WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Dechen Monlam is one of the most popular aspirational prayers recited in Bhutan. Composed by Karma Chagme in eastern Tibet in the 17th century, this prayer deals with rebirth in the pure realm of Sukhāvatī, where the Buddha Amitabha is believed to reside.
The prayer is divided into three main parts. The first part deals with the worship of Buddha Amitabha or Odpagme. There are verses describing the location of the Sukhāvatī realm to the west of our world and the configuration of Buddha Amitabha and his retinue and disciples. This is followed by verses on the seven-part worship of the Buddha Amitabha including prostration, offering, confession, rejoicing, requesting to live long and teach the dharma and the dedication of merits. Even those you merely hear the name of Buddha Amitabha are said to take rebirth in the presence of Amitabha through the power of Amitabha’s prayers for the sentient beings.
The second part describes the process of taking birth in Sukhāvatī out of a lotus flower and the amazing happiness and bliss which fill the pure realm. This part contains verses describing the fantastic spiritual opportunity for enlightenment. It describes how one would have time to receive teachings from Amitabha and his retinue, from the Buddhas who visit Sukhāvatī and also how one would miraculously travel to other pure realms to see other Buddhas and receive their teachings. Karma Chagme presents a very vivid picture of lotus births and astral travels which are associated with such practice.
The third part deals with the sublime luxuries of Sukhāvatī and the future of life in Sukhāvatī talking of it in terms of cosmic aeons. It talks about Amitabha passing into Mahāparinirvāṇa, just like the historical Buddha Śākyamuni did, and how Avalokiteśvara will become fully enlightened and take over the leadership in Sukhāvatī. Avalokiteśvara will also pass away after innumerable aeons and Vajrapani is said to become the next regent. Amitabha, Avalokiteśvara and Vajrapani form the divine trio of Sukhāvatī realm although there are many other divinities and Bodhisattvas in the realm including Guru Rinpoche.
Dechen Monlam is chanted mainly during the pure-land practice to obtain rebirth in Sukhāvatī. It is based on the teachings of rebirth in pure lands found in some Mahāyāna sutras. Thus, it is a practice common in Himalayan Buddhism and also in Chinese, Japanese and Korean Buddhism. It is also the most common prayer recited during funerary prayers for the deceased in Bhutan. It is sung in sad and melodious tunes and often accompanied by offering of butter lamps and incense.
While reciting the Dechen Monlam, it is important to visualize Buddha Amitabha and his retinue and to mentally carry out the worship with strong faith without any doubt of Amitabha or rebirth in Sukhāvatī. It is important also to reflect on the words of the prayer and live up to the ideals which Buddha Amitabha and the prayer presents. A short prayer for rebirth in Sukhāvatī, attributed to Nāgārjuna, is also chanted after the long Dechen Monlam.
Dr Karma Phuntsho,
Director of Shejun,
and author of The History of Bhutan