Saka Dawa [2020]: A Month Honoring the Buddha’s Life

Today we’re going to share with you how Tibetans observe Saka Dawa, the most sacred of Buddhist holidays.

Buddha Shakyamuni statue.
Buddha Shakyamuni statue.

It is a holy month when we celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death (parinirvana) of the Buddha Shakyamuni1.

The merit of any good deeds that you perform during this month are thought to be multiplied many times over — by as many as one hundred million times2.

So Saka Dawa is an excellent time to dedicate yourself to taking spiritually positive actions.  

The Saka Dawa observations take place in the fourth Tibetan month, which in 2020 begins on May 23 and ends on June 21.

Most holy of all is the full moon day of Saka Dawa, the 15th day of the month, which is the date most commonly associated with not only Buddha’s birth but also his enlightenment and parinirvana3.

In 2020, the 15th day of the month, also called Saka Dawa Duchen, will fall on June 5.

Some good actions that are commonly taken to accumulate merit during Saka Dawa, specially on the 15th day, are:

  • Refraining from eating meat
  • Offering donations to monasteries/nunneries, or to individual monks/nuns
  • Praying and reciting mantras (such as the refuge prayer, for one example, the om mani padme hung mantra, or the Buddha Shakyamuni mantra)
  • Making prostrations around holy sites (In Tibet, people will make prostrations around the lingkhor and barkhor)
  • Giving money to beggars (In the Tibetan community in McCleod Ganj, beggars line the roads on the 15th day of Saka Dawa, knowing they will receive alms.)
  • Lighting butter lamps
  • Making pilgrimages to holy places
  • Buying all kinds of animals they are going to be killed and releasing them. (Fish, for example)
  • Circumambulating around stupas or other holy places. (Basically, this means walking clockwise around a holy site while praying or reciting mantras.)
Buddha Shayamuni

Taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts

It is very common as well to take the eight mahayana precepts for twenty-four hours during Saka Dawa, especially on either the full moon day or new moon day – the 15th day or the 30th day of Saka Dawa.  The full moon day is considered to be more powerful for the accumulation of merit. The eight precepts are: 4

  1. Avoid killing, directly or indirectly.
  2. Avoid stealing and taking things without the permission of their owner.
  3. Avoid sexual contact.
  4. Avoid lying and deceiving others.
  5. Avoid intoxicants: alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs. (You may take prescription drugs.)
  6. Avoid eating more than one meal that day. The meal is taken before noon, and once one has stopped eating for thirty minutes, the meal is considered finished. At other times of the day one can take light drinks, but not undiluted whole milk or fruit juice with pulp. Avoid eating meat, chicken, fish, eggs, onions, garlic and radishes.
  7. Avoid sitting on a high, expensive bed or seat with pride. Also avoid sitting on animal skins.
  8. Avoid wearing jewelry, perfume, and make-up. Avoid singing, dancing or playing music with attachment.

There’s a nice explanation of the eight Mahayana precepts and the practice of taking them at the Gyuto Foundation website. And a printable booklet for them created by the FPMT. The FPMT booklet notes:

“It is best to practice the Eight Mahayana Precepts after having received the transmission of these precepts from a qualified teacher. However, there is still benefit if one engages in this practice without such a transmission. Those wishing to receive a more in-depth explanation of the Eight Mahayana Precepts are referred to The Direct and Unmistaken Method of Purifying and Protecting Yourself, available from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive and the FPMT Education Department.”

 More Recommendations for Good Actions on Saka Dawa by Lama Zopa Rinpoche

What Does “Saka Dawa” Mean?
Dawa
means “month” in Tibetan. The term Saka, interestingly, comes from Tibetan astrology, and the Saka star which is associated with the full moon of the fourth lunar month. 5

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Resources

How the Historical Buddha Entered Nirvana: The Last Days of the Buddha

Religion Wiki on Saka Dawa

Footnotes

1. Although we take Wikipedia definitions with a grain of salt, we like this one: “Parinirvana is the complete nirvana, which occurs upon the death of the body of someone who has attained complete awakening (bodhi)” (See the Wikipedia article on parinirvana.) The highly reputable Berzin Archives offers a much more subtle view of nirvana and parinirvana here. The relationship between enlightenment, nirvana and parinirvana is actually very subtle and complex.  (See a discussion in the Berzin archives here on nirvana and enlightenment.) See another interesting discussion on bodhi vs. nirvana, in which the answerer (who we unfortunately have no way of vetting) opines:

My understanding is that they are basically synonyms. When one achieves Bodhi, one is also in a state of Nirvana.

Bodhi is an awakening or an awakeness.

Nirvana is an extinguishing of desire, a state of being, transcendental happiness.

The term “bodhisattva” refers to one who has postponed his entrance into Parinirvana in order to help others reach nirvana. When those Bodhisattvas become Buddhas, they might pass into Parinirvana.

