attended by thousands of practitioners from all corners of the world, both physically and via an online webcast link. These remarkable people got together inspired by the same aim – to generate positive thought and emotion based on strong faith and devotion, which in turn removes obstacles to peace and sets up conducive conditions for harmonious coexistence.

On a personal level, the changes can be felt more intensely.

“The experience helped me to resolve a painful burden I had carried in my heart. There is still some pain, but I feel I am on a good way toward healing now”.

Having just returned home to the Czech Republic, Karolína Horáková opened up about her experience. Going by the name Sherab Lhamo, she had spent a year in northern India studying Bon philosophy and Tibetan language, before joining a group of Tibetan nuns traveling to attend the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra Initiation in Bodh Gaya in January 2017. She stayed on when the Karmapa took over the activities in Bodh Gaya for the following three months, some of which turned out to be of historical importance, such as the Chakrasamvara empowerment and the reinstatement of full ordination for Tibetan nuns.

Image 3 Sherab Lhamo with Karmapa

Every day of the seven-day Monlam festival, dusk till dawn, Sherab Lhamo sat amongst thousands of fellow practitioners, lay and ordained, chanting in unison the prayers that resounded over the sacred grounds of the Monlam Pavilion. Thousands of synchronized voices, thousands of minds focusing on a single emotion – unbounded love. In the precious moments when the mind enters into meditation within that atmosphere, relaxing into the state of bliss that overcomes the heart can be intensely healing. Sherab said that having spent the previous year studying the Tibetan language made her experience particularly powerful.

“As I chanted the prayers, I could see the exalted meaning which often gets lost in translation. In Tibetan the overtones bring out the full meaning, which is so beautiful, so beautiful!”

Sherab shares one of the profound experiences she had during the prayers:

“I once visited Sri Lanka and loved the way Buddhist practitioners dressed in white for pujas as a symbol of purification of karma and negative states of mind. I always wanted to experience that, and my wish came true at the Monlam. His Holiness did not require the lay practitioners to wear white just because it was pleasing to the eye; there is a quality of lightness and purity to the white color, which could particularly be felt when I changed into my usual clothes in the evening – they now felt so heavy.  There was a strong feeling of purification sitting in the sea of white under the gaze of His Holiness, who seemed to see inside each and every one there. Every day, those feelings would bring me to tears that I was helpless to hold back. But looking around, I saw I was not the only one, by far!”

 Image 5 Monlam pavilion

Image: kagyumonlam.org

On the practical level, the Karmapa is very hands-on. One of his many talents is being a meticulous planner; he carefully designs and overlooks all the aspects of the festival himself. When the formal sessions are over, he first gets up from his throne to leave the stage as a traditional signal for the audience to rise and bow in respect.  But then he is back on the stage right away, all formality gone, directing and explaining his staff in a very animated way his wishes for arranging the stage for the following day. He might stay over for hours, moving about amongst the now relaxed audience going about their business – some might even experience an accidental brush with the Gyalwang:

“There was no photography allowed during the sessions. So, on one occasion, as a session was over, I pulled out my camera to get a quick snap of the stage over a monk in a hard hat who stood in the way. I was shocked when he turned around – it was His Holiness!”

Yet, these occasions can serve as a platform for something powerfully meaningful to play out, as Sherab confides: When a Chinese nun happened to faint, a friend of Sherab’s, who is a doctor, rushed to help her. The Karmapa noticed the commotion and came to see what the matter was. After a while, as the situation settled, he looked at each one around and said in a low, reassuring voice, ‘You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine.’

“Since that time, I’ve just had this feeling that everything will be fine in my life, whatever happens!”, says Sherab with a content smile.

On the surface, the Kagyu Monlam appears as a religious event, a forum to spread, preserve and develop a Dharma tradition and for practitioners to engage in a wholesome activity, to practice, socialize and network. On the hidden level, though, the outer event provides circumstances for each individual’s unique spiritual experience, according to their disposition. Taking away these inspirations and insights, and planting them into the everyday life back home, sometimes thousands of miles away can have a profound effect on the world. As His Holiness the Karmapa sums up the purpose of the Kagyu Monlam in these words:

“By training in compassion for three countless eons, the Buddha brought compassion to its perfection. Due to this, when he engaged in taming and subduing living beings, he was not limited to a single method but knew many different ways to benefit beings. This could be seen as a special aspect of the Buddha. Though we cannot do it exactly as the Buddha did, we are trying to use a variety of ways to plant the seeds of liberation, to create Dharmic imprints within the being of all those who have come.”


The next Kagyu Monlam Chenmo it taking place 22 February – 5 March 2018. More information here.

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