Losar marks the Tibetan New Year and it is the most important festival of the Tibetan Buddhists. In Tibetan the word losar means New Year (lo = year and sar=new). The Tibetan calendar is lunar, which means it follows the cycles of the moon, so the New Year begins on a new moon. This festival is celebrated by Buddhists in Tibet as well as in many other countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and India. During the festival different rituals are performed in order to turn away negativity and evil spirits, and attract happiness and prosperity in the New Year. Losar-related rituals are divided into two distinct parts. First the negative aspects of the old year are purified and closed. Only after this the welcoming of Losar begins by inviting into life all that is good and auspicious.
The celebration of Losar predates Buddhism in Tibet and can be traced back to the pre-Buddhist Bön period. During the early Bön tradition, every winter a spiritual ceremony was held where people offered large quantities of incense to appease the local spirits and deities. The precursor of the Losar festival may have been initially the traditional farmers' festival. Later when new findings in astrology, based on the five elements, were introduced in Tibet, this farmer's festival became what we now call the Losar or New Year's festival. Initially, Losar was celebrated during the winter solstice, and was only moved to coincide with the Chinese and Mongolian New Year by a leader of the Gelug school of Buddhism. The Losar activities and rituals may differ depending on the specific location or monastery.
Below: Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Losar Prayer Ceremony. Photo: Bruno Baumann
Losar Traditions of Laymen
The celebration starts the day before New year’s Eve and lasts 3 to 15 days. This year, according to western calendar the Tibetan New Year´s Day falls on 27 January. This is the first day of the 1st month of Tibetan Calendar. However, the preparation for Losar begins already about a month ahead of the actual festival. People clean and decorate their houses, and make offerings to Lama Losar. The walls are decorated with drawings of eight auspicious symbols representing the offerings made by deities to the Buddha after his enlightenment. The older prayer flags are burned, and new ones are added.
On the New Year´s Eve, the traditional special noodle soup called guthuk is prepared. The soup includes dumplings that contain nine different fortune symbols - chili pepper, cotton ball, wood, charcoal, sugar cube, wool string, paper, pebble and raw bean. Each symbol obtained by the person represents his fortune in the coming year. For example, a person who finds chili pepper in his dumpling is said to be talkative, wool refers to good-heartedness and charcoal that the one who finds it has a “black heart”. Best would be to find a white item such as sugar or cotton, for these are very good signs. At the dawn of the first day, the members of the family rise early and put on their best new clothes. Housewives cook a pot of barley wine and wait for the sunrise. At sunrise, the leading woman of the house carries a bucket to the nearby river to fetch the year´s first bucket of water. The family members greet one another and drink the barley wine. On the second day, people move out to visit friends and relatives. This day is known as king´s Losar (gyal-po lo-sar). Friends and loved ones are greeted by saying Tashi Delek that means good luck and happiness. In the evening, the Tibetans carry torches across their homes yelling to drive away evil spirits from their abodes. The third day is reserved for visiting monasteries, shrines and stupas and making offerings to the monks and nuns in the form of clothes and food. Apart from Tibet, Losar festival is celebrated by the Buddhist population in states like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh in Kashmir.
Below: Nomad family visiting kloster during Losar. Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Photos: Bruno Baumann
Losar Traditions of Buddhist Monasteries
Losar is an important time for Buddhist monks. Starting weeks before Losar day, monasteries begin their purification rituals aimed at cleaning the world of the negativities and blockages of the old year, so that the new year has a clean slate. This involves many special practices for the guardians and protectors of the lineages. Some of the most interesting of these are the Cham dances, in which monks wear masks and special silk brocade robes, and dance as the guardians of the lineage. Each step and ritual element used in these dances is symbolic and related to Buddhist history and deities, often including symbolic re-enactments of good forces overcoming evil. These dances are very popular among Tibetans, and a great way for regular people to understand the ideas and history of Buddhism.
Below: Cham Mask Dancers, Losar. Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Photos: Bruno Baumann
The tradition of Displaying the Tangka is an important event for a Tibetan Buddhists. This tangka can be of size 30 meters tall and 20 meters wide. A central Buddha figure is displayed on this special tangka and relate it to the local protector deities that normally feature on the periphery of this large painting. It is also special tradition as people can admire the tangka in daylight, since most of the time the tangkas are inside the dark prayer halls often not accessible to all people. It is often shown on a slope specially constructed and designed for this purpose, but it can also be hung from the roof of a major structure into the courtyard of the monastery itself.