2. The FPMT’s article on Lama Zopa’s Advice about “Buddha Multiplying Days” notes that on “Buddha Multiplying Days, karmic results are multiplied by one hundred million, as cited by Lama Zopa Rinpoche in the Vinaya text Treasure of Quotations and Logic.”

3. Others, believe that the Buddha’s birthday was on the 7th day of the month, while the enlightenment and death were on the 15th. See FPMT’s article on “Buddha Multiplying Days.”  In either case the 15th day of the month is considered the most significant day.

4. Thubten Chodron’s article on the Eight Mahayana Precepts. See also the FPMT article on the Eight Mahayana Precepts.

5. See Tibetan Homestay article on Saka Dawa.

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Updated on August 5, 2020. First published on May 5, 2013.

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Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Patti says

    Again a beautifully done newsletter with tons of great information. For those wishing to be aware of special dates it may be beneficial for them to order a yearly calendar as the calculations for Tibet months can be rather confusing. Sometimes days are duplicated and some days may be entirely left out. I usually order one through the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. You can also get Dharma dates from their website. Thank you again for your unfailing kindness, may all beings benefit.

  2. Catia Champion says

    Yowangdu & Yolanda,
    Thank you very much for your love and caring. Your teachings have given me hope and make me feel I am not alone… 🙂

  3. Victoria Roig says

    I always get confused with the dates. So May 15th is the date for the Tibetan calendar but will fall on our calendar June 2?

    • yowangdu says

      Hi Victoria! The 15th refers to the Tibetan month (different than May), and that happens to fall on June 2 of the western calendar. Hope that helps and hope you’re well!

  4. yeshe tsomo says

    Greetings to all on the site
    . You are correct Yowangdu. They are classified ‘Black Foods’. Many Rinpoches forbid the eating of them prior to Empowerments, Lungs etc. The reason for this is that they heat the blood and affect the ‘WINDS’ and ‘CHANNELS’ Therefore impeding the effect of the empowerment and rendering it impure. They will also reduce the beneficial effect of any act undertaken during Sakwa Dawa. The foods you listed are the ones that are forbidden. I have not had to forgo any other.
    I trust this assists all who are puzzled by the abstinence.
    May you all have the causes for peace and happiness, and may Sakwa Dawa be beneficial to all Sentient beings.
    Yeshe Tsomo

  5. drungpah says

    Yowangdu & Yolanda,

    May the month of saka-dawa multiply your reward and fill your lives with bliss from all the loving kindness you have bestowed to others.

    Many thanks,

    Drungpah

  6. Harriet Rowland says

    Hi Yolanda and Lobsang!
    Once again, thanks for an informative news letter and I shall definitely be trying the spicy spuds and annoying my ulcer…but who cares, it looks delicious!
    I also did not know about giving things always with two hands or not blowing out candles and incense; always something new to learn!
    I am confused about Saka Dawa though as you have included last year’s info….it is great to read it again, but do you know when it falls this year, as it does change doesn’t it? Hope you can enlighten all the clots like me who don’t know these things!
    Many thanks again and the month always seems too long to wait, despite facebook!
    Light and Love to you both for a great next four weeks! Hat in Andalusia xxxx

  7. Laura says

    Once again, I land on your website to find the answers I am looking for, thank you for this article! I appreciate how you explain the meaning of the special days as well as *how* one typically observes them, which is hard to find from any other single source!

    Do you happen to know the meaning behind the foods to be avoided? Meat is obvious (harming sentient beings), but what about onions, garlic and radishes? I’ve been searching for some time trying to find WHY these foods should be avoided to no avail. Is it because the entire plant is killed, as opposed to say, picking an apple but leaving the tree? That’s my only guess. In which case, do we avoid all root vegetables such as carrots? Or perhaps there is an entirely different reason for this. I’d appreciate anything you can offer for a better understanding, thank you so much!

    • yowangdu says

      Thanks so much for your kind thoughts, Laura. We are not 100% sure about the answer on onion, garlic and radishes. We have ourselves heard that onion and garlic make your breath stinky and are therefore not appropriate for temples and rituals. A quick search online gives different reasons, but nothing seems authoritative. The most common additional possible reason that we see: these foods excite the passions (both sexual and anger).
      Our best to you.

      • Diane says

        Onions and garlic are considered to be stimulating foods therefore should be avoided if one is wanting to cultivate peace and harmony within.

        Thanks for your great works. Love the cookbook and all of the tips and explanations. Very good!

      • Jo Jo says

        Just my own thought: It might be reasonable to think Garlic and onion may have been avoided to make wandering monks smell less offensive in the days before powerful breath mints 🙂

  8. tenam says

    thank you for sharing it with us and giving us a better understanding on saka dawa-the most sacred month of the year.After reading your article , the desire for doing good deeds and rituals has multiplied in my thoughts..!!! 🙂

  9. Victoria Roig says

    Oh thank you so much for this thorough but yet simply explained topic of the holiday.
    I am keeping it for future use and will share with other’s whether Buddhist or not as it is a tradition and shines a light on the Tibetan culture not often understood. Beautifully done..blessings.

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