What is the Monlam?
In Tibetan “mon” means aspiration and “lam” means path. Together, the word “monlam” can be translated as "the path of aspiration". The Buddha taught that this kind of prayer is beneficial not only to the person reciting it, but it may also have an impact on the world by influencing the course of events. It has been said that "just as a drop of water that falls into the ocean is not used up until the entire ocean is used up", our merit will not be wasted. Just as a driver steers a car, aspirations can transform the merit we have accumulated into the cause of unexcelled enlightenment. Just as a small seed can produce bountiful fruit when good, favourable conditions are present, even small virtue can grow greater and greater if joined with good aspirations. As such, positive transformation can take place within ourselves and in the world when we come together to recite aspiration prayers.
The brief history of the Kagyu Monlam.
The "Kagyu Monlam" originated five hundred years ago in Tibet when the Seventh Gyalwang Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso established an annual prayer festival in order to restore the Vinaya discipline that had grown lax among the sangha, to make offerings to the buddhas, and to inspire sincere faith among those who saw or heard it through the grandeur of the Buddhist teachings and the individuals present. Held during the first lunar month, the month of the Buddha Shakyamuni's miracles, great gatherings of over ten thousand members of the sangha assembled at the Monlam. Under the guidance of the Seventh Karmapa, they performed the liturgy of The Twenty-Branch Monlam that he himself had compiled. They prayed for beings to complete the accumulation of merit as well as for harmony in the world. They also prayed to dispel obstacles and unfavourable circumstances so all beings could be free from suffering and misfortune. This established the basis for the custom of holding Monlam gatherings that has continued without interruption until the present day.
In 1983, Kalu Rinpoche held a Monlam to recite The Aspiration for Excellent Conduct one hundred thousand times in Bodhgaya at the spot where our Teacher awakened to complete and perfect buddhahood, thereby planting the seed for holding the Kagyu Monlam in the Noble Land of India. In 2004, the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa took responsibility for the Monlam. Following the example of the dharma activities of the great beings of the past, he restructured the event and compiled a new prayer text, reflecting the splendour of this timeless tradition, making the Monlam ever more glorious, meeting the needs of today's international Buddhist community, and benefiting an even greater number of people.
The North American Kagyu Monlam was first hosted in 2010 at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD), New York. We, the California Kagyu Sanghas, are very pleased to host the 2012 North American Kagyu Monlam. We invite you to join us in the spread of genuine love and compassion with the offering of aspiring prayers made under the guidance and blessings of Buddha and His Holiness.
What motivation should one have when praying?
In general, the extent of the intention determines the extent of the result. Therefore, our aspirations should be as strong and vast as possible, such as, "May I benefit all sentient beings!" If we only aspire to minor purposes or our own benefit, the prayer is limited. If we pray for vast benefit for ourselves and others, unexcelled enlightenment, benefit for beings and Dharma, world peace, and so forth, the prayer is extremely vast. In brief, our prayers must not be bound by our own selfish, temporary intentions, but with the altruistic wish to to help others.
What is the difference between praying on our own and praying in groups?
Buddhists believe that the force of a prayer is multiplied when recited in groups and that each participant of the group collects the amount of merit equal to the merit gathered by all participants. It is said that when men and women recite prayers together, good wishes will ripen faster, because both the skilful means (male element) and wisdom (female element) are present. It is also said that when a fourfold assembly of ordained monks and nuns, as well as lay men and women keeping pure ethical vows gather, all aspiration prayers expressed by them will undoubtedly be fulfilled. Therefore, taking the Mahayana sojong vows during the Kagyu Monlam is especially auspicious.
What does the Kagyu Monlam logo represent?
The Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa designed the Kagyu Monlam logo in 2007 out of his feelings of closeness with the natural world and the special connection with the elements. The earth has provided us immeasurable benefit, but few of us have done anything to actually help the earth in return. The recent catastrophes and disasters seem as if the earth is scowling at us, making us feel even more helpless. However, neither the earth nor the beings who live in it should forsake each other. Instead, they should join hands together. As symbol of this, the insignia takes the shape of two hands clasping. Since the Kagyu Monlam is an occasion where we pray for peace and happiness on earth as well as for the earth to remain for a long time, this sign is now the logo of the Kagyu Monlam. It is also a symbol of our affection for the earth and our wish to protect it. Wearing the logo is a reminder of our particular connection with the natural elements and our great affection for the earth. Because the body and mind are strongly connected to the unaltered, natural elements, remembering this may also provide some protection against dangers from the natural elements of the external world.
What is the importance of reciting prayers in Tibetan?
The Kagyu Monlam is attended by practitioners of different nationalities. Reciting the prayers in one language, such as Tibetan, creates a greater sense of unity as well as ease in performing the prayers. In addition, the majority of Mahayana texts were originally written in Sanskrit which is considered the sacred language of the dharma. The Tibetan alphabet, inspired by Sanskrit letters, was created especially to translate dharma texts. The Tibetan language was formed and enriched with many new terms crafted to precisely convey Buddhist ideas.
Buddhism took root in Tibet owing to the activity of many Bodhisattvas filled with compassion. Many of the prayers recited during the Monlam were written by Tibetan masters who were the embodiment of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Reciting the original texts as they arose in the awakened minds brings great blessings. Following the suggestion of His Holiness, some of the prayers like taking refuge and the Prajnaparamita Sutra are recited in Sanskrit.
About the Precepts of Mahayana Sojong
During the North American Kagyu Monlam, you will have the opportunity to take the Mahayana sojong vows every morning. Taking the vows is not required, but you may take them if you wish. It is said that following these precepts has an effect of intensifying all recited prayers. As a result, they will be fulfilled sooner. The merit accumulated from spiritual practice on that day is said to be multiplied.
The Tibetan word sojong is the equivalent of Sanskrit uposatha. The tradition of following the eight uposatha precepts on holy days is very common in all Buddhist schools and, in the modern days, it is especially strong in Theravada Buddhism. The reason why the vows taken in our tradition are called the Mahayana sojong vows is the unique motivation. Ordinary uposatha precepts are usually taken with the intention to purify one’s negativities and to attain one’s liberation. However, if we take these vows with the intention of benefiting all beings, then, owing to the great power of motivation, the results of maintaining self-discipline are immeasurably more vast, and are thus called Mahayana sojong vows.
Sojong is the act of refraining from eight kinds of activities, from the time the vows are taken until the next morning, at dawn. The eight precepts of Mahayana sojong are:
- Not killing
- Not stealing
- Not engaging in sexual activity
- Not lying
- Not consuming intoxicants
- Not sitting or lying on high seats or beds
- Not eating at inappropriate times
- Not wearing perfume, jewelry, or ornaments, and not singing or dancing
No sitting or lying on high seats or beds means not sitting on seats or beds that are fancy, expensive, large, or higher than one cubit (about 38 centimeters). As these are associated with high social status, using them could evoke a sense of pride in us. Using ordinary chairs and standard beds is not an infringement of this vow. One may be exempted from this if there is no place to sleep except on a bed that is high.
No eating at inappropriate times means not to consume any food from noon until sunrise the next day. Drinking liquids such as tea in which one can see one's own reflection is allowed. Please note that you may eat if you are sick, and you may take medicine. The Mahayana sojong vows come from the kriya tantra. Because of this, cleanliness and purity are of utmost importance. You should therefore abstain from eating meat of any kind, eggs, onions, or garlic during the period you have taken the vows.
Not wearing jewelry or ornaments means not wearing jewelry or ornaments that you do not normally wear. If you normally wear a ring, pendant, or other piece of jewelry, you may continue to wear it while observing the vow.