Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: The Community Function of the Protector Lama and the Protector Shrine

MahakalaWord for word transcript by Margaret Erlewine of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s comments, 6-9-2013. Light editing.

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Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and Lama Thendup work on hangings for the Protector Shrine

“As most all of you know, we’ve not only completed the construction of this monastery, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, but we have now completed the creation of a protector temple or gonkhang. We have not only completed the creation of the protector temple or shrine room, but we now have a protector lama, Lama Thendup. And so we have everything we need in order to relate in the fullest and most traditional way to the protectors.

We mention this because, since you have never had such a thing in your culture, you’re unfamiliar with the community function of the protector lama and the protector shrine. For many years up to the present whenever any of you have been in difficulties, you’ve often come to me and ask me to pray for you or to bless you so you transcend these, which is very sweet of you, but I don’t actually have any power to protect you or bless you. I have good aspirations for all of you, but I don’t have any power. The best thing I can do is to pray, on your behalf, to the protectors, such as Mahakala and Mahakali. But traditionally the person, who is supposed to intercede on your behalf with the protectors, is the protector lama.

IMG_0757IMG_0631So from now on, whenever you have difficulties and you feel you need particular help, I want you to go to Lama Thendup and make an offering, whatever size you want, and ask him to talk to the protectors on your behalf. This is traditional; this is the way it’s always been done. It is Mahakala and Mahakali who protect us. It is the function and responsibility of the protector lama to communicate to them our particular needs and issues. The reason why you need to make an offering to him or the temple is to create the interdependent condition for help to come to you. Just as if you want to eat you first have to plant seeds, so then the food will grow and then eventually you eat it.

Now there is one thing about this. When you request the assistance of the protectors in such a way, don’t think that you’re being selfish, because it is their function to help you and protect you. They are dharmapalas, dharma protectors. However because they are dharmapalas they are going to assist you in anything virtuous, but they will not assist you in anything unvirtuous. If you ask for their assistance in doing something bad, they will assist you by making sure that it doesn’t work out.

IMG_0756They’re dharmapalas; they’re not protectors of negativity; they’re protectors of dharma.”

“It felt as if the king had returned to his castle.” Losar with His Holiness Karmapa, 2013.

His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa arrived for a month-long stay in Sarnath, Varanasi, India, on February 8. The flight from Delhi was late, and the monks, Khenpos, and foreign students gathered at Thrangu Rinpoche’s beautiful Vajravidya Institute waited patiently in the street and in the monastery courtyard, holding their khatas and mingling with local people, street dogs, and the occasional motorcycle or auto rickshaw (“tuk-tuk,” in local parlance).  Finally, the Khenpos gave a signal and formed the traditional Tibetan procession in front of His Holiness’s motorcade. It progressed slowly up the street and turned in at the big gate in front of the monastery. His Holiness could be seen in the front seat of the lead car, appreciatively taking in the sights and, as always, finding ways to connect with locals and foreign devotees alike. He arrived and entered the shrine hall, and then went upstairs to his living quarters. As his entourage of security guards, translators, and attendants settled into their rooms, it felt as if the king had returned to his castle.

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The Very Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche on the first day of the Mahakala puja, before Losar.

For three days before Tibetan New Year on February 11, Thrangu Rinpoche’s sangha conducted an elaborate Mahakala puja to ready everything for the Year of the Female Water Snake. His Holiness and Thrangu Rinpoche sometimes joined the puja, lending it a special grandeur and offering prayers, incense, and lamps at the beautiful Mahakala shrine in the shrine room. On the morning of February 11, the ceremony began before 4 a.m. The thrones in the shrine hall had been readied with large stacks of decorative kapse, the Tibetan fried cookie that is a traditional New Year’s treat. His Holiness entered and made offerings to the Mahakala shrine and to the throne set aside for His Holiness Dalai Lama before climbing onto his own high seat at the front of the shrine room, just under the golden Buddha statue. Thrangu Rinpoche did the same, adding an offering to His Holiness before settling onto a smaller throne to His Holiness’s left.

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His Holiness Karmapa and the Very Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche attend the Grand Mahakala Puja at Vajravidya Institute.

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His Holiness’s empty robes on the throne at the Vajravidya Insititute. Photo, Amy Schwartz.

