Each morning of the Kagyu Monlam, after the Sojong vows and Sanskrit prayers, the assembly will chant the Twenty-Branch Monlam. This sequence of profound aspiration prayers has been chanted for more than five hundred years, since the Seventh Karmapa, Chödrak Gyamtso, assembled them in this form and initiated the first Kagyu Monlam in Tibet.
The term “twenty branches” refers to the structure and order of the prayers, which guide those reciting it through the twenty consecutive stages of a perfectly pure practice. It is similar in structure to the Seven-Branch Prayer—so familiar to Tibetan Buddhist practioners—which presents the successive stages of accumulating merit: prostrating to the objects of refuge, making offerings, confessing negativity, rejoicing in others’ virtue, requesting the Buddhas to teach, supplicating the Buddhas to remain, and dedicating the accumulated merit to all sentient beings. The Twenty-Branch Monlam incorporates the Seven Branches within its ideal structure for a Buddhist practice.
The Twenty Branches are:
- Blessing the Ground
- Blessing the Place
- Blessing the Offerings
- Inviting the Buddhas
- Welcoming the Buddhas
- Ablution (ritual bathing) of the Buddhas
- Drying Their Bodies
- Offering Clothes and Adornments
- Offering Anointment
- Confession of Wrongdoing
- Generating Bodhicitta
- Rejoicing in Others’ Merit
- Requesting the Buddhas to Turn the Wheel of Dharma
- Supplicating the Buddhas to Remain
- Dedication of Roots of Virtue
- Auspicious Prayers
The progression of the prayers in the Twenty-Branch Monlam mirrors, in many ways, the process of certain basic daily human interactions. For example, if one is expecting important visitors, then one engages in numerous stages to prepare and host them, such as cleaning the house, setting up a comfortable seat, making food, inviting and welcoming them inside, and—according to ancient Indian custom—bathing and drying their feet. Using the power of the mind to visualize pure environments and innumerable Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, in accordance with the skillful means of Vajrayana Buddhism, individual practitioners and the assembly at large will engage in the process of preparing and honoring these most sacred guests.