Recitation of Mönlam: Why Should We Read?
The virtuous thoughts we usually have are infused with attachment and aversion. But the prayers can lead our minds; like a child holding a parent’s finger, the meanings of the passages guide our thoughts.
Day 3 of Kagyu Mönlam, 2016
The other day, I was approached by a non-Tibetan who wanted to ask me a question. He asked, “If meditation is the heart of the Buddhadharma – why is there so much reading during Mönlam prayer? Why not dedicate time to sitting in silence, to meditating?” I am certain that many devotees have had this question lingering in their minds at least once.
In a classic Buddhist analogy, the teacher, the teachings, and the practice are likened to the physician, the medicine, and the taking of the prescribed medicine. Before embarking on this pursuit of recovery, one has to first come to the realization that one is struck with an illness; that is to say, following the analogy to describe our emotional afflictions, one has confusion and all the sufferings stemming from that confusion. Although we may be well aware of some of our confusion, we are usually not aware of all of our confusion. Similarly, we are not aware of the full potential of our physician, or of the potency of the medicine; thus, we do not have the discipline to take the medicine consistently and perpetually.
Of course, it is ideal to remain in absorption, if one is able to remain in what is described as non-duality, but to be able to do so without long, ongoing habituation to virtue is as rare as seeing stars during the daylight hours. We are generally aiming for that level of calm and insight, but our meditation has not reached a point where we can sustain concentration with virtuous intent. So, it is not to our advantage to fool ourselves by believing otherwise. Rather, it is to our advantage to perceive ourselves as patients going to the physician for medicine, as the Buddha has suggested.
When we read the prayers, we are not simply parroting the words. As we read, our minds are becoming habituated to the meaningful passages of the prayers, orienting themselves to the ideas in the texts. As we read, our minds walk with the meanings of the prayers – not behind or ahead, but with the meanings, verse by verse, sentence by sentence.
The meaningful passages are our support – they guide our minds, setting up a proper mental attitude continually throughout the duration of the prayer. This creates a virtuous base, giving rise to virtuous thoughts.
Without this support, one has to innately, spontaneously cultivate virtuous thoughts – which is difficult. Our minds wander. We do not remember all the thoughts we want to have. The virtuous thoughts we usually have are infused with attachment and aversion. But the prayers can lead our minds; like a child holding a parent’s finger, the meanings of the passages guide our thoughts. The meanings not only anchor us to the present moment; they are more importantly untainted by attachment or aversion, because they are authored by either the Buddha himself or by other noble beings, for example, the great masters of India and Tibet.
We have to offer heaps of offerings, actual or mental, prostrate, circumambulate, feed the hungry, recite mantras, and inspire ourselves by paying homage to holy places. We do these and other positive actions in order to develop virtuous minds.
We need to be able to have a proper mindset. Do we have such mindsets? Is our outlook virtuous? Is our behavior virtuous? Is our speech virtuous? Are we able to maintain a virtuous mind, generating continuous virtuous thoughts? Are we generous enough when the opportunity presents itself? Are we respectful to the sangha, the symbol of the buddha? Are we perseverant, participating in the all-day events? Are we making selfless aspirations? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then we should read the Mönlam text. And indeed, once we can answer “yes” to all these questions, we would be spontaneously making virtuous aspirations at all times. Reading the text will help us to reorient ourselves. Being virtuous, and creating virtue, are the purposes of the Mönlam gathering.
What we recite during the Mönlam festival teaches us how to perceive the victorious ones, how to perceive ourselves, how to make wishes, how to relate with the suffering of beings, and how to help ourselves and others. This is absolutely beneficial. We should not parrot the prayers. We should rather contemplate the meanings of the prayers while we read them.
Since the gathering is large in number, we pool everyone’s prayers together – this is a great virtue.
We may not have Dharma kings, such as Bimbisara or Aśoka, but we have generous patrons, who financially enable us to hold Kagyu Mönlam – this is a great virtue.
Our prayers are made not in an ordinary place, but rather in an extraordinary place – this is a great virtue.
We are accompanied by the holy Sangha, consisting of His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa Trinlay Thaye Dorje, fully ordained bhikṣu and bhikṣuṇī, upāsaka and upāsikā, brahmacarya, lay practitioners – this is a great virtue.
Even in degenerate times, we are witnessing and taking part in such event – this is a great virtue.