MONLAM: THE GREAT SAKYA ASPIRATION PRAYER FESTIVAL
Whoever knows, teaches, or recites this Aspiration to Noble Deeds Shall ultimately attain perfect Buddhahood. May none despair of complete enlightenment.
-Samantabhadra’s Aspiration to Noble Deeds

A Brief History of the Sakya Monlam

Throughout history, scholars have studied the religious and secular developments of their own and other societies, and recorded and passed down this knowledge for posterity. Through such stewardship, they have helped preserve ancient traditions, restored some traditions that declined over time, and initiated new ones appropriate to the times. The following is a brief introduction to the Great Sakya Aspiration Prayer Festival, from its historical root to its modern form.

Once, when Lord Buddha Shakyamuni dwelt in Jetavana Grove in Shravasti, the Buddha taught his disciples how the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra previously made aspirations, where he made them, and who requested them. The Buddha explained that at one time the Bodhisattva Subahu, having relied upon 108 spiritual masters, having venerated and made offerings to all of them, and having requested from them a majority of the vast Mahayana teachings, came to see the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. At that time twenty different auspicious signs occurred, and as soon as Subahu beheld the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra he felt joy as great as if he had reached the stage of omniscient Buddhahood, and limitless primordial wisdom arose within his mind. He perceived the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra seated on a lion throne in the presence of Mahavairochana in the Akanishta Realm, along with an infinite number of Bodhisattva Samantabhadras, as many as the number of atoms in that pure realm.

At that moment the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra extended his hand and blessed the head of the youth Subahu, opening myriad doors of Dharma in his mind. The Bodhisattva Samantabhadra then explained how his emanations achieve benefit for sentient beings, how they venerate the Buddhas as a cause to achieve that benefit, and how they engage in the limitless conduct of the Bodhisattvas. The Bodhisattva Samantabhadra explained how his emanations have purified limitless pure realms and matured infinite sentient beings. Combining all of these explanations into verse, he sang a song which became known as Samantabhadra’s Aspiration to Noble Deeds, and which was the condensation of all other aspirations into one. How this aspiration is more exalted than others is explained by the following verses from the Samantabadhra prayer:

Whoever offers to the victorious Buddhas
All the realms of the ten directions adorned with jewels
And all the excellent joys of gods and men
For as many eons as there are atoms n those realms, shall gain great merit.

But whoever hears this greatest dedication prayer
Greatly aspires to perfect enlightenment
And even once generates faith
Shall gain ever higher and holier merit.

There are thirteen other benefits, which are explained in detail:

Whoever utters this Aspiration to Noble Deeds
Will never again endure lower rebirth,
Will abandon all evil friends,
And soon behold the Buddha of Boundless Light.

They will find that which is sought
And live in happiness,
Find joy also in this life,
And soon become like Samantabhadra imself.

Even though they may have in ignorance
Committed the five irredeemable sins,
They will soon be completely purified
Through uttering this Aspiration to Noble Deeds.

They will achieve perfect wisdom, a radiant countenance,
Ethereal form, auspicious physical marks, and a noble birth.
Profane and devilish beings will not trouble them,
And they will be honored in the three realms.

They will quickly reach the royal tree of enlightenment,
Residing there to benefit beings.
As enlightened Buddhas, they will turn the wheel of Dharma,
Taming the demonic hosts.

The ultimate benefit is also explained:

Whoever knows, teaches, or recites
This Aspiration to Noble Deeds
Shall ultimately attain perfect Buddhahood.
May none despair of complete enlightenment.

As these verses show, the benefit of reciting Samantabhadra’s Aspiration to Noble Deeds is inconceivable and beyond description. Because of this great benefit, many masters in Tibet instituted large prayer gatherings where the Aspiration to Noble Deeds was recited by hundreds or thousands of monks, nuns, and lay people. These prayer, or monlam, festivals were performed by all the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and were often held where holy masters of the past had dwelt, taught the Dharma, or passed away, or near temples or other places of great religious significance.

After the political changes in Tibet in the 1950s, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness Sakya Trizin and the leaders of the other Tibetan Buddhist schools worked to reestablish temples, monasteries, nunneries, and colleges outside of Tibet. Under their leadership, the Buddha’s doctrine began to flourish once again in India, and most of the Tibetan traditions were successfully reestablished, including the performance of the monlam festivals. Venerable Tarthang Tulku, primarily of the Nyingma tradition, also assisted this revival by generously sponsoring the prayer gatherings of all four schools.

