The Sakya Monlam is coming. 2017 is about to end, and while we are all reflecting on about the last 12 months, India hosts the preparation of an event in which the great Sakyapa masters will meet for reciting 108 times the Samantabhadra Aspiration Prayer, one of the most famous, beautiful and powerful prayers in Mahayana Buddhism. With such a remarkable occasion ahead, one cannot help asking, who is Samantabhadra? What’s so special about his prayer that the most realized masters are so intent in reciting it? And above all, what is this festival about?
Who is the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra?
Samantabhadra is one of the eight great Bodhisattvas. Among them, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Vajrapani and Maitreya are the most popular ones, while Kshitigarbha, Sarvanivaranavishkambhin and Akashagarbha are somewhat less well-known (and also difficult to pronounce). All of them have the same characteristics and realizations (and according to the Vajrayana they are all complete Buddhas) but each of them represents a particular aspect of enlightenment. For example, Avalokiteshvara represents compassion, Manjushri wisdom and Vajrapani the power to help others.
And Samantabhadra? Samantabhadra embodies the power of aspiration.
What is his prayer about?
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.
And what are its benefits?
If the gorgeous and fascinating story was not inspiring enough, the prayer itself lists thirteen other benefits:
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 himself.
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.
How was such a prayer practiced in Tibet?
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.
What happened after the Communist invasion?
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.
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 [Lumbini]; the place where the Bhagwan Buddha was enlightened [Bodhgaya]; the place where the Bhagwan Buddha taught the Dharma [Sarnath]; and the holy place where the Bhagwan Buddha entered mahaparinirvana [Kushinagar]. 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, the first Sakya Monlam was held in Lumbini (Nepal) in March 1993, and was organized by the Tsar Monastery from the Sakya subschool of the same name. After its success, in 1994 the Sakya Monlam was celebrated in the Tharlam Monastery in Boudhanath (Nepal), coinciding with the bestowal there of the extraordinary cycle of initiations The Collection of All Sadhanas by His Holiness Gongma Trichen Rinpoche. The third year saw it celebrated in the Ngor Monastery in Lumbini. Since then, the organization of the monlams has been rotated among the different monasteries from the different Sakyapa subschools (Sakya, Ngor, Tsar and Dzongpa).
When and where is the Sakya Monlam 2017?
This year, the Sakya Monlam will be held in Bodhgaya (India), the place where Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree, the most sacred place for Buddhists of all traditions. In such a location, and under the organization of the Tsar subschool, H.H. Gongma Trichen Rinpoche and H.H. the 42nd Sakya Trizin Ratna Vajra Rinpoche will lead the festival.
The monlam will last for ten days (from December 26th 2017 to January 4th 2018), and it will include, besides the recitation of the Samantabhadra Prayer, guru yoga rituals, a tsok offering, teachings on Parting from the Four Attachments, a debate session and a White Tara puya for the long life of the masters.
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.
With all beings in mind, for ten days, the Sakya Lineage will say goodbye to the year 2017 and will contribute a rain of blessings so that 2018 will be a year full of peace, happiness, prosperity and, above all, a year full of the causes of them: the genuine practice of the Dharma.
You can download the Samantabhadra Prayer here (Lotsawa House English translation).
Adapted from: http://www.hhthesakyatrizin.org/teach_monlam.html