Below: Transporting and displaying the Tangka, Losar festival. Labrang Kloster, Amdo, Tibet. Photos: Bruno Baumann
The Butter Lamp Festival is held at a small number of monasteries, usually the larger ones, towards the end of the Losar festival period. However, central to this festival are butter sculptures, and not butter lamps. Originated in 1409 during Ming Dynasty, Tibetan Butter Lamp Festival was created by Tsongkhapa in honor of Sakyamuni’s victory over other religions during the debate. Occurring on the 15th day of the first Tibetan month, this festival includes activities such as Buddha Dance, puppet show and butter sculpture exhibitions staged by various monasteries, big or small. During daytime, people will steam into monasteries to pray.
As part of Tibetan New Year celebrations the Maitreya the Future Buddha statue is paraded around the exterior wall or perimeter of the monastery. Maitreya the Future Buddha is thought to arrive on earth when Gautama the Present Buddha has been forgotten and the Dharma has been ignored. This will be a low-point for Buddhism and the Maitreya will appear and turn things around. The meaning of parading the statue of Maitreya around the periphery of the monastery is to remind the faithful to ‘keep the faith’ and ensure that Maitreya returns only in statue form once a year to stress the importance of the Buddhist teachings.
During Losar naming of the New Year is also done. The Tibetan New Year is identified by an animal (Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Ape, Bird, Dog, Pig, Mouse, Bull, Tiger), an Element (Fire, Earth, Iron, Water, Wood), and gender that alternates every other year. The year 2017 is a Female Fire Bird year.
Happy Losar and Happy and Colorful Fire Bird Year 2017!
Many places in Nepal, Tibet, and the Himalaya region, wherever prayers can meet the wind, are decorated with colorful flags. These flags are fluttering on temples, holy sites, roof-tops of houses, mountain summits. Tibetans believe that the wind that blows through them brings blessings to all sentient beings.
The prayer flags tradition originates in India where the Indian Buddhist Sutras, written on cloth, were transmitted to other parts of the world. According to a legend, the first prayer flags were battle flags where Shakyamuni Buddha had written his prayers. The idea of this type of prayer flags was brought to Tibet by buddhist monks from India.
Although, the Tibetan Bon Shamans already used similar flags even before the arrival of Buddhism. The sets of five colored flags, with each color responding to a certain element of nature, are set up in following order: blue (symbolizing sky/space), white (symbolizing air/wind), red (symbolizing fire), green (symbolizing water), yellow (symbolizing earth) from left to right. The early Tibetan prayer flags also depicted the four auspicious animals (the Four Dignities) - the Dragon (symbolizing "Water"), the Garuda (also known as Khyung, a wise eagle-like bird-deity symbolizing "Fire"), the Tiger (representing "Air"), and the Snowlion (stands for "Earth"). These animals represent sacred qualities such as confidence (Tiger), clear awareness (Snowlion), fearlessness (Garuda), and gentle power (Dragon).
The Bonpos used primary-colored plain flags in healing ceremonies, since the traditional Tibetan medicine considered the balance of the five elements to be essential to health and harmony. After Buddhism arrived in Tibet, the shaman's colored flags were integrated into Tibetan Buddhist practice. The prayer flags kept their shaman uses to bring benefits, protection, good health and blessings in special occasions.
Bon shaman, Nepal. Photo: Bruno Baumann
Different symbols and types of prayer flags
There are many symbols that frequently adorn different types of prayer flags used for various purposes. For instance, a Lungta (Windhorse) prayer flag has in the middle a horse (Ta) with three jewels (jewels symbolize the three pillars of Tibetan buddhism, the teaching - Dharma, the buddhist community - Sangha, and Buddha) on its back. The Ta symbolizes quick movement of bringing benefits, fulfilling aspirations and hopes, and transforming negative into positive. There are different versions of about twenty traditional mantras surrounding the Ta, each dedicated to a particular deity such as Avalokiteśvara (boddhisatva of compassion), Manjushri (bodhisattva of wisdom) or others. Corners of the flag have pictures or names of four powerful animals - the Dragon, the Garuda, the Tiger, and the Snowlion.
Medicine Buddha is considered to have extremely powerful form of enlightened energy, and therefore the Medicine Buddha prayer flags are used to promote healing and helping one to achieve one's goals successfully. It is also beneficial for someone who is ill or even someone who has died to offer such prayer flags for the purpose of helping that person to overcome their illness or for a good rebirth in the next life.
