The Royal Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, is the 1st lunar day of the 1st lunar month each year. In 2023, this date coincides with February 21st on the Western calendar. In the weeks leading up to Losar, both monasteries and households are continuously busy with preparations such as deep cleaning and freshly painting as much as possible.
During this time, it is customary to make many fried Tibetan cookies known as khapsé. These khapsé are first offered to the shrine and to the revered lamas, and then to friends and family during and after the Losar celebration. Wheat grass seeds are planted in small pots and the young green shoots are placed with the other offerings as a symbol of a good harvest and prosperity in the coming year.
In the monasteries and nunneries, Losar includes for many end-of-year prayers and rituals including the sacred dances called cham. On the 25th lunar day of the 12th month, there is a test for the cham dancers and those chanting the melodies. On the 26th day, all of the offering torma are made.
The extensive ritual of the wrathful yidam Phurba known as the Tro Phur Gutor Chenmo begins the ceremonial conclusion of the previous year. This ritual lasts for three days and includes many sacred dances as well as elaborate rituals for removing obstacles and negativity. This ritual begins on the 27th lunar day and concludes on the evening of the 29th lunar day with the removal of the main prayer flag from the courtyard. In 2023, these dates coincide with February 17th-February 19th. The main prayer flag for the new year is raised on the 5th lunar day of the 1st month which is the celebration of the Nyammé Sherap Gyaltsen Rinpoche, the founder of Menri Monastery and its first throne-holder. During the time between removal of the old prayer flag and raising the new one, the rules of monastic discipline are slightly relaxed.
For householders, the 29th lunar day which is called nyi shu gu, is a time to clean their homes and clear their debts from the previous year. That evening, a dokpa ritual for sending away negativity is performed. The family shares a special stew of nine ingredients called gu thuk. Although there can be regional variations, according to His Eminence Menri Pönlop Rinpoche, these nine ingredients are meat, wheat, barley, rice, cheese, corn, troma (a himalayan root vegetable), salt, and water. Cooked within the stew are balls of dough which contain items meant as a playful kind of divination that reveals the character of the family members who receive them in their bowl of stew. Rather than the actual items, the name of the symbols can also be written on a small piece of paper and placed inside the balls of dough. There is some variation of the items but in general the items and their symbolic meaning are:
- Receiving a ball with cotton inside means the recipient will have good health all year.
- Receiving a ball with a chili inside means the recipient is sharp-tongued.
- Receiving a ball with a white stone inside means the recipient is good-hearted.
- Receiving a ball with a piece of charcoal inside means the recipient is black-hearted or has bad habits.
- Receiving a ball with a piece of paper inside means the recipient is always trying to sneak something for themselves.
- Receiving a ball with a piece of twisted string means the recipient has a strong and stable mind.
- Receiving a ball with a pea inside means the recipient is cunning.
- Receiving a ball with salt inside means that the recipient is a pleasant person.
- Receiving a ball with onion inside means that the recipient has an unpleasant smell.
Everyone saves a small amount of the last of their stew to be used as a ransom payment for the negative spirits of the previous year. This ritual payment settles the karmic debts with negative spirits so that they become satisfied and happy and have no reason to cause harm. An effigy representing these spirits is made and must include each of the five senses. Along with the leftover stew, each person also makes a karmic debt torma. This is a small ball of roasted flour made into a dough that has been rubbed over the body from head to toe in order to absorb all illness and negative energy. Then, the ball of dough is rolled into a strip the width of the hand and squeezed so that each of the fingers make an impression. Women make the impression with their left hands, and men use their right hands. This karmic debt torma is then placed with the other gifts around the effigy along with a piece of hair and a string from the clothing of each family member. A small candle is placed in front of the effigy and then lit.
Before the effigy is carried out, a prayer is recited to formally present the gifts to the spirits and request that in exchange for the gifts of ransom, that they not cause any harm. The following prayer is from the dokpa ritual of the enlightened fierce deity Nampar Jompa.
Come here, all you spirits who have a commitment to the teachings of the Buddha!
Come all gods, humans, and demi-gods, all spirits that cause harm or disease, all male and female demons. Without excluding anyone, all you spirits, come!
Accept this ransom torma which repays my karmic debts. Do not cause harm to this family or community and don’t create any obstacles to our spiritual practice!
Now, each of you happily return to your homes and listen to the noble teachings of the Buddha.
SO OM BA DZRA TRO TA SUM TRI GHA TSA YA GHA TSA YA
NÖ JÉ JUNG PO A MU KHA RA YA HUNG PÉ
Once the prayer is complete, one family member takes the effigy, facing forward and held below the waist, and leaves it at a crossroads, or an energetically rough place in the negative direction of the outgoing year. When returning home, this person must not look back. When they arrive, they must be ritually cleansed with water before they enter the house.
On the 30th lunar day, New Year’s Eve, homes are decorated, shrines are cleaned, and fresh offerings are placed on them. It is common for people to be awake most of the night preparing for the next day. Even so, they get up early the next morning to perform a large fumigation offering known as sang, and to make aspirations for the new year. (For more information about the sang ritual within the Yungdrung Bön religious tradition, see previous article: https://ravencypresswood.com/2021/11/19/new-book-release-sacred-smoke-the-ritual-practice-of-fumigation-and-offering-in-the-yungdrung-bon-religious-tradition/ )
The first spring water of the new year is considered very auspicious, and it is common for people to go directly to the community well after midnight to try and be the first person to collect water and offer it on their shrine. On New Year’s Day, everyone stays at home or only leaves home to go to the monastery in order to pray and make offerings. On the 2nd and 3rd days of the new year, it is customary to spend time visiting friends and family in order to strengthen the positive energy and harmonious bonds for the coming year.
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