2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission of Mandala magazine, published by the Foundation of the Mahayana Tradition .

In 1409, the great Tibetan philosopher, saint, monastic teacher, and social reformer, Tsong Khapa Losang Drakpa (1357-1419) gathered the donations of all the major patrons of Tibetan Buddhism and organized the first Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa. He invited all the people of Tibet to a two-week-long festival of prayer, auspicious ritual, teachings, and celebrations, from the first new moon until the full moon of the lunar New Year. Many hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, came from near and far.

He chose that time of year because of his firm belief in the legendary story about the life of the founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha (ca. 563-483 BCE), told in the Indian Buddhist Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish called "Overcoming the Six Teachers." In that story, the Buddha is challenged by six rival teachers to a contest of miraculous performances. For many years, the Buddha evaded their challenges, letting people believe that he was afraid of their magical powers, losing his royal patrons, and causing doubts and worries to grow among the people.

Finally, in the city of Shravasti, the Buddha accepts the challenge and stands before a huge assembly of people from all the central north Indian city-states. He proceeds to perform miracle after miracle during the first fortnight of the lunar New Year. The rival teachers are eclipsed almost immediately, as the Buddha produced spectacular manifestations. He threw down a toothpick and grew a giant wish-granting gem tree ten times bigger than the White House Christmas tree. He rinsed his mouth with scented water, and celestial lakes with divine ducks and jewel lotuses appeared. He concentrated and emitted rays of light, and apparitions of angelic hosts of cosmic buddhas and bodhisattvas and gods and angels filled the skies.

Teachings of liberation and awakening, reverberating in every language known to man, illumined the minds of all assembled. He even manifested a vision of himself multiplying infinitely, his compassionate energy becoming clearly present to everyone's awareness in micro-embodiments in every subatomic particle in the universe.

It is said that during that first Great Prayer Festival in 1409, all the people gathered in Lhasa themselves beheld visions solidly present in space, with heavenly hosts of buddhas and divine beings filling the sky like sesame seeds filling a jar.

This event in mythic history marks for Tibetans the triumph of the Buddha's enlightenment, the force of wisdom and compassion, over human ignorance and social routines of injustice, pretension, and unkindness. When Tsong Khapa attained his own definitive enlightenment 11 years earlier in 1398, he experienced numerous visions of this great apocalyptic moment in Shakyamuni Buddha's life, and vowed to commemorate it in his own teachings and performances.

It is said that during that first Great Prayer Festival in 1409, all the people gathered in Lhasa themselves beheld similar visions solidly present in space, with heavenly hosts of buddhas and divine beings filling the sky like sesame seeds filling a jar. For the whole two weeks, the routine business of the city was suspended. Everyone got into their most religious mood and spent the whole time as if on a spiritual retreat, praying, studying, making offerings, teaching and learning, debating meaningful philosophical topics, and celebrating in ways both solemn and merry.

At the culmination of the Festival, Tsong Khapa formally offered a royal bejeweled golden diadem, a jewel necklace, a golden breastplate, and royal earrings to the Jowo Rinpoche, the holiest image in Tibet in the central Jokang Cathedral. These ornaments were created to symbolize that the historical Buddha was no longer to be thought of as lost in the mists of history, dead and gone away from suffering beings, but as imminently present in his divine reality, totally alive to the faithful people of Tibet, present to those determined to follow his example and evolve to full awakening themselves.

From 1409, then, the Great Prayer Festival was held every year almost without interruption until the flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959. Since then it has been held in the capital in exile, Dharamsala, India. Many arts and crafts developed from the traditions associated with it, and it had a major impact in the development of Tibet's unique Dharma-oriented society over the subsequent centuries.

Great Prayer Festivals became such a strong tradition that other regional centers and monasteries held them all over Tibet. This has continued in exile with a Monlam Festival being held everywhere Tibetans celebrate New Year.

In America, Tibet House U.S. has held a Monlam Great Prayer Festival Concert at Carnegie Hall every Tibetan New Year for the last ten years, with Tibetan monks and artists joining World Musicians in celebration of the tradition. Now this Great Prayer Festival is being experienced at the beginning of the second common era millennium, on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the capital of our nation, which is dedicated to freedom for all peoples, spiritual as well as political, global as well as local.

This is the first time in the West that each of the various traditions of the Lhasa Festival will be presented together, including the personal participation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is immensely auspicious that this festival be commemorated in this hallowed place by the Tibetan people in exile, joined by all people of good will from all nations. On this very day, Tibetan life, culture, environment, and religious freedom is severely threatened by the forces of materialistic modernity; industrial militarism; exploitative greed; and human ignorance, prejudice, and unkindness.

The delusions championed by the six teachers whom Buddha overcame seem dangerously victorious over the idealism of enlightened wisdom and compassion. Tibet's life-and-death crisis mirrors the global crisis we all face in different ways, a crisis of epidemic violence, environmental destruction, division between rich and poor, loss of species, injustice, confusion, despair, and self-centered defeatism.

So let us all join together in the Great Prayer Festival of Tibet on the Mall, and take a moment to focus on the positive, the miraculous, the revelation of the reality shown to us by the great spiritual leaders of humanity, all of whose religions are founded on the vision of freedom and happiness. visions that have been called the "Kingdom of God" or the "Pure Land of Bliss."

Let us enjoy this Prayer Festival, bring the spirit of awakening into our daily lives, be more encouraged and hopeful about the positive futures we can create for our children and grandchildren, and make this commemoration a turning point toward goodness, truth, and beauty here on earth, for Tibet, for America, for China, for all humans and all beings.