Celebrating Saka Dawa Duchen while in Isolation



Saka Dawa is on June 5th in 2020


In the Tibetan tradition, Saka Dawa is a month of celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing [Skt. Parinirvana] of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Dawa means ‘month’ in Tibetan. The term Saka comes from Tibetan astrology—the Saka star is associated with the full moon of this month.


Saka Dawa observations take place in the fourth Tibetan month of each year, which in 2020 begins on May 23 and ends on June 21. The full-moon day of Saka Dawa, occurring on the 15th day of the Tibetan month, is one date most commonly associated with not only Buddha’s birth but also his enlightenment and parinirvana, and therefore often is said to be the most auspicious day of all. In 2020, the 15th day of the month—called Saka Dawa Duchen—falls on June 5 in the Gregorian calendar.


It is sometimes taught that the merit of any beneficial thoughts, speech and actions are multiplied during this time—some teachers say as much as one hundred million times.


Common ways in Tibetan culture to observe Saka Dawa Duchen include

· Refraining from eating meat

· Making offerings to monasteries, nunneries and practitioners

· Praying and reciting mantra

· Making prostrations at sacred sites

· Giving money to those in need

· Lighting butter lamps, candles and other lights

· Making pilgrimages to holy places

· Buying and releasing any kind of animals destined for slaughter that one can release in a way which helps them survive [eg: into their natural habitat]

· Circumambulating clock-wise around stupas or other holy places, generally while reciting mantras or prayers

· Doing a short [2-day] Nyung ney retreat, during which one fasts and does not drink water, keeps silence and does prostrations

· Performing a ritual service honoring the Buddha Shakyamuni

· Taking the Eight Mahayana precepts for 24 hours


But how can we do these traditional celebrations while in isolation?

First of all, each of these practices is a gesture of mind. They are done with the intention to cultivate or to recognize and experience mind-states and qualities conducive to awakening. If one cannot give a material offering, for example, one can visualize an offering. A visualized offering can be grand: beautiful to all of the senses, vast and untainted with clinging or regret. A visualized offering is ‘not second-best’ in any way.


Let’s look at some of the traditional Saka Dawa observations one-by-one for possibilities during self-isolation times. Is it possible that the very things that limit us in the time of Covid can become the strengths of our Saka Dawa practice?


· Refraining from eating meat

This one is easy! Just do it. You could enrich the intention by doing Tonglen [sending and taking; a mind-training practice] for animals, or those who are conditioned to eat meat; or yourself for having fixed views for or against eating meat, and against those who do.

You could also commit to not eating foods based on animal products on this day. Teach someone how to make a vegetarian dish. Make them one. Deliver it, without judgement or commentary.


You could also refrain on this day from buying animal-sourced food. You could make an offering to animal advocacy groups. Any act of protecting or not harming animals would fulfill the intention of this observance. You can visualize freedom for animals and that we create new ways to support human nutrition and the livelihoods of those who rely on animal slaughter for sustenance, so they can find workable choices for livelihood. You can pray that we do not trade one harm for another in our pursuits of understanding the systems of food-consumption and production.


If you are already vegetarian or vegan, you could make choices on this day that do not ß animals in other ways, by virtue of non-environmentally friendly production practices and so on. You could decrease harming the soft animal of your body as choose what to eat or not eat.


· Making offerings to monasteries, nunneries and practitioners

This can be done online or by mail. In addition to offering money, you can offer prayers, and the merit of your practice. You could send encouraging notes and wishes. You could visit their social media sites and leave encouraging remarks, so they feel inspired to continue—being ordained is sometimes hard work! These places don’t need to be Buddhist—take down the fences of mind and time. You can even make offerings of practice to future monks and nuns by reading aspiration prayers to that effect.


· Praying and reciting mantra

Read prayers, recite prayers, and copy prayers. Same for mantra. Speak aloud and fill your mind with positive speech and kind words. Words shape actions, so be intentional and healing with your speech. Treat your speech on this day like the magic it is.


· Making prostrations at sacred sites

What is a sacred site: everywhere you bring pure view to mind. Do bowing practice to the land, the sky, the water—all the preciousness that surrounds you every day. Create and sustain a sense of the preciousness and interconnectedness of all of existence.

Honor sacred sites by looking at their photo, websites or maps and contemplating their role in our lives.


If you live at or near a church or other sacred site, spend some time picking up litter or maintaining the site. Make offerings so others can have the site as an inspiration. Especially do this at a sacred site towards which you might have antipathy—even if only in your mind.

Create a sacred site in your home. Acknowledge the sacred landscape and beings of your body. Bow to the preciousness of this resource.


· Giving money to those in need

Give any currency. Money, respect, love, and any material aid you have access to. Give something you’ll miss. Give without preference. Give generously. Cause others to give. Enable giving.


Recall the basic needs of all beings to be safe and free from harm and to have happiness its causes and spend some energy today supporting those needs.


