The North American Kagyu Monlam draws practitioners from many different Buddhist traditions, lineages, nationalities—and also non-Buddhist faiths. During the Monlam, most of the daily prayers will be recited in Tibetan, while others will be also chanted in English, Chinese, and Sanskrit. The Tibetan language is considered to carry great blessings, due to the many Tibetan masters who attained realization and passed their wisdom to future generations in their native tongue. But the Sanskrit language is also very sacred to Tibetans, because the sutras and other prayers were eventually written down in Sanskrit after being transmitted orally in various dialects for several centuries following the Buddha’s lifetime.
In fact, the original Sanskrit has been preserved within Tibetan liturgies in the form of an homage to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha that begins most texts, and also in the mantras— which generally retain their Sanskrit form, though transliterated and pronounced slightly differently to suit the Tibetan tongue. Daily chanting of several entire prayers and sutras in Sanskrit during the Monlam will strengthen our connection with this ancient, sacred heritage, reviving a custom that temporarily fell out of common practice in Tibet.
His Holiness the XVII Gyalwang Karmapa reintroduced Sanskrit prayers into the Kagyu Monlam in 2007. Explaining this decision, His Holiness remarked, “Our Tibetan dharma is based on the Sanskrit canon. So, in times past, Tibetan Buddhist scholars considered Sanskrit to be very important; they studied the language and also studied Buddhist scriptures in the original Sanskrit. But from the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, about three hundred and fifty years ago, the ties between India and Tibet were broken. Afterwards, it became difficult to maintain the standard of our knowledge of Sanskrit, and so things such as pure pronunciation were lost. However, now that we are in India, Tibetans have begun to study and research texts in Sanskrit once more, and are involved in discussion with Indian Sanskrit scholars, too. This development is v¬¬¬ery important for the Indo-Tibetan relationship, and I feel it is essential that it be maintained. Thus, we are reciting prayers in Sanskrit so that the relationship may continue forever. Furthermore, by reciting in Sanskrit, we can transcend time, generating a feeling of closeness with the Buddhism of the time of Lord Buddha. It is my aspiration that we can achieve this.”
After Sojong Vows are taken in the morning, the chant leader will begin the recitation of the refuge prayers in Sanskrit, followed by either the Sutra of the Recollection of the Three Jewels, or the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit. When recited in the sacred language of ancient India, these two profound sutras resonate with an uncommon and deeply moving beauty, and establish the devotional character of each day.