The prayer flags are also often decorated with the eight Buddhist auspicious symbols, also known as Ashtamangala. Each of these symbols (Conch Shell, Lotus, Dharma wheel, Parasole, Endless Knot, Pair of Golden Fishes, Vicotry Banner, Treasure Vase) represents a certain aspect of buddhist philosophy promoting the spreading and protection of buddhist teaching.
Just as life is dynamic and constantly changing, Tibetans renew their prayers for the world by placing new flags next to the old ones. This is a way to respect the changing nature of our lives and viewing all beings as part of the one great cycle of life. Since the symbols and mantras on prayer flags are sacred, they should be treated respectfully. They should not be placed on the ground or used in clothing. Old prayer flags should be burned.
It is often thought that the prayer flags carry prayers to deities. This is not so, for instead the Tibetan belief is that the wind blows the prayers and mantras to spread the compassion and good will to everywhere in space, so that all beings will benefit from them. Generally, it is believed that placing prayer flags brings good karma and benefits to the one who places them as well as to all beings. However, the most honorable way of using prayer flags, with all their auspicious religious symbols and mantras, is the idea that they are not to benefit the one who placed them, but rather it is done for the sake of others.
It was about 7 or 8 in the morning when we stepped into the courtyard of a gompa somewhere in Kathmandu Valley. A group of monks in red robes stood at the corner of the courtyard, having a lively discussion. We were questioning a shy young monk about what was going on at their monastery. More and more holy men were coming out from the red and white buildings, some mumbling something as their fingers slid over prayer beads, some talking to each other. I noticed a tall guy who was already sitting down, and he seemed a little worried. Finally, the courtyard was full of monks, and they had positioned themselves – about half of them sitting, and the other half standing. What now unfolded was quite interesting as I had not witnessed a buddhist debate before.
After a slow start, the shy young monk, standing next to a sitting monk, was clapping his hands together and yelling something. There was nothing left of his shyness anymore. Quite the opposite – as a questioner he was suddenly very confident. Despite of his youth he must have been quite advanced in his studies, for the defender is usually a novice, and the questioner is a more experienced debater. The courtyard had become alive with loud claps, stomping feet, yelling, arguing, and occasional laughter.
The Tibetan monastic debate has a long history. According to Buddhist belief all suffering in life is due to our faulty perception of the reality. The main purpose of debating is to remove misconceptions related to the true nature of reality, and thus eliminate suffering. But even when eliminating suffering is at hand, the debates can sometimes become intimidating or even personal. Though, the ultimate goal of the questioner is not to get glory from his victory, but rather help his opponent to overcome his wrong view. Perhaps the monk who had seemed a little worried to me, was thinking about the intensity of these discussions.
The debate begins with a ritual invocation of Manjushri who is the bodhisattva of ultimate truth and wisdom. Manjushri is often represented as a young and good looking prince. His youth and good looks point to the way an enlightened mind sees the world. In his right hand he holds a sword representing wisdom that cuts through all delusions that bind beings to the world of suffering. In his left hand he holds a lotus on which is a book „Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom.“ He is seated on a lotus flower that refers to the purity of wisdom, existing in the midst of delusion yet being unaffected by it. The mantra of Manjushri Om a ra pa cha na dhi is to be chanted if one wants to become the beholder of the liberating knowledge.
The actors of this philosophical challenge are the questioner (riklampa), who is standing up, and after proposing the subject of discussion, keeps asking questions. The defender (damchawa), who is sitting down, has to defend the claims he presents to his challenger. The questioner is responsible only for his questions that have to be clear, and follow logically the already made statements, and it also must be relevant to defeating the defender. All the gestures used in debate have significance. For instance, the right hand relates to method and the practice of compassion. The left hand stands for wisdom. The clap – bringing the two hands together – represents blending the method with wisdom. The left foot stomping on the ground means shutting the door to rebirth in the lower levels. By holding up the left arm of wisdom, the questioner keeps the door to all rebirth closed. And, using his right hand to raise his prayer beads around his left arm refers to compassion, and lifting out all suffering beings from the circle of rebirth.
Perdue, Daniel. Tibetan Buddhist Debate.
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Welcome! :) My name is Monika. I am interested in beauty, art, different cultures, and good stories. I have always been fascinated with semiotics and symbols, and how people of different cultures interpret them.