Kopan Monastery – November course: part 3. Religious rituals and a bit of magic

One of the most fascinating things about living in a Tibetan monastery for one month certainly is to witness and attend different religious rituals and festivities. Now let me take you on a little magical journey…

1. Arrival of Lama Zopa Rinpoche

The arrival of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, one of the founders of Kopan Monastery, was celebrated as a very important event. As he now resides in the US, he rarely gets to spend time in Kopan  – so everyone was very excited about his arrival. Already early in the morning the monks started drawing mandalas on the street to give Lama Zopa a warm welcome (it seems the usual rule – one person working & 10 people watching applies here 🙂 ).


When he finally arrived a few hours later, everyone had gathered at the entrance of Kopan to greet him. It was a very festive atmosphere and to me it felt a bit like immersing myself in a world far away (if you manage to ignore the flashlights of the cameras and the car).

Part of this welcome ceremony was the khata offering. The khata is a traditional ceremonial scarf in Tibetan Buddhism. It symbolises purity and compassion and is worn or presented at many ceremonial occasions, including births, funerals and the arrival and departure of guests. Tibetan khatas are usually white, symbolising the pure heart of the giver.

Offering the khata looks like a simple gesture, but it has its own protocol. To present a Khata, you first fold it in half length-wise. This represents the interdependence of each other. Then when you offer the scarf to a person, you offer the open edges facing the person you are giving; the folded section will be towards you, which represents your open pure heart, with no negative thoughts or motives in the offering. For teachers, dignitaries and elders, the scarf is given with folded hands near your forehead, with a humble bow before them, with head bent over and palms joined in respect. You never put the Khata over their neck in this situation. In most cases the giver will receive his or her Khata back from the given, as a token of blessing back to them, especially when you visit high lamas and teachers (www.stbcportland.wordpress.com).

As you can see offering a khata is not as simple as it seems, but I guess the monks in this monastery are already quite used to awkward khata offerings by Westerners.

What I also found interesting is the parasol that was carried above Lama Zopa. The parasol or umbrella (Tib. gdugs) is a traditional Indian symbol of both protection and royalty. The ability to protect oneself against inclement weather has always, in all cultures, been a status symbol. The dome symbolizes wisdom, and the hanging skirt, compassion. Thus the composite form of the parasol signifies the union of these dual elements. In Tibet, depending on their status, various dignitaries were entitled to different parasols, with religious heads being entitled to a silk one and secular rulers to a parasol with embroidered peacock feathers.

2. Fire puja

The day after his arrival Lama Zopa did a fire puja right next to the main gompa. We were having teachings during that time, but obviously my distracted mind was very keen on leaving the gompa to watch something it had never seen before – and which it judged as far more exciting…

The fire puja is one of the most powerful of all pujas within Tibetan Buddhism and its purpose is basically to remove all obstacles and its stains to enlightenment.


The secret Mahayana Vajrayana teachings include the “offering burning” practice (Tibetan: jin.sek). Every item offered in burning pujas is good for some purpose. There are various substances that are offered to the deity during the fire puja. Each substance has potential power to affect your life. You offer grains to pacify sicknesses and to give strength; for long life you offer crepe grass; to purify pollutions you offer kusha grass; and for wealth you offer butter. Like this, all the substances offered are to actualize different potentials and types of success. (www.lamayeshey.com)

I cannot quite remember what the reasons for the fire puja were that time, but I guess it might have been linked to the earthquake or fuel crisis – what I do remember though is that it took hours. You have to be very patient…

3. Sand Mandala

One of the most fascinating events to witness is the creation of Tibetan sand mandalas, which are an ancient, sacred form of Tibetan Buddhist art.

Sand-painted Mandalas are used as tools for consecrating the earth and its inhabitants. According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, in general all Mandalas have outer, inner and secret meanings. On the outer level they represent the world in it s divine form; on the inner level they represent a map by which the ordinary human mind is transformed into an enlightened mind; and on the secret level they depict the primordially perfect balance of the subtle energies of the body and the clear light dimension of the mind. Throughout it’s creation, the monks pour millions of grains of sand from a funnel-shaped metal tool known as the chakpur. This funnel is filled with colored sand and is then rasped in order to release a fine stream of sand. It usually takes about a week or so to complete. (www.yowangdu.com)

And here comes the part which is very difficult to understand – especially to the Western mind, which is very used to getting attached to things (incl. living things ;)) and certainly cannot comprehend why anyone would want to destroy this piece of art. A few days or weeks after the sand mandala has been completed a closing ceremony takes place.  During this ceremony, the monks dismantle the Mandala, sweeping up the colored sand to symbolize the impermanence of all phenomena. It is meant to be a teaching to show that everything that exists has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Quite fascinating, isn’t it?

4. Long life puja

Another interesting event was the long life puja for Lama Zopa Rinpoche. It usually takes place once a year, right after the November course and has over 1000 participants, made up of November course participants, monks, nuns and local sherpas.

One of the most moving ceremonies in Tibetan Buddhism is the long life puja for a teacher, an elaborate display of devotion towards a spiritual guide comprising heartfelt prayers and praises, and a procession of symbolic offerings. The purpose of the long life puja is for students to purify the mistakes that occur in relation to their teacher, and to create the causes and conditions to continue to receive benefit from that teacher for a very long time. (www.fpmt.org)

In the video above Lama Zopa is the one with the yellow pointed hat. Oh – and if you ask yourself why quite a few of the high monks are wearing these strange yellow hats, then I also have a little bit of background information for you. There are four different schools in Tibetan Buddhism. Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. Nyingma, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, Kagyu and Sakya all have red hats. Only Gelug, originally a reformist movement known for its emphasis on logic and debate, and whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, wear yellow hats, and are thus known as the Yellow Hat tradition. Obviously, there are far more differences between the different school – so for those who would like to find out more: do your research :).

What was also fascinating to watch was the dance of the Daikinis. Daikinis are a type of spirit in Vajrayana Buddhism. The Tibetan term for Daikini means “sky goer”. Dakinis are energetic beings in female form, evocative of the movement of energy in space. At Kopan though the dancers were all monks, dressed as daikinis… uhm… yeah, males dressing as females – seems to be quite a common thing around the world 😉

5. Candlelight procession

The last event I want to introduce here is the candlelight procession. One evening we all gathered in front of the main gompa, joined by all the monks of the monastery. A few days before they had decorated the main gompa with colourful lights, which made it look very christmassy and festive (the cold temperatures at night helped supporting these emotions, although obviously only my delusional mind could judge them as christmassy cause they had nothing to do with it).


We all had candles and the monks were chanting.

Tibetan monks are noted for their skill at throat singing, a specialized form of chanting in which, by amplifying the voice’s upper partials, the chanter can produce multiple distinct pitches simultaneously. Something for you to try at home maybe – I tried, it is not easy…

The chanting was followed by a procession around the stupa in the monastic garden. The little monks, like most little boys, had a lot of fun with the burning candles (as did many of the Westerners :)).


I hope I could bring across some of the magic that took place during the Kopan November course.

Next: a summary of my Kopan experience … to be continued


One thought on “Kopan Monastery – November course: part 3. Religious rituals and a bit of magic

Add yours

  1. fascinating! love those deep chanting bass voices. fire and candles. they seem the big attraction everywhere in the world. very pretty to look at, the monastery decorations and the costumes. very informative report. keep it up.
    also: in your last report you mentioned that ‘death’ was the most important subject. would be good to read something specific about this in your next kopan sequel.
    thanks for that, verena. you worked hard!


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