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Saga Dawa, the holy month of the Tibetan calendar

Saga Dawa is one of the major religious festivals in Tibet. Unlike other festivals, Saga Dawa lasts for a whole month.

Saga Dawa starts on the 1st day of the 4th month of the Tibetan calendar and finishes on the 30th of the 4th month. However, for some people, it starts on the 15th of the 3rd month and finishes on the 15th of the 4th month.

Why is Saga Dawa so important ?

Saga Dawa is related to major events in the life of the Buddha. To fully understand Saga Dawa, let’s quickly review the story of Buddha’s life, as told by Tibetan Buddhists.

The Buddha that most people refer to is the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.

The Buddha is said to have lived sometime between the 6th and the 4th century BC. Born as a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, destined for becoming the heir to his father’s throne, chief of the Shakya clan. At the time of his conception, his mother is said to have had a dream about a white elephant with six tusks coming into her womb. When she was close to deliver the child, the queen left for her homeland to give birth. Siddhartha was born on the way, in a place called Lumbini (Nepal), beneath a tree.

After he was born, a Brahmin (member of the priestly class in Hinduism) predicted that the prince Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great sage. As his father wished for his son to become a king, he tried to keep Siddhartha in the palace, protecting him from influences that may have turned him away from his royal destiny. Siddhartha got married and had a son. Although he could lead an enjoyable life, Siddhartha is said to have felt that wealth and material comfort were not meaningful. One day, despite his father’s efforts, he went around the city, and saw at the four gates an old man, a sick man, a dead man and an ascetic. The prince, shocked by the unavoidable suffering of old age, sickness and death, and inspired by the ascetic seeking truth, decided to leave the palace and go to look for liberation from suffering.

Siddhartha tried different spiritual traditions but was always left unsatisfied. In the end, he sat under a tree, alone, and began meditating on the nature of mind, looking for the absolute truth. After a while, he could dispel the veil of ignorance, discovering the truth about suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to liberation. He attained “Enlightenment”, becoming a “Buddha”, which means “Fully Awakened”. After a life of travel and teaching, the Buddha is said to have left the human world, at the age of 80.

Saga Dawa commemorates 3 events in the Buddha’s life: the birth of the Buddha, the enlightenment of the Buddha and finally the passing of the Buddha. They are said to have all taken place during the 15th day of the 4th month of the Tibetan calendar. Therefore the whole 4th month became special.

It is said that during this special month, every action counts as 100000 actions. A good action will count as 100000 good actions. A negative action will count as 100000 negative actions. This clearly encourages behaving in a better way than usual.

How do Tibetans celebrate Saga Dawa?

As said early, every good action is said to have the benefit of 100000 good actions. Therefore Tibetan Buddhists usually try to accomplish more good deeds, on a religious level and also on a personal level.

First on a religious level

During Saga Dawa, the idea is to behave in the most virtuous way. Among those good religious deeds that will lead to accumulate good merit: pilgrimage, prostrations, prayers, offerings of lamps, offering money in monasteries and offering gold to statues in monasteries.

First, people try to go on pilgrimage. For example, Lhasa is considered to be a particularly holy place in Tibet. In particular, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is one of the most important pilgrimage destinations, along with the three Gelugpa monasteries of Sera, Drepung and Ganden, also located in the Lhasa area. Therefore, Tibetans from others regions (like Kham and Amdo, in the East and South of Tibet) come to Lhasa to go on pilgrimages to those holy places.

Then, people also try to do as much prostrations as possible. Some will circumambulate (“Kora” in Tibetan, སྐོར་ར།) around the Jokhang Temple prostrating. It can take around two hours, depending on your physical conditions and the number of breaks one takes. Some will do “Kora” prostrating around the Potala Palace. Some will even prostrate around the old city of Lhasa on a road of 10 kilometers or so. Some will even come from their hometown in Kham to Lhasa prostrating, calculating their itinerary so they will arrive in Lhasa on time for Saga Dawa.

Moreover, people try to do more prayers and meditation during that special month.

In Lhasa’s monasteries, monks will do more collective practices than usual. We also saw monks building magnificent mandalas in the main Gelugpa monasteries in Lhasa.

Some go offer butter lamps in monasteries. Some donate money to monasteries.

Some offer gold that will be used to repaint the body of the holy statues in monasteries. As it’s usually an expensive offering, groups of people will sometimes share the expenses for the gold.

Another good deed is to free animals. People usually buy animals that are meant to be killed and eaten (like fishes or bigger animals like sheep and yaks). Then they free them in the natural environment or raise them themselves.

Offrande d'or à la statue du Jokhang (© Salt butter tea)

On a personal level

Here, personal life is of course very much linked to the religious believes.

Many people stop eating meat during Saga Dawa. Some people try to stop eating meat at least on some days of the Tibetan month, usually the 8th, 10th, 15th, 25th, 29th and 30th. Many Tibetans feel like they are not capable of stop eating meat on a daily basis, as their alimentation is mostly composed of meat. However most of them also say that they know they are committing heavy negative actions by eating animals. Therefore, during Saga Dawa, they try to stop eating meat, in order to reduce at least a little bit animals’ suffering. As a consequence, during Saga Dawa, most Tibetan restaurants serve vegetarian food. Some organize vegetarian buffets. Living in Lhasa during Saga Dawa is a paradise for vegetarians like us.

Some people try to quit drinking alcohol and smoking during Saga Dawa.

Finally, most people try to cultivate compassion and generosity. In particular, people will give money to beggars.

You will find below a glimpse of the atmosphere in Lhasa during Saga Dawa.


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