Full-moon Day of the Great Prayer Festival
February 27, 2021
Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India – This morning, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama appeared before the webcast cameras at his residence, the Drepung Chantmaster could be heard reciting introductory prayers in his booming voice. He followed this with a steady recitation of the ‘Heart Sutra’. The Sera Chantmaster then led the chanting of the Lam Rim Lineage Prayer. He was followed by the Ganden Chantmaster making the mandala offering. On the screens before him His Holiness could see the faces of the Ganden Tri Rinpoché, Abbots, former Abbots, Tulkus and members of the Ladakhi Semkye Association.
His Holiness briefly put on his pandit’s hat, recited his own introductory prayer and began his discourse.
“Today, we are holding this teaching as part of the Great Prayer Festival. Since we are unable to physically gather together, we are meeting online. The conduct of the Great Prayer Festival is complicated and I remember that I had to prepare and train myself to lead the afternoon prayers. These included the prayer related to Sukhavati. I was so nervous that it wasn’t until I reached a certain point in the prayer that I became aware of the birds around me flying here and there.
“As I said before, we can’t actually gather together because of the pandemic, but it doesn’t really matter because this teaching can be accessed by people everywhere. I shall be glad if that includes people in Tibet and mainland China.
“Following tradition, I’ll read from where we left the Jataka Tales on the last occasion, after which I’ll read from Nagarjuna’s ‘Precious Garland’.
“Today, we’re in the 21st century and many of us Tibetans are living in exile as refugees. The teachings of the Buddha, given according to disciples’ needs and dispositions, have been preserved by the sharp-minded through the use of reason and logic. Recognition of them has now spread to many other parts of the world where many more people can pay attention to them.
“Historically, in the 7th century, King Songtsen Gampo, who we may regard as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, was far-sighted in his vision. Although he had strong Chinese connections and married the Chinese princess who brought with her the statue of the Buddha housed in the Jokhang, he elected to commission a written Tibetan script modelled on the Indian alphabet. Consequently, when the great Abbot Shantarakshita was invited to Tibet by King Trisong Detsen, he advised us Tibetans to translate Buddhist literature into our own language so we didn’t have to rely on a knowledge of Sanskrit and Pali.
“Shantarakshita came from Nalanda University, so, right from the start, Tibetans studied according to the Nalanda Tradition. This meant that we relied on reason and logic in a way not found in any other Buddhist country. It is due to the kindness of Shantarakshita, the Tibetan translators and Indian pandits that we have been able to preserve such a thorough presentation of the teachings of the Buddha. People in Tibet continue to have unflinching devotion and faith not deflected even in the face of great hardship. We have a profound tradition that is definitely something to be proud of. Even hard-line Chinese officials should be able to see this.
“When I met Mao Zedong, I was impressed by his socialist motive to care for the general public. However, as time went on that seems to have changed. Now, there is a huge gap between rich and poor. Meanwhile, Tibetans in Tibet, young and old, have upheld our Tibetan traditions, which we can see among those performing prostrations in front of the Jokhang. My message to them is to be at ease.
“Young Tibetans I urge to pay attention to the Tibetan language. These days I hear that even in Siling Tibetan is being taught, which didn’t happen in the past. I appeal to Tibetans in all parts of Tibet to pay attention to our common language. We may speak in different dialects, but the language we read is common between us. Also remember what the Buddha advised: ‘As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, So, bhikshus, should you accept my words — after testing them, and not merely out of respect for me.’ Be sceptical; study and experiment.”
His Holiness announced that, as is traditional on this Full-moon Day of the Great Prayer Festival that commemorates the Buddha’s defeat of opponents in discussion and display of miracles, he would read from Aryasura’s ‘Garland of Birth Stories’, the ‘Jatakamala’, which recounts previous lives of the Buddha. He took up the story of Vishvantara, whose principal virtue was his open-hearted generosity. Courtiers approached the Prince’s father the King to insist that because the Prince was too attached to virtue, he was unfit to ascend the throne. They demanded that he be banished before he could give away more of the kingdom’s wealth. The Prince was taken aback to be condemned for his virtue while the King wept with sadness.
Turning to the ‘Precious Garland’, His Holiness remarked that although the author, Nagarjuna, attracted little regard among followers of the Pali Tradition, he was of great significance to followers of the Sanskrit Tradition. He elaborated on what the Buddha taught in his second round of teachings that is recorded in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. Besides his six collections on reasoning that deal with the view of emptiness, this text, the ‘Precious Garland’ also explains the extensive path. His Holiness mentioned that he received an explanation of the book from Serkhong Rinpoché.
The first verse expresses homage to the Buddha, who is free of all faults, who is learned and compassionate towards all, and who has accumulated merit and wisdom for three countless aeons. Nagarjuna refers to him as a vessel of the excellent doctrine. In the third verse he points out that in order to practise the Buddha’s teaching, it’s necessary to have the high status of good rebirth. This is obtained by observing the ‘ten gleaming paths of action’, which are to abstain from the ten unwholesome deeds. These in turn are supplemented by ‘not drinking intoxicants, a good livelihood, non-harming, respectful giving, honouring the honourable, and love.’ The fourteenth verse reveals what leads to a short life, while the fifteenth outlines the faults of speech that lead to your own speech not being respected.
His Holiness read briskly through the remaining verses up to verse 25, which, he clarified, completed the explanation of how to achieve high status.
Finally, His Holiness announced that he had been requested by the Ladakhi Semkye Association to conduct a ceremony for cultivating the awakening mind of bodhichitta. He began by pointing out that if you generate bodhichitta, you will achieve a good rebirth with wisdom in life after life. You will fulfil your own goals as well as others. People will befriend you and you will earn their respect.
“As social beings,” he observed, “we all depend on the community. Therefore, we need to be sincere in showing kindness to others. As Shantideva makes clear:
All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others. 8/129
Why say more? Observe this distinction: between the fools who long for their own advantage and the sage who acts for the advantage of others. 8/130
For those who fail to exchange their own happiness for the suffering of others, Buddhahood is certainly impossible – how could there even be happiness in cyclic existence? 8/131
“This is why we need to be altruistic towards all sentient beings.”
His Holiness then led the virtual audience through the visualization and repetition of prayers and verses for generating bodhichitta and taking the bodhisattva vow. In conclusion he declared that bodhichitta is the essence of the dharma.
“Of course, I do deity practices,” he reported, “but my main practice is the cultivation of bodhichitta. The important thing, as Dromtönpa pointed out, is practice of the lineages of extensive conduct and profound view, that is, cultivating bodhichitta and an understanding of emptiness. I don’t have much regard for the so-called lineage of blessings.
“With that,” he said, “we’re done.”
The session closed with the Chantmasters leading recitations of the ‘Prayer for the Flourishing of the Dharma’, auspicious verses about the Three Jewels and, finally, the ‘Lam Rim Prayer’.