The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism is currently carrying out its annual Monlam Chenmo, or Great Prayer Festival, in Bodh Gaya, India at the Mahabodhi Temple, the site of the Buddha’s awakening. The ceremony began on 14 January and will conclude on 23 January. Following COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions, the event is being attended by only around 100 monks.
“Before the pandemic, around 10,000 monks and devotees used to participate in the event every year. But due to the COVID-19 restrictions, the number of participants has been restricted this year. Prayers for world peace marked the beginning of the nine-day 32nd Nyingma Monlam Chenmo Puja,” said the former trustee of the event. (Yahoo News India)
Along with world peace, prayers will also be made for the long lives of all teachers in the tradition and for the survival and expedient spread of the Dharma throughout the world. For practitioners, it is also an auspicious opportunity to offer confessions and to restate their bodhisattva vows. The event originated in 1409 when Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), the founder of the Gelug school, first organized it as a celebration of Buddhism’s victory over indigenous religious forces in Tibet at the time of Losar, the Tibetan New Year.
December and January are typically the busiest months for Buddhist festivals and teachings in Bodh Gaya, as the cooler weather makes the lower plains of the eastern Gangetic valley region more hospitable. This year, however, the pandemic has caused the city—like much of India—to face at times strict travel restrictions, curtailing plans for major events.
“Due to this, the stakeholders of the tourism industry have been badly affected and they are facing acute financial crisis,” said Bodh Gaya Travel Association president Suresh Singh. (The Times of India)
At the time of publication, India had recorded the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases at 10.6 million after the United States, which has reported 24.1 million confirmed cases, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University. A little over 150,000 people have died from the disease in India. Dr. Gagandeep Kang, an infectious diseases researcher at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, said recently that as bad as this is, “[The virus] could have been completely out of control in India.” (National Public Radio) Last Saturday, the country began a massive, nationwide vaccination program relying on two vaccines: a locally produced version of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and one developed entirely in India called COVAXIN.
The Nyingma (“Ancient”) school is one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, which is traced to the earliest dissemination of Buddhism to Tibet from India in the eighth century by Padmasambhava. Other schools, known collectively as the new dissemination (Tib. Sarma) schools, are the Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug. The highest teachings of the school are known as Great Perfection (Tib. Dzogchen), a practice of non-duality based in a recognition of the primordial basis of the mind.
The tradition currently has no single head or foremost lama after the noted master Kyabje Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche turned down an offer for the position last year. Today, the school is led by the Nyingma Monlam Chenmo International Committee, which requests leadership from lamas from the six major Nyingma monasteries in rotating three-year posts.
People offer prayers for world peace in Bihar’s Bodh Gaya (DNA India)
Monks offer special prayers for world peace at Bodh Gaya (Yahoo News India)
Buddhist monks pray for world peace at Bodh Gaya (The Times of India)
A Doctor Reflects On India’s Pandemic Response (National Public Radio)
‘Go for it,’ says first person vaccinated in India’s massive COVID-19 campaign (Reuters)
Nyingma Monlam Series Readings (Lotsawa House)