There is a beautiful jeweled cape, made of golden brocade, traditionally left on His Holiness’s throne at the Vajravidya Insititute. On this special morning, His Holiness solemnly put it around his shoulders and sat motionless for a time, apparently deep in meditation. Wearing the Karmapas’ activity hat and the cape, he looked awesome and regal, yet serene and kind. The monks began chanting prayers for the new year, and the traditional ceremonial foods of saffron rice and butter tea were served for breakfast as the dawn lit the sky outside the windows. Many people made special offerings on this auspicious day, and at the end, everyone in the packed shrine hall had the chance to offer a khata to His Holiness and Thrangu Rinpoche.

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Tenzin Chonyi, president of KTD, and the Very Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche’s sister, sporting blessing cords from His Holiness Karmapa. KTD’s Jacek Rosa can be spotted on the left. Photo, Amy Schwartz.

Later that morning, a crowd of devotees, mostly Tibetan, arrived  and formed a long line to go up to His Holiness’s quarters above the shrine hall. Many lamas and foreign students could also be seen on their way to or from Thrangu Rinpoche’s house next to the temple, with khatas and big smiles, happy to have the chance to offer their greetings and best wishes for the new year to one of the Karma Kagyu lineage’s greatest living masters. However, there was also a somber note to the day, as the traditional lama dances were cancelled in remembrance of the deaths this past year of Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche and Traleg Rinpoche. The Vajravidya Institute officially requested that all in attendance remember these great lamas in their prayers and pray for their swift return.

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Monks enjoying the Losar holiday. Photo, Amy Schwartz

The monks enjoyed a three day Losar holiday, including one morning with the traditional Tibetan breakfast of kapse! The older monks enjoyed soccer, basketball and board games, while the small monks played with new toys. Special meals were enjoyed by all. His Holiness occasionally made an appearance to do kora (clockwise circumambulation of the temple) or to walk to Thrangu Rinpoche’s house for a visit.

Practice and study of the dharma are emphasized during the first two weeks after Losar. On the morning of February 18th, the 8th day of the Tibetan new year, His Holiness went to the Dhamek stupa in Sarnath for a puja of offering (see related story), and the monks also commenced a 3-day ceremony, called Yangkyap, to pray for the wellbeing of the monastery. On this same auspicious day, Thrangu Rinpoche began his first public teaching in well over a year, offering his commentary on Atisha’s text, “A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment,”  to more than 100 students. In a sign of the growing internationalism of Tibetan Buddhism, the shrine room featured a Chinese section, with many students listening to the expert Mandarin translation of Khenpo Tengye on FM radios.  David Karma Choephel, well known to many KTD’ers, translated for the English speakers. The joy in the shrine room was palpable as this precious master offered his characteristic brilliant smile to his happy students.

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The Very Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche’s teaching begins; David Karma Choephel translates.

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The Chinese protector Guan Gong.

His Holiness’s devotion to Thrangu Rinpoche, his senior tutor, was constantly evident throughout these days. One of the funniest and most heart-warming moments came during an evening puja for the Chinese protector Guan Gong, on February 12th, the second day of Losar. The puja, written by His Holiness, was conducted outside the temple, in the marble entryway, with all the spectators assembled in the garden to watch. Thrangu Rinpoche was seated to His Holiness’s right, chanting from his text, when suddenly the power went out, plunging the foyer in darkness. Nearly instantaneously, His Holiness clicked on a powerful flashlight and aimed it, not at his own text, but at Rinpoche’s! He beat the security people and attendants by several seconds, as if he had known the power was about to go. And it was so touching that his first thought was for his tutor.

Another high point came on the evening of February 18th, when the monks from Namo Buddha, Thrangu Rinpoche’s Nepal monastery, performed a play on the Life of Gampopa. His Holiness had given the monks a book about Gampopa some time ago and asked them to study it, and this was their response. An arched tent, draped with multicolored fabrics, formed the stage on the soccer field. Sitting under a smaller tent on a large, gilded seat, with Thrangu Rinpoche, Tulku Damcho, and other special guests, His Holiness appeared to enjoy the evening thoroughly, as did the assembly of monks and foreign students.

On February 21st, His Holiness is scheduled to begin seven days of teaching on the text “100 Short Instructions,” by the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, with a one-day break on February 25, which is Chotrul Duchen, the Display of Miracles, one of the four special  “wheel days” in the Tibetan calendar. The monks will conduct a full day puja on that day. The live webcast of His Holiness’s teaching will proceed at 5:30 a.m., East Coast time, and if you are an early riser, you can find additional information and the link at www.kagyuoffice.org.

– Amy Schwartz

If not attributed otherwise, the photo is from the Vajravidya facebook site.