Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India - This morning, on the fifteenth day of the new Water-Tiger Year, His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to the Tsuglagkhang, the Main Tibetan Temple, to celebrate the Day of Miracles that commemorates an episode in the life of the Buddha. Because of the intervening Covid-19 pandemic this was the first time he has appeared in public since leaving Bodhgaya in January 2020. He walked from the gate of his residence through the temple garden smiling broadly and waving to the excited crowd, young and old.
Today’s event was part of the Great Prayer Festival established by Jé Tsongkhapa at the Jokhang in Lhasa in 1409, the observation of which continues to the present. Each day of the festival was divided into four sessions: an early morning prayer, a teaching session, a noon prayer, and an afternoon prayer. Throughout the days of the festival, the teaching session was dedicated to reading from Aryashura's Garland of Birth Stories (Jatakamala), a fourth-century poetic retelling of thirty-four of the most famous of the Buddha's former lives. On the fifteenth day of the festival, a full-moon day, Tsongkhapa also performed a large public ceremony for the generation of bodhichitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
Once he was settled on the throne below the temple and facing the congregation in the garden, His Holiness told them:
“I had thought to go to Delhi around now to have a medical check-up. However, I don’t feel unwell, in fact I feel fit for anything, so I decided not to go. Usually, during the winter, I go to Bodhgaya, but again, this year I decided to relax and take things easy here in Dharamsala. I also threw a ‘mo’ that indicated that this would be the better thing to do.
“So, today, I’m going to read from the Jatakamala.
“Now the question is, how do the Buddhas benefit sentient beings? They don’t wash unwholesome deeds away with water, and they don’t remove the sufferings of beings with their hands, nor do they transplant their own realization into others. It is by teaching the truth of suchness, revealing reality as they have experienced it and the means to pacify restless minds that they liberate beings.
“The Buddha first taught the Four Noble Truths, then later, at Vulture’s Peak, he presented the essence of his doctrine, the Perfection of Wisdom teachings that are summed up in the Heart Sutra that we regularly recite.
“I do my best to reflect on the teaching of emptiness, which I find helpful when it comes to tackling negative emotions. I also take to heart what Shantideva wrote:
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
Proceeding in this way from happiness to happiness, what thinking person would despair, after mounting the carriage, the awakening mind, which carries away all weariness and effort? 7/30
“Destructive emotions cause unhappiness. If you can reduce them, you will naturally feel at peace. We Tibetans have a special relationship with Avalokiteshvara and the awakening mind, the intention help other beings and reach Buddhahood.”
There followed a recitation of the ‘Heart Sutra’, a prayer to the lineage lamas that mentions several of the previous Dalai Lamas. Finally, the Sikyong Penpa Tsering took part in offering a mandala to His Holiness.
While everyone enjoyed drinking butter tea and eating sweet rice, His Holiness recalled an occasion in Tibet when one of the dignitaries attending a celebration had a grain of rice stuck on his moustache. Rather than embarrass him by bluntly pointing out this faux pas, one of the attendants spontaneously uttered a couple of lines of verse that he understood and wiped his moustache clean.
“I was mentioning that Tibetans have a special relationship with Avalokiteshvara. We see this in relation to King Songtsen Gampo, who was smart and efficient. He decided to create a Tibetan written script, but, despite his close relations to China and its culture, he chose not to base it on the Chinese tradition, but took the Sanskrit Devanagari script as the model. This written form is still in common use right across the whole of Tibet.
“Then, in the 8th century, King Trisong Detsen, invited Shantarakshita from India who established the teaching in Tibet that the Buddha described as ‘profound and peaceful, free from complexity, uncompounded luminosity — a nectar-like Dharma’. It was at this time that we began to translate Buddhist literature into Tibetan. Despite more recent attempts to eliminate Tibetan culture, and with it the teaching of the Buddha, we have kept the Buddhist tradition alive. Part of the reason for this is Tibetans’ unwavering faith in Avalokiteshvara. And as time goes on, more and more people in China are taking an interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
“This teaching we’ve preserved deals with reality as it is. There are many faiths in the world, but Buddhism is the only one founded on reason and logic. If I think of my role in this, I was born in Amdo in the vicinity of Kumbum Monastery. The letters A, Ka, Ma reflected in the surface of the Lhamo Latso Lake led to my being discovered. After that I came to Central Tibet where I was immersed in the study and investigation of Buddhism. Subsequently, in exile from Tibet, I’ve met many people with a background in science and many of them have shown an interest in what Buddhism has to say about the mind and emotions.
“We have gathered here on this special occasion to remind ourselves that this treasure, the teaching of the Buddha, can only be preserved through study and practice, and in so doing we can benefit other people in many parts of the world. ‘Entering into the Middle Way’ makes clear that even very learned masters like Vasubandhu and Dignaga did not fully understand the teaching on emptiness. However, at the end of Chapter Six it says:
Thus, illuminated by the rays of wisdom's light, the bodhisattva sees as clearly as a gooseberry on his open palm that the three realms in their entirety are unborn from their very start, and through the force of conventional truth, he journeys to cessation. 6.224
And like a king of swans soaring ahead of other accomplished swans, with white wings of conventional and ultimate truths spread wide, propelled by the powerful winds of virtue, the bodhisattva would cruise to the excellent far shore, the oceanic qualities of the conquerors. 6.226
“This teaching, based on reason, helps us counter destructive emotions within.”
Addressing the school-children before him, His Holiness told them that he requested the help of Pandit Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister, to establish dedicated schools where Tibetan pupils could study in Tibetan. He remarked that although they are physically in exile, Tibetans in India and elsewhere continue to feel close their own traditions, religion and culture. He said he does his best and that they too should do their best to preserve this legacy.
He admitted that he is getting older but declared that he will be here for another decade or more, able to lead and encourage. He observed that his knees hurt, but he can still offer leadership even when relying on a walking stick.
“We’ve been able to gather here on the occasion of the Great Prayer Festival and I urge to rouse your courage. Think of yourselves as followers of the Buddha, of Arya Nagarjuna and his disciples, as well as Dignaga and his followers. Question what you hear. Ask why? Philosophy teachers in schools should teach not only poetry, but also philosophical thought.”
His Holiness took up the pages of the ‘Garland of Birth Stories’ (Jatakamala) and read a little from the ‘Tale of Vishvantara’ and with that fulfilled the long-standing tradition of reading from this book. He observed that the essence of the Buddha’s teaching is to discipline the mind. Noting that he respects all the great religious traditions, Hindu, Christian, Moslem, Jewish, Sikh and so forth, he remarked that only Buddhism is founded on reason and logic.
“As a guest of the Government of India,” he said, “I live here in exile, but my thoughts always dwell on Tibet and our Tibetan cultural traditions.”
Next, during a simple ceremony focussed on generating the awakening mind of bodhichitta, His Holiness advised his listeners to feel convinced that they were receiving the vow to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings from an authentic follower of the Buddha. He encouraged them, as followers of Avalokiteshvara, to reflect on the teachings concerning impermanence, suffering, selflessness and emptiness and to be determined to keep this tradition alive.
The teaching concluded with a thanksgiving mandala offering, as well as a recitation of the ‘Prayer for the Flourishing of the Teaching’ and auspicious verses.
His Holiness walked about a third of the way through the yard, smiling and waving to members of the audience, before climbing into a car for the short drive back to his residence.