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Tibetan new year "བོད་ཀྱི་ལོ་གསར།" Losar.

Discovering the Religious Ceremony of Da Gui

This year, the Chinese New Year and the Tibetan New Year coincide; both are based on lunisolar cycles, but they are not always celebrated on the same dates. Despite the limited resources available on this topic in the West and on the web, and the influences of the Chinese annexation of this region that have significantly altered some of its cultural aspects, I want to talk to you about this occasion and its peculiar characteristics!

While the Chinese New Year certainly doesn't go unnoticed, the Tibetan New Year is not a celebration that Westerners pay much attention to. In fact, without direct contact with Buddhist culture, "Losar" is rarely known and even less celebrated, despite its rituals taking place for a continuous 15 days. Discovering it provides a glimpse into a holiday steeped in tradition and spirituality that celebrates the arrival of the new year. It is a time when Tibetan cultural values are showcased: warm greetings are exchanged with everyone, from family to neighbors, creating a strong sense of community. Delicious traditional Tibetan food is served to invited guests in homes to celebrate the new year together, and offerings and prayers are made to the deities in the temple.

This celebration, usually falling between January and March, is observed in various regions of the Himalayas, including Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and some parts of India. It is a festival of renewal and hope, steeped in ancient rituals, family gatherings, and cultural activities. Among the various ceremonies that characterize Losar, one of the most intriguing is the Da Gui, a religious practice emphasizing the importance of purification and prosperity.

Specifically, we are talking about purifications from "evil spirits"; in fact, the translation of "Da Gui" is "Beating the ghosts," although we could more broadly refer to it as the dispelling of hostile forces. As with any other culture, birth and death in Tibet are two phases of life that are given great importance and are associated with a variety of rituals and beliefs. We must keep in mind the cultural melting pot that has shaped the current celebration, as we are in territories with roots in Hindu India, the indigenous Bon religion, Chinese Taoism, and ultimately, Buddhism. This, in particular, is a very ancient festival, existing even in pre-Buddhist times and celebrated by followers of the Bon religion. It underwent various modifications throughout its history to evolve into what it is today.

Tibetans, like all Buddhists, believe in the concept of reincarnation and the existence of life after death. How, then, can we explain the role of ghosts and spirits? (It should be noted that Buddhism encompasses many different schools of thought, which diverge from each other even on fundamental concepts and interpret texts and traditions differently.) The term "spirit" should not be confused with the generic term "ghost," referring to the "lingering spirit" of a deceased person. Instead, it represents entities driven by intense, almost animalistic, emotional needs and negative connotations. According to the Buddhâvataṃsaka mahāvaipulyasūtra (a sacred text in Mahāyāna Buddhism), "evil deeds will cause a soul to be reborn in one of the six different realms. The highest degree of wickedness will cause a soul to be reborn as an inhabitant of hell, a lower degree of malice will result in a soul being reborn as an animal, and the lowest degree will cause a soul to be reborn as a hungry ghost." In this tradition, evil deeds leading to the birth of a hungry ghost include killing, theft, and improper sexual conduct (if you're thinking of the Seven Deadly Sins, there are actual parallels!).

Desire, greed, anger, and ignorance are all factors that cause a soul to be reborn as an evil spirit because these attitudes drive people to commit wicked actions.

Hungry ghosts, also known as "Preta," have their realm depicted on the Bhavacakra (the wheel of existence) and are represented in human form with a swollen stomach and a neck too thin to ingest food. The act of eating, as sacred texts describe, is incredibly painful for them. Some are described as having "mouths the size of a needle's eye and a stomach the size of a mountain."

Representation of the Bhavacakra, the wheel of existence.

It is in this context that the Da Gui ceremony takes place, which, simplifying, could be likened to a kind of exorcism. The preparations for the festivities begin a month before the end of the year, with houses being meticulously cleaned, new clothes being tailored for the family to wear during the festival, and various offerings of food being made on the family altar. Symbols of good fortune are drawn on the walls of houses using white powder or hung as tapestries, monasteries are decorated, and protective deities are celebrated with devotional rites.

The actual New Year begins with the installation of an extensive mural called "Lingka," representing the celestial palace of Palden Lhamo, the protective deity. The Lingka is adorned with sacred symbols and mantras, aiming to attract the attention of benevolent deities and repel malevolent influences. The ceremonies represent an internal and external struggle for every Tibetan Buddhist between the good and evil that surrounds them and resides within themselves.

During the ceremony, monks recite specific prayers and mantras while burning aromatic herbs, often mixed with symbolic substances like roasted barley flour (tsampa). The act of burning these herbs is intended to purify the environment and rid it of any negativity. It is believed that this practice ensures a prosperous and harmonious start to the year.

The ways of celebrating Losar are as diverse as the locations where it is celebrated. In some rituals, there is a procession with bowls filled with "ghost food." Monks shout at evil spirits to leave homes, and the procession then arrives at a large bonfire where the bowls containing ghost food are shattered and thrown into the flames.

In other places, torches are lit, and people run around with a doll representing an angry deity, igniting bundles of straw and handheld fireworks, shouting while throwing trash into the streets to drive evil spirits away from their homes.

In yet other celebrations, monks proficient in this specific ritual dance to frenetic rhythms to sacred melodies and texts, wearing a large white mask with red eyes resembling a skull. This is all aimed at dispelling evil spirits, warding off negative influences, and bringing peace to the world. The dance movements carry distinct symbolic meanings, and in the end, the monks process with the effigy of a demon, which is thrown into the fire, symbolizing the exorcism of the ghost and the pacification of the world.

Finally, they sing Buddhist scriptures and distribute fruits and candies as blessings for safety and happiness.

A Tibetan Buddhist monk waits inside a temple before participating in the Da Gui ceremony at the Yonghegong Temple on March 19, 2015, in Beijing, China. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.

In conclusion, while the Tibetan New Year continues to be celebrated with fervor and joy as a time of renewal and hope, we cannot ignore the persistent challenges that afflict the Tibetan people. Chinese oppression has cast a long shadow over the lives of many Tibetans, creating a challenging context where cultural and spiritual traditions are under threat. As stated by the Dalai Lama, "Despite the adversities we face, faith in our cultural and spiritual heritage remains strong." Losar thus becomes a moment of resistance and resilience, where the Tibetan community continues to preserve its identity despite difficulties. Like the fire of Losar, the determination of the Tibetan people shines brightly, and through global awareness and solidarity, it is hoped that the future will bring freedom and dignity to the Tibetan people.

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