Losar: Karma, Clean, Exorcise, Eat

So Losar is upon us again, Tuesday the 9th by most reckonings. (It’s confusing for some folks because Chinese New Years is today). For those just tuning into this blog, or who have forgotten. Losar is the Tibetan New Years. It’s probably one of the only Buddhist holidays I actually go out of my way to celebrate, with the possible exception of Labdab Duchen. Recently a friend shared an article with me about the traditions of Losar asking if it was a legit article, and in telling her that it was, I got thinking about how common certain ideas and practices are across the world regarding New Years. So I got thinking about the Losar traditions in and outside Tibetan Buddhist contexts.

The Julian calendar New Year of January 1st has really lost a lot of the traditions around the changing year, it’s just a day off work and a night to party. If that’s all you want from it, that’s fine, but I like making everything in life part of my practice. (And by like, I mean I’m oathbound to do so…) Personally though January 1st as New Years has struck me as too arbitrary. Really my favourite days to celebrate New Years would be my birthday (as I’ve mentioned here before) and an event like Tibetan New Years. I like Tibetan New Years because it’s a combination of the Solar and Lunar calendar. It’s based on the moon phase, in relation to where the sun is. (Even though I will admit deciding on which moon phase and what solar position is also arbitrary in many ways, why not the full moon, why not the winter solstice?)

The first thing I want to address around Losar is the period leading up to it known as tön. This is generally a difficult time of year, lots of chaos and obstacles can come up. It’s said to last ten days, seven days, or five days, depending on the tradition. The belief is that as the year comes to a close all of your “simple” karmic loose ends are trying to tie themselves up. This causes upheaval, all the things you didn’t dealt with and aren’t “serious” enough to carry over into the next year will come up. This generally manifests as increased accidents, minor illnesses, odd behaviour between people, and the like. This isn’t a uniquely Tibetan belief, I’ve seen it in south east Asian and south Asian beliefs, and even the Epagomenal days of the Egyptians . Of course since all these cultures have different New Years, it’s not the date itself that has any relevance, but it’s the fact we’re “plugged into” them. So because some Buddhist practices are tied into the solar and lunar cycle we’re attuned to a certain ebb and flow, which makes some days and times very powerful for certain practices, but also means we experience a chaotic tön period, when non-Buddhists have no issues with this period.

Tön is a great time to address what appears to be karmic issues. A way to identify a karmic issue is a reoccurring pattern in your life. So perhaps over the last year you’ve been sick off and on, when usually you’re pretty healthy, that might be a karmic issue. Maybe you’ve had to repair one thing after another at your house, or had to replace all your appliances as they died over a few month period, could be karmic. Maybe it’s been a year of fighting with and losing friends, karmic issue perhaps. So in tön you want to address these issues in the hopes that you’ll clear out the karma connected to them, and not have to deal with them next year. The simplest way is to do work that counters the general trend, but being a Buddhist system, generally you try to counter it for others. So if you’ve had a year of illness, don’t try to heal yourself during tön (or don’t focus only on yourself), but work to heal others. If you know people who are sick, work for them, if you don’t, take the Buddhist approach and scattershot it, work to heal all who are sick and suffering. Granted as an individual person when you try to help so many people at once you’ll probably accomplish nothing notable, but it helps get the ball rolling. Focus on helping others with the same or similar issue you’ve been going through, and remember when you are trying to help all beings, you’re one of them, so you can still help yourself.

There is also a more “active” way of dealing with it. I can’t explain the major details, but in my lineage we create a torma, a cake, of a scorpion which is a symbol of our karma. We say a ridiculous amount of mantras over it, to transfer our karma or at least our attachments to it into the scorpion. Then we light a bonfire, evoke a god into the fire, and burn the scorpion and the karma with it. I know other Buddhist lineages use a cake ram’s head.(Also similar to an Egyptian practice of making a snake representing Apep, and destroying it before the new year.)

Another part of the lead up to Losar is the house cleaning. Basically this is when you should do your big clean. Don’t just tidy up the house, make sure that you’ve vacuumed and washed what you can. If possible focus on the two extremes of your mess first, the daily clutter (all that junk on the sidetable beside your chair) and the more longterm clutter (remember when you thought you’d move that wall unit, and so you stacked everything on the floor and you still haven’t put it back up after three months? Do that now). You want to start the New Year clean and fresh. This is also a spiritual thing, not just physical. It’s common for people to do prayers in every room, purifying the space. So do your banishings, your cleansings. Here is a method I wrote about a few years ago I still use a variation of it.

It’s also traditional to paint the ashtamangala (the eight auspicious symbols) inside the house. Each one represents something else, but if you’re not Buddhist you probably won’t connect with them, but you can still paint your own symbols inside the house. Usually you’d paint it, and then paint over it, but that’s from a time when we didn’t have long lasting latex or acrylic paint and you’d have to repaint every year anyways. Now it’s more common to “paint” with holy water. Think of it as a way of reconsecrating your house and marking what blessings you want for the upcoming year.

It’s also when you do your protector practices, specifically the day before (which in this case should have been yesterday really), so after you banish you set up your wards, you call your protective spirits, give them offerings and reaffirm your connection and requests. In some cases you’re really recharging/refreshing them, or you might just be reconnecting. Even if you’re sure the wards are up and your guardians are there it doesn’t hurt to touch up wards, and it’s good to be nice to your protectors.

Leading up to the New Years you’ve dealt with minor karma, you’ve cleaned the house, exorcised it, blessed it, and warded it.

My Losar altar three years ago.

My Losar altar three years ago.

Then on the day you wear new clothing. In poorer regions of historical Tibet it wasn’t unheard of for people only to get a new set of clothing on Losar, but it was so important to them that if that’s all they got they wanted it for Losar. I think the symbolism is more than obvious about having fresh new clothing to start a new year. Another important part of the Losar celebration is the offerings, of course, Tibetan Buddhism is all about the food. Set up your altar, and pack it with food. Your Buddhas and Dharma texts should be hiding behind cookies and fruit and tea. The idea is to make a big offering to them, to everything, start the year off generous, and in return the year will be generous to you. Do your prayers and rituals over the altar. Leave it for a time. Then the next day, maybe after some more rituals and prayers, it’s time to give away the food. It’s not just food, it’s sacred offerings, the Buddhas and whatnot have taken what they need, now you’re sharing it, and those blessings with everyone else.

Even striped of the Buddhist context you can see the logic and value to preparing for the new year in this way.

If I might sound horribly Buddhist, may all beings be happy in the coming year.

Losar tashi delek.

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