Monlam 2024: Q&A with Pema Gellek and Lama Palzang

The distribution of books at the recent 35th Nyingma Monlam ceremony held in Bodh Gaya, India, from January 11th to 20th, 2024, was a great success.

Your generous contributions played a pivotal role in enabling TAP to ship and distribute 306,504 Tibetan Buddhist texts to monks, nuns, and lay practitioners of Buddhism. These precious texts have reached individuals who would otherwise lack access to them, allowing us to make a major contribution to the preservation of Tibetan culture. Your unwavering support has made this historic endeavor possible, and we extend our deepest gratitude.

What was so special about the distribution this year? 

Pema: This year TAP was able to sponsor not only the shipping of 37 containers of books to the distribution site at the Monlam (World Peace Ceremony), but also the trucking of a large number of Kangyur collections to monasteries and libraries. Books were trucked from the Monlam to Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and about 50 different Tibetan settlements in India, including Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Mysore, and other regions in southern India. 

Our founder, Tarthang Rinpoche, wished to distribute the texts as widely as possible and encouraged us to make connections with people who could serve as agents once the books were trucked to certain cities in order to further distribute them to other centers in the area. For instance, we sent several trucks of books to Nepal by coordinating with a Geshe (a monk with an advanced scholastic degree) who is head of the Nepal Buddhist Federation and is in contact with over 2,000 formally registered monasteries in Nepal. 

Which texts were sent in January 2024? 

Palzang: Approximately 306,504 texts were sent in 37 shipping containers this year. 

In addition to the major Kangyur and Tengyur distributions, we also gave text collections with much fewer texts to attendees; for instance, one traditional collection includes teachings from Padmasambhava, Shantarakshita, Trisong Detsen, and Kamalashila. There was also another book, Pema Kathang, with the enlightened biography of Padmasambhava. 

What are Kangyur and Tengyur? 

The Kangyur and Tengyur form the fundamental canon for the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The Kangyur is all of the Buddha’s teachings, and the Tengyur contains the major commentaries on these teachings. 

Over the centuries, a number of different editions of the Kangyur were compiled. We  distribute the sets that are considered the most authoritative within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. 

The major texts we distributed this year included:  

  • Yidzhin Norbu Kangyur, Pothi format. The 2023 edition, based on Yeshe De’s 2013 edition, underwent typesetting, reformatting, and meticulous review to present it in Pothi style, a traditional loose-leafed format. This was done with the intention of encouraging communities to engage in Kangyur readings. One set consists of 108 volumes. It includes an updated and expanded reumik karchag (analytical charts that allow scholars and students to compare the text of this Kangyur with 16 other editions). 1,000 sets were shipped to Bodh Gaya, and in January 2024, more than half were distributed. The distribution will continue this year and in Bodh Gaya in 2025. 
  • Yidzhin Norbu Kangyur and Tengyur, Western format. Tarthang Rinpoche sponsored the creation of this augmented typeset edition of the Derge Kangyur in Western format in 2013, and Dharma Mangalam Press in Cazadero, California, printed it. Checked against the Pedurma, this Yeshe De edition contains texts not found in the Derge Kangyur, including the Dhammapada and the Mahavibhasa-sūtra in Chinese. It is comprised of 133 Western-style volumes, including a reumik karchag (analytical chart). 
  • Narthang Kangyur and Tengyur, Pothi format. Created at Narthang Monastery between 1730 and 1732, this Pothi edition of the Canon is based on a reproduction of the block-print fourteenth-century ‘eastern’ Tshalpa manuscript and the ‘western’ Tempangma (Them spangs ma) manuscript created in 1431. This set includes 327 volumes. 

Where do the books go, and who receives them? 

Palzang: They go all over Nepal, Bhutan, India, Sikkim, and Ladakh, to virtually every community where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced outside of Tibet, to school libraries, monasteries, and scholars. Regions reached include Assam, Ladakh, Spiti, Sikkim, Bhutan, Mon Tawang, and many others. 

This is an offering to monasteries, libraries, retreat centers, and any Dharma community, including village temples. Sometimes villages have a huge monastery further away and a smaller temple where they read Kangyur or Bum [the Prajnaparamita]. When they read Kangyur, they usually need to borrow from a monastery. Now they have a copy of the text available, so it is easier to access. 

Pilgrims also receive books for their personal practice and study. Lay people who came to Bodh Gaya received the Diamond Sutra and Longevity Sutra in one volume this year. 

How many people attended the ceremony this year? 

Palzang: Around 8,000 monks and nuns participated every day in the 10-day ceremony. Between 10,000 and 15,000 laypeople attended this year. 

Pema: At certain points of the ceremony, Lama Palzang led a procession of a couple hundred monks around the temple with gorgeous silk brocade banners that featured the Prajnaparamita on its panels. Tarthang Rinpoche has made offerings over the years of brocades in the form of large banners and traditional umbrellas, which are printed with sacred images and words and placed around the Mahabodhi temple to beautify it and amplify its blessings for the purpose of world peace. 

The victory banner and umbrella are two of the seven auspicious symbols. The banner represents victory over pride, desire, disturbing emotions, and the fear of death. The umbrella, or parasol, represents the protection of beings from harmful forces and illness. 

What other items were distributed? 

Pema: This year, we gave away 1,500 gold-plated prayer wheels to elderly lay pilgrims. The zungs [the scroll that fills the core of the prayer wheel] contained the entire Kangyur printed in very small text on microfilm. Palzang and a team of monks selected older pilgrims who were practicing around the temple to receive these by handing them tickets to pick up a prayer wheel from the nearby distribution site. 

Palzang: Older lay people use prayer wheels more, so we tried to offer the Kangyur prayer wheel to them especially. They had tears of appreciation in their eyes. Our western students could really see how much the prayer wheels were appreciated. 

Can you tell us about the volunteer experience, i.e., what it’s like to help with the distribution? 

Palzang: We had about 38 volunteers, mainly from Brazil, Argentina, and the US, and a couple from Australia and Sweden. They participated in all the daily offerings: temple offerings, beggar offerings (we fed about 500 beggars a tasty boxed lunch each day during the ceremony), book offerings to lamas, and more. 

Pema: We also made mandala offerings as a group each day inside our special area at the temple, as well as under the Bodhi tree itself, and recited Chatral Rinpoche’s prescient prayer to avert nuclear war. 

As we stepped foot into the Mahabodhi Temple every day, I felt as if everyone’s individual stream of practice joined this vast ocean of aspiration for our world in our troubled time. The site could not be more alive with practice, from the circumambulating pilgrims, prostators, practitioners offering mandalas, pilgrims coming to venerate the main shrine, and of course, on all four sides, more than 8,000 monks, nuns, and lay practioners praying in the seated assembly.

Coming together in prayer at this holiest site of Buddhism always feels deeply healing—an opportunity to reaffirm our aspirations for awakening and let the heart open to the subtle, yet palpable power of prayer. Prayer has a way of taking us beyond the weary mind, beyond the limits of rationality, and into the heart. 

On pilgrimage, a vast realm of potential unfolds before us. We arrive here, bearing witness to the profound field of Buddha’s awakening. As we depart, we carry these timeless blessings within us, and our eyes begin to open to the possibility and necessity of discovering the sacred in every corner of the world.

We thank you for your generous support. From beneath the Bodhi Tree, we dedicated the merit of our aspirations and actions to the flourishing of Dharma, peace and balance for our planet and all its sentient beings, and, as always, universal awakening. 

May you continue to stay connected with this great stream of activity, and may you be healthy and well.

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