Saga Dawa or Saka Dawa

Holy Month for Tibetan Buddhists

Lhasa Pilgrim
China Photos/Getty Images

 Saga Dawa is called the "month of merits" for Tibetan Buddhists. Dawa means "month" in Tibetan, and "Saga" or "Saka" is the name of a star prominent in the sky during the fourth lunar month of the Tibetan calendar when Saga Dawa is observed. Saga Dawa usually begins in May and ends in June.

This is a month especially dedicated to "making merit." Merit is understood in many ways in Buddhism. We can think of it as the fruits of good karma, especially when this brings us closer to enlightenment.

In early Buddhist teachings, the three grounds of meritorious action are generosity (dana), morality (sila), and mental culture or meditation (​bhavana), although there are many ways to make merit.

Tibetan lunar months begin and end with a new moon. The full moon day that falls in the middle of the month is Saga Dawa Duchen; duchen means "great occasion." This is the single most holy day of Tibetan Buddhism. Like the Theravadin observance of Vesak, Saga Dawa Duchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death (parinirvana) of the historical Buddha.

Ways to Make Merit

For Tibetan Buddhists, the month of Saga Dawa is the most auspicious time for meritorious actions. And on Saga Dawa Duchen the merits of worthy acts are multiplied 100,000 times.

Meritorious acts include pilgrimages to sacred places. There are many mountains, lakes, caves and other natural sites in Tibet that have attracted pilgrims for centuries.

Pilgrims also go to venerated monasteries, temples and stupas. Pilgrims also travel to be in the presence of a holy person, such as a high lama.

Pilgrims may circumambulate a shrine or other holy place. This means walking clockwise around the holy site. As they circumambulate, pilgrims may pray and chant mantras, such as mantras to White or Green Tara, or Om Mani Padme Hum.

The circumambulation may include full-body prostrations.

Dana, or giving, may be the most common way for Buddhists of all traditions to make merit, especially giving donations to temples or to individual monks and nuns. During Saga Dawa, it's also auspicious to give money to beggars. Traditionally, beggars line the roads on Saga Dawa Duchen knowing they are certain to receive something.

The lighting of butter lamps is a common devotional practice. Traditionally, butter lamps burned clarified yak butter, but these days they might be filled with vegetable oil. The lights are said to banish spiritual darkness as well as visual darkness. Tibetan temples burn a lot of butter lamps; donating lamp oil is another way to make merit.

Another way to make merit is by not eating meat. One can take this further by buying animals intended to be slaughtered and setting them free.

Observing Precepts

In many Buddhist traditions, there are precepts observed by laypeople only on holy days. In Theravada Buddhism, these are called the uposatha precepts. Lay Tibetan Buddhists sometimes follow the same eight precepts on holy days. During Saga Dawa, laypeople may keep these eight precepts on both new moon and full moon days.

These precepts are the first five basic precepts for all lay Buddhists, plus three more. The first five are:

  1. Not killing
  2. Not stealing
  3. Not misusing sex
  4. Not lying
  5. Not abusing intoxicants

On especially holy days, three more are added:

The sixth "holy day" precept is to eat only one meal, before noon. This is a basic precept for many monks and nuns, but most of the time it doesn't apply to laypeople. "Grazing" is not allowed; once you've stopped eating for thirty minutes, the meal is done.  For Tibetans, this one meal should not include meat, eggs, onions, garlic or radishes.

The seventh "holy day" precept is to avoid sleeping in a high, soft bed. The eighth is to not wear adornments -- jewelry or cosmetics.

Sometimes lay Tibetans turn these special days into two-day retreats, with complete silence and fasting on the second day.

There are, of course, a variety of rituals and ceremonies performed during Saga Dawa, and these vary among the several schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In recent years, Chinese security forces have limited Ssga Dawa activities, including pilgrimages and ceremonies, in Tibet.