· Lighting butter lamps, candles and other lights

Among other things, lights are a symbol of wisdom. Light the lamp of your heart and mind through extra practice. Make lights. Visualize lights. Be a light to someone through an act of kindness. Especially offer light to those with whom you feel animosity of any kind. Give up criticizing for a day, so your own light can shine. Let your speech be a light. Let your body be a light as you work with pure intention. Let your creativity be a light. Vow to let go of any harmful activity for a day so your natural light can shine. Appreciate the light around you—in others, in the sun, moon and stars; in streetlights and headlights. See it all as the light of wisdom and offer it for the benefit of all beings. Acknowledge that in one sense, all you see is the play of light and wisdom.


· Making pilgrimages to holy places

Recognize the sacredness of every place you go today. Walk with respect in the spaces you visit. Care for the places and objects you visit. Bless them with your presence. Or bless them with your absence.


Visit the holy site of your practice on this day. Clean and nourish and appreciate your practice space.


Visit the temples of worship—even in your mind—and take yourself to every sacred site you find inspiring, even if in your imagination.


Visit your heart and the hearts and minds of others and leave them in good condition. Read sacred texts and embody them. Leave behind the mundane spaces of fixed opinions and visit the sacred cities of not knowing. Pay homage to their possibilities.

· Buying and releasing any kind of animals destined for slaughter that one can release in a way which helps them survive [eg: into their natural habitat]

Pick up earthworms and slugs and spiders and any animal that is headed somewhere life-threatening. Drive as little as possible so road-beings are safer. Take the time to pay attention animals and be helpful to any animals which are in harm’s way. Make prayers for their current and future lives.


Make prayers of gratitude for animals you harm daily—tiny beings you step on; those who live in the water you drink or those who live in your body.


· Circumambulating clock-wise around stupas or other holy places, generally while reciting mantras or prayers

Designate a place as sacred and circumambulate it. This is really a ‘recnognition’ practice. That place was sacred before you named it.


Put your texts or sacred images on a table and circumambulate them.


Visualize sacred places, real or imagined, and circumambulate them, even if only in your mind. Circumambulate your home. Your practice space.


Make a trip around the grocery store a circumambulation. Use your evening walk as one. Fill your mind with prayer, mantra, love or silence as you walk and the walking will become circumambulation.


· Doing a short [2-day] Nyung ney retreat, during which one fasts and does not drink water, keeps silence and does prostrations

If you don’t know how to do Nyung ney—or can’t—think of the hell realms of people during Covid or any other time of confusion and pray for them. Consider their plight and be willing to be present to that experience, so it can teach you.


Offer any help you can. Fast or take a media fast. Or engage in a complaint or judgement-fast for a day.


· Taking the Eight Mahayana precepts for 24 hours

Take all the precepts. Take one of the precepts. Or focus today on one that is especially challenging for you. Or get closer to the one that is easiest. Read about the precepts or talk or write about them. Contemplate them. Recite them many times. Put reminders in your house.


Celebrate others who keep their precepts. Support them. Spend the day with the precept you least understand or agree with. Take a precept for a day that you did not take when you took them formally. [For example, if you felt you could not take the precepts on not consuming intoxicating substances, take it today as an offering or experiment.]


Renew or repair your precepts today. Generate the resolve to genuinely care for them. If you bruise a commitment, repair it immediately.


If you haven’t taken the precepts, aspire to take them. Record your aspiration in writing.

Read about the precepts in other traditions. Appreciate the diverse ways in which spiritual wisdom manifests in different times and places. Make aspirations that this always be so.

Carry the precepts in your speech today. Embody precept-centered speech—supportive, non-self-aggrandizing, honest and harmless.


· Performing a ritual service honoring the Buddha Shakyamuni

Spend some time with all your Buddha images—pictures and statues and books. Not just Asian Buddhas, but all fully awakened beings. Honor them. Clean and attend to them. Or visualize them. Fill the sky of your mind with buddhas. Fill your body with buddhas. Make offerings.


Align your attention with their meaning and express your gratitude for the effort expended by Buddha Shakyamuni across many lifetimes as an ordinary human by increasing your devotion to practice and determination to practice today.

Honor and contemplate your own buddha nature. Practice with confidence. Feel the possibility that you can awaken fully. Cultivate the resolve to do it. Cultivate this sense for all other beings.


Make an effort to see others around you as buddhas. Enjoy and celebrate the truth of this.

On Saka Dawa, take a small step. Do one bow. One offering. One prayer. One vow—even a dissolving vow that lasts minutes or hours. Do one minute more. One more act of generosity. Consider the meaning of the idea that today it is multiplied by hundreds of thousands of times today—allow yourself to feel that enthusiasm and joy.


Fill the day and your mind with all the possibilities that exist even inside this time of self-isolation. Let your world be as big as it is. Step into the spaciousness of mind and do all your Saka Dawa practice and everything you do on that day in the wide-open place of an awakening heart and mind.



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