In reestablishing the prayer festivals, two important considerations were which prayers should be recited, and where to gather from year to year. The prayers to be recited at the Sakya Monlam were determined by His Holiness Sakya Trizin along with other senior Sakyapa lamas and monks who chose 100,000 recitations of the Samantabhadra prayer as the main recitation. The places to gather are decided in accordance with the advice of Lord Buddha Shakyamuni, who said just before entering mahaparinirvana:

Noble sons and daughters, those faithful ones should travel to these four holy places, and recall them in their minds for as long as they live. If one wonders where those four holy places are, they are the place where the Bhagwan Buddha was born; the place where the Bhagwan Buddha was enlightened; the place where the Bhagwan Buddha taught the Dharma; and the holy place where the Bhagwan Buddha entered mahaparinirvana. Bikkshus, after I enter parinirvana, some pilgrims may come to these places to see the stupas and make prostrations. When they come, you should tell them these words.

He also said, "For those who are unable to see the holy face of the actual Buddha, they should go and see these four holy places, and practice the Dharma in these places."

In accordance with this, Lumbini, Nepal, the site of the Buddha’s birth, was chosen for the time being as the gathering place. At this sacred site, monks, nuns, and lay people from all countries gather in a huge convocation. The arrangements for this great gathering are managed by the Monlam Committee.

The first Sakya Monlam outside of Tibet took place in Lumbini from March 1 – 15, 1993, and was organized by the Tsar temple, Jamchen Lhakang (Great Maitreya Shrine). His Holiness Sakya Trizin, His Eminence Ratna Vajra Rinpoche, and His Eminence Gyana Vajra Rinpoche presided, and in attendance were His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, His Eminence Luding Khenchen Rinpoche, the Shabdrung Rinpoches, Gonkar Dorje Tenpa, and over a thousand lamas, tulkus, monks, and nuns.

For three days prior to the main ceremonies, the entire assembly practiced White Tara with Six Rays of Light and then made an elaborate long-life request to His Holiness Sakya Trizin. During the long-life request, His Eminence Ratna Vajra Rinpoche gave a detailed explanation of the mandala offering, the clarity and precision of which were widely acclaimed. The minister of religious affairs from the Tibetan Government in Exile joined in requesting His Holiness’ long life.

On the first day of the main ceremonies, His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche introduced the Venerable Tarthang Tulku, who delighted the assembly with an arousing speech. Following the preliminaries, the main ceremony began. Each day the assembly chanted prayers to the lineage of Indian and Tibetan masters, the Sixteen Arhat Ritual, the Manjushri Namasamgita, and especially Samantabhadra’s Aspiration to Noble Deeds. During the recitations, many people came to request additional prayers, or to make offerings. All offerings were recorded and announced each afternoon, and then allocated to worthwhile causes. Students from the three major Sakya colleges spent time between chanting sessions practicing debate in the traditional style. Concluding each day, the assembly chanted the Door of Happiness, a prayer for the happiness of all living beings.

On March 8, 1993, His Eminence Gyana Vajra Rinpoche took novice ordination at Tashi Rabten Ling monastery. The learned and realized masters His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, Ngawang Khenrab Lekshe Gyatso, and His Eminence Luding Khenchen Rinpoche, Jamyang Tenpei Nyima, served as abbot and master. Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk served as timekeeper. Luding Shabdrung Jamyang Chokyi Gyaltsen served as assistant. The two masters Ngor Thartse Shabdrung, Ngawang Sonam Choden, and Tharig Tulku Rinpoche, Jamyang Damchoe Nyima, were among many other lamas present for the occasion. At that time His Eminence Gyana Vajra Rinpoche received the name Champa Kunga Rinchen Khyentse Dorje. Following the ordination, there was a procession of thousands of monks and nuns celebrating the occasion.

At other times during the Monlam, His Holiness Sakya Trizin gave a reading transmission of the Dom Sum Rabye and the Tsema Rigter, His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche gave reading transmissions of many of the 18 classical texts studied in Sakya colleges and His Eminence Luding Khenchen Rinpoche gave a reading transmission of the root verses of the Abidharma Kosha.

