The Meaning of Losar

Article Written and Copyright 2003 by Margret Dunham

With the help of Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Venerable Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche (Teachers of Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso Rinpoche and disciples of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche)

Tibetan New Year (Losar) on March 3rd, 2003!
Greetings and Happy New Year from Ven. Khenpos Rinpoches: May All Be Auspicious!

The Tibetan New Year Festival, Losar, can be traced back to the time before the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century, BC, when the Bon religion was predominant. 

Losar Lama Dances

Every winter, a spiritual ritual was performed in which incense was offered to calm the spirits, deities and protectors of the land. It was said to have been started when an old woman introduced the measuring of time based on the different phases of the moon. This later evolved into an annual Buddhist festival. 

Since the 13th century, Losar has traditionally fallen on the first day of the first month of the calendar year, which is lunar-based – unlike our solar western calendar.

However, before the coming of a new year can be celebrated, unfinished business and unhappy memories must be dealt with. And so, on the 29th day of the last month in the old year, there is a festival called Gutor, in which everyone whitewashes and cleans their houses. The last day of the old year is spent preparing for the New Year.

People go to monasteries to make offerings, and to participate in the ceremonies conducted during the day.

Many rituals take place that are designed to chase away any evil spirits. [Note: 'spirits' can also be understood, from a Western perspective, as mental negativities and negative mental states]. One of these is a play in which the lamas perform masked dances to symbolize the triumph of good over evil.

Losar Lama DancesNew Year’s Eve is Lu Yugpa, an opportunity to banish evil spirits from the old year and clear the way for starting the new year right.

In modern times the preparations for Losar consist of collecting fresh roasted barley flour for phyemar (this symbolizes good wishes); lophud, a young wheat sprout that is the symbol of the birth of a new year; chang, a mild barley beer; sweet rice, tea, butter, fried biscuits, sweets, fruits and butter lamps. A complete collection of these seasonal foods is always placed on the family’s Buddhist altar as an offering.

The entire neighborhood is cleaned and houses are freshly painted. New clothing is sewn and new curtains are put over the doors and windows. There is a saying in Tibet, “Losar is Lekar,” meaning the New Year is new work! 

On the first day, at sunrise, the wife runs to collect the year’s first bucket of water. She burns incense at the well or river, ties a white scarf around the tap or nearby tree and gives a food offering of the first portion of the special foods for the celebration to appease the nagas (subterranean serpents and spirits).

Map of Tibet

A special breakfast is prepared, everyone wears new clothes for the year and a special Buddhist practice is performed at the family altar. When the formal family ceremony is over, the household members run to their neighbors’ houses shouting Tashe Delek!, literally, “Good Fortune!” Like Christmas morning in the west, on the morning of Losar the children love to fill their pockets with sweets and show off their new outfits.

At a retreat in Florida I asked my teacher Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal what Losar means to him, in terms of Buddhism. He said that first of all, when a Buddhist visits another land of another culture the Buddha instructed that it is important to do whatever is customary in that country, and to participate in the festivities or ceremonies of that culture.

Secondly, each new year is an echo of the changing cycles and Losar reminds us of the true nature of impermanence. “Everything that is born is bound to die. The old year is gone and will never exist again. The new year give us the opportunity to come together and celebrate; to notice and appreciate each moment, in the moment and to realize the blessings of the teachings.”

Thirdly, the first month of the Tibetan calendar is known as “the multiplying of the blessings month.” During the life of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, many people asked him to perform miracles to prove his enlightenment. He ignored their requests and moved from town to town giving teachings.

Finally, when he taught in Shravasti, the people beseeched the King to order Shakyamuni to hold a contest of spiritual or miraculous feats to prove his greatness. The Buddha agreed and for 15 days he performed miraculous activities; the last day falling on the full moon.

One of the miracles he performed was when, after he brushed his teeth with a tiny piece of wood, he threw it in the ground and it instantly turned into a great tree. Hundreds of thousands of people were said to have gathered to witness and it was at this time that the Buddha became renowned and famous throughout India. As it so happened, the first day he began these demonstrations was the first day of Losar. 

Down through the centuries, the first 15 days of the New Year have gained special significance – they are known as “the 15 days of awakening energy and ability to perform auspicious accomplishments.” Whatever good deeds one performs or merits one accumulates during this fortnight, those actions will be multiplied by 100,000.

At this very moment for the peoples and nations of the earth,
May not even the names of disease, famine, war, and suffering be heard,
But rather may pure conduct, merit, wealth and prosperity increase,
And may supreme good fortune and well being always arise.
Tibetan Buddhist prayer

Story by Margret Dunham
Copyright 2003 All Rights Reserved

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