Sagadawa is a holy month during which merit is believed to count manifold over that accumulated at any other time. Tibetan Buddhist culture is rooted in the belief of karma, or cause and effect, which holds at its central belief that in this life, one can accumulate merit that will reap benefit in the next. There are many levels to this complex theory, which is explained here from the point of view of a Tibetan nomadic community and how it is interpreted in their religious practice at Sagadawa. This concept is especially important to Tibetan nomads, as throughout their lives, they have had to live off their animals. For them, Sagadawa is a month that can be dedicated to catching up on the merit lost in taking animal life, in expunging the effect of negative actions, or simply one to accumulate extra merit for their next life. The extent and popularity of religious practice during this holy month underlies the importance people attach to life beyond death. Below are listed the practices that some of our employees at Norlha will undertake during Sagadawa.
Nyungne is an authentic and effective Buddhist practice employing the actions of our body, speech, and mind that has been enthusiastically followed in India, Tibet, and the surrounding regions for many centuries past. It is meant to purify the body and mind and is done in sets of two days, that can be extended indefinitely. The first day is the preliminary during which one eats only one meal while the second involves total fasting. The benefits can include miraculous recoveries, though most are satisfied with the feeling of having purified one’s body and mind. During these two days, one practices the ‘Three Heaps’ that involve homage by prostration, imagining Buddha Bodhisattvas and physically and mentally bowing to them. Then comes confession, during which one reviews all the misdeeds done recently and expresses regret, and the third one is dedication, during which one bestows all of the merit acquired to the benefit of all sentient beings (as opposed to thinking only of stocking up one’s own merit bank).
Taking a Vegetarian vow:
Buddhists are very conscious of the link between killing, considered one of the 10 non virtues, and meat, the central part of a nomad’s diet. Because of the extreme cold and the limited options offered by pastoral life, meat is inevitable, though there are attempts to reconcile these two opposites. The first is not to indulge in excesses regarding meat eating. Animals are slaughtered only at one time of the year, in the fall, and for one’s own consumption. Surpluses are dried and used the rest of the year. Another is to avoid killing smaller animals, as more lives have to be taken to feed oneself, a concept that goes hand in hand with the shunning of fishing or hunting wildlife. Then there is giving up meat altogether, either for good or for a limited period. This is what people choose to do at Sagadawa.
Prostrations can come in many forms. The concept is the same as the one observed in the paragraph on Nyugne, purification through bowing to the ideal that one is hoping to achieve one day, in that sense, the Buddha, who represents full enlightenment. In some cases, people prostrate all the way from Amdo or Kham to Lhasa, while others vow to do so many prostrations per day in view of accumulating at least 100,000 or more. In Ritoma, as in other villages in Tibet, people like doing a set of 300 monastery circumambulations while prostrating in one month, ideal as a Sagadawa practice.
Kora in Tibetan means ‘going around’ in this case, circumambulating a holy site, which is a stupa or a monastery, all the time reciting mantras that purify the mind and stock up one’s merit bank. Some koras can be very long, like the one in Labrang which is 3 km. In Ritoma, circling the small mani wheel temple 5000 times while reciting mantras is a favorite, especially during Sagadawa.
Tsethar or saving a life:
Another favorite way of accumulating merit is to save a life. This can be to spare one’s own animals, yak or sheep, or buying back animals destined to the butcher. Such animals remain with the herd and are marked by a colorful collar that identifies them as Tsethar. It can also be done by buying fish from fishermen and releasing them, a big favorite if one is living in an area where people fish, as it means saving more lives.