On an auspicious day, the assembly made a long-life request to His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche. Toward the end of the program, His Holiness Sakya Trizin gave a long-life initiation for the public. In this way the first Sakya Monlam was successfully accomplished.

The second Monlam began on March 7, 1994. It was hosted by Tharlam Monastery in Boudhanath, Nepal instead of Lumbini because at that time His Holiness Sakya Trizin was in the midst of bestowing the Collection of All Sadhanas at Tharlam. Once the associated initiations and reading transmissions concluded, the Monlam began with more than 2000 monks, nuns, and lay people participating. During this time it was decided that the management of future Monlams would rotate amongst the various sub-lineages of the Sakya Order.

The third Monlam was hosted by Ngor Monastery, from March 13 – 22, 1995, in Lumbini. During the festival, officials from Ngor Monastery announced the rules and etiquette to be observed while participating in the monlam. At the conclusion, the merit was dedicated to the achievement of world peace. Remaining offerings were designated for the following year’s prayer festival. The fourth Monlam was hosted by His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s main monastery, Sakya Chogar (Sakya Centre), from March 5 – 15, 1996. The arrangements and program were the same as in previous years. The sangha of Jamchen Lhakang hosted the fifth Sakya Monlam, which was from December 20, 1996 – January 1, 1997.

In addition to the program of previous years, at this Monlam His Eminence Gyana Vajra Rinpoche received full ordination. The ceremony took place on December 23, on the auspicious day of the anniversary of Sakya Pandita. His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche and His Eminence Luding Khenchen Rinpoche served as abbot and master of ceremonies. Tharig Tulku Rinpoche served as master of secret instruction. Venerable Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk served as time keeper. Ngor Luding Shabdrung Rinpoche and Ngor Thartse Shabdrung Rinpoche, as well as many other abbots served as supplementary sangha. During the ordination, His Eminence was offered the name Champa Kunga Rinchen Khyentse Dorje Tenpai Gyaltsen. Following the ordination, all the gathered sangha joined in a celebratory procession. His Eminence then offered mandalas of appreciation to His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche and His Eminence Luding Khenchen Rinpoche. Many offerings were made that day, including numerous offerings from temples and sangha to His Eminence Gyana Vajra Rinpoche, and bountiful offerings by the Drolma Phodrang to the entire sangha, in celebration of His Eminence’s acceptance of full ordination.

The sixth Monlam was hosted by Ngor Monastery, and occurred from January 19 – January 28, 1998. The seventh Monlam was hosted by His Holiness’ seat, Sakya Chogar, from December 15 – December 23, 1998. The eighth was hosted by Jamchen Lhakang from December 29, 1999 – January 9, 2000. The program for these was the same as in previous years. The ninth Monlam was hosted by Ngor Monastery from February 6 – February 14, 2001. At that time His Holiness advised Gonkar Temple, the seat of what was long ago a major subsect of the Sakya Order, to organize the following year’s monlam. The following year, the sangha from Gonkar hosted the tenth monlam from January 5 – January 14, 2002. Although it was their first time organizing the prayer festival, the program went smoothly. The eleventh Monlam was hosted by the assembly of Sakya Chogar, and was held from January 24 – February 2, 2003. The twelfth Monlam was hosted by the assembly from Jamchen Lhakang from January 5 – 15, 2004. Just prior to the Monlam, on the auspicious anniversary of Loppon Sonam Tsemo, His Holiness Sakya Trizin led the opening ceremonies for the newly constructed monastery, Tashi Rabten Ling.

The main purpose of performing the Monlam each year is to prolong the lives of the upholders of the Buddha’s doctrine, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness Sakya Trizin and other masters, and to pray that their intentions for the benefit of beings may be accomplished; that the Buddhist sangha may continue to live together harmoniously, to possess pure conduct, and to increase their practice of the Dharma through explication and practice; and that through the blessings of the holy ones, epidemics, famine and warfare be dispelled, and happiness and peace spread to every region and country of the world. For this purpose, the assembly chants over 100,000 recitations of Samantabhadra’s Aspiration to Noble Deeds, and other prayers for world peace. This concludes a brief introduction to the Sakya Monlam.

Source: Cho Trin, Volume 1, Number 2, by Venerable Jhampa Losal

Photo:
Lamas and Sangha at the Great Sakya Aspiration Prayer Festival, 1996

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