We would like to share something of how Tibetans observe Saka Dawa, the most sacred of Buddhist holidays, 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 considered to be multiplied many times over — by as much as one hundred million times2 — so it is an excellent time to dedicate ourselves to all kinds of spiritually positive actions.
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.)
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
- Avoid killing, directly or indirectly.
- Avoid stealing and taking things without the permission of their owner.
- Avoid sexual contact.
- Avoid lying and deceiving others.
- Avoid intoxicants: alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs. (You may take prescription drugs.)
- 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.
- Avoid sitting on a high, expensive bed or seat with pride. Also avoid sitting on animal skins.
- 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
- Take a Nyung ney short retreat, which is described as “a two-day intensive practice that includes taking the 24-hour Mahayana precepts with the addition of complete fasting and silence on the second day.” Learn more about the Nyung Ney Retreat here >>
- Perform a puja for the Buddha Shakyamuni. Learn how to perform a Buddha Shakyamuni Puja here >>
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
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.