Saga Dawa is a sacred and ancient festival for the Buddhist community not just in Nepal but around the world. The festival is traditionally celebrated on the full moon day of the fourth month on Tibetan calendar. In Tibetan, Saga means “fourth”, while Dawa translates to “month”, hence the time of the festival and the name combined is known as Saga Dawa.
Saga Dawa is celebrated for a month, following the full moon-to-full moon cycle, and coincides with three significant events in Gautama Buddha’s life: birth, enlightenment, and death. It says that the Saga Dawa festival falls on the holiest month and good deeds and prayers are multiplied thousand fold during this time.
Why is Saga Dawa important?
Lord Buddha on this day is believed to have performed the three important deeds; taking birth, gaining enlightenment and passing down into Parinirvana (the death).
At the age of 35, Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya, India and at the age of 80 he passed away his last deed of entering parinirvana in Kushinagar, India. Therefore, this month is regarded as the holiest time of the year by the Buddhist community globally. It is believed that whatever the good or bad actions performed during this month have one lifetime stronger effect than regular times. That is why it is also known as “Â bumgyur Dawa”, which means “merits multiplied by a hundred thousand folds.”
Throughout the month, people travel to sacred and holy sites around the plateau, especially to the sacred Mount Kailash, to honor Buddha and circumambulate the holy abode. In Ngari, thousands of people travel to Mount Kailash to make the trek around the world’s most sacred mountain.
Kora During Saga Dawa
Making a ritual kora during the Saga Dawa is an important event for Buddhists, who believe that any merits accumulated during Saga Dawa are multiplied depending on where you perform the acts of goodness and compassion.
A kora is both, a type of pilgrimage and a type of meditation in the Buddhist tradition. It is performed by making a walking circumambulation around a temple, stupa, or other sacred sites. Some traditional kora important to the Tibetan tradition includes circumambulating Namtso Lake and Mount Kailash located in the Tibetan Autonomous region of China. Kora is also performed around Swayambhunath and Boudhnath, two important stupas in Nepal.
Kora may be performed while spinning prayer wheels, chanting mantras, counting beads, or repeatedly prostrating oneself i.e full-body prostration. Full-body prostration is performed by dropping to knees, bending forward from waist and stretching body full length on the floor, with arms outstretched above ones head. This prostration is known as the “Namas Kara”, which translates to roughly mean “I bow to the divine in you”, a reference to the divinity of Gautama’s Buddhahood and enlightenment. The term is actually from Sanskrit, where Namas means “bow” or “homage” and Kara means “doing”. A simple yet formal greeting in Sanskrit, the phrase has come to mean much more in Buddhism. That’s why kora functions as a mind-calming meditative exercise.
According to Buddhist tradition and belief, the kora is always performed clockwise, and is often performed 108 times. Just like the kora, time is a circle, and one extreme follows another. Change is inevitable, and nature teaches us that in its myriad ways and this is the significance of doing kora.
Kora at Swayambhunath begins as early as 3 am when the elderly faithful walk slowly from their homes to the stupa for morning prayers. By late morning, hundreds of Buddhists across the Ringroad aread to get to Swayambhunath for the kora, where pilgrims circumambulate the outer or inner path around stupa. The main starting point for this walk is the ascent at Bhagwan pau on the eastern entrance to Swayambhunath. It eventually bypasses the whole hill along the wall with thousands of prayer wheels. It also covers the western foot of the hill called Buddha Park with huge golden statues of, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhabha), Buddha and Maitreya.
Similarly, people also make Kora at Bouddhanath Stupa. The morning kora starts around 5 in the morning and the evening one 4 pm onwards. People circumambulate the Stupa base walking and reciting mantras 108 times keeping the count on their malas (prayer beads), making full-body prostration, or simply chatting with friends. Kora is an action compliant with the revolution of the earth around the sun, and our solar system within our galaxy.
Reading Religious Text and Offering Butter Lamps during Saga Dawa
Every year, during the month of Saga Dawa, over a period of several days, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute read the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon or Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha. Because this month includes some of the holiest days in the Buddhist calendar, the nuns believe they can accumulate more merit by doing such practices at this time.
Butter lamps are also lit during the full moon when everyone practices positive deeds during the full month.
Non-Killing during Saga Dawa
One of the best traditional practices for cultivating merit during the Saga Dawa festival is avoiding meat. Almost 90% of Tibetan restaurants display a special Saga Dawa vegetarian menu, encouraging the people to have more non-meat foods in order to save the lives of animals as much as possible.
According to Lord Buddha’s teachings, it is said that all sentient beings are equal and are reborn into the wheel of six cycles of lives including, Heaven, humans, animals, etc until one is enlightened from the suffering of birth, aging, sickness, and death so therefore it is strongly advised not to harm or kill each other within the six cycles of lives and live peacefully along with each other.
In the teachings of the Lord Buddha, it is also added he who kills living beings within the six cycles of lives during this lifetime will be destined to pay Karma back in the next lifetime, therefore many Buddhists believe that eating meat cultivates a very bad Karma.
In Tibet, Buddhists not only just vow non-killing and not eating meat but they make huge purchases of animals like fish, goats, sheep etc, and set those animals free from slaughtering during Saga Dawa. In order to cultivate the merit and atone the bad karma, people not only spare animals’ lives, but also make lengthy prostrations around Jokhang Temple, monasteries, and the Potala Palace, and also the old section of the entire Lhasa city.
Alms to Poor
Generosity (Dana), the act of giving is very important during the holy month. Tibetans make donations to poor people, monasteries, and temples. While the festival celebrates the major events in the life of Buddha, it is also known for being a day when people give more generously to the poor. In Chinese, the festival is called “Qiong ren jie”, which translates to Poor People’s Day, and in Tibet, people practice giving to the monks and nuns and the poor of the community. Tibetans believe that giving to the poor accumulates merits, and more so in the month of Saga Dawa.
Cham dances or monastic dances performed at monasteries are spectacular sights to witness. For the cham dance monks dress up in colorful brocade garbs that symbolize different deities and protectors and wear masks of gods and animals. Renowned as ritual dances performed by monks and lamas dressed in garish robes and colorful masks, the Cham dances often tell stories of the life of Buddha and other saints in Tibetan Buddhism, including Padmasambhava, the Indian sage of the Eight Faces.
The monks chant, read scriptures and recite mantras. Devotees make donations to the monastery and also to individual monks and nuns to recite the sacred scriptures in hopes of ridding of bad luck and usher of good fortune to all the living beings. Monasteries in Upper Dolpo, Mustang, Manang, and Helambu also host Cham dances for the devotees who have come for the pious month.
Saga Dawa is the most pious occasion for all the Nepali Buddhists and they follow the tradition strictly in order to gain merits.