Celebrating Saga Dawa


Saga Dawa Greetings!

On May 12th we entered the fourth lunar month of the Tibetan Calendar. This is the month of Saga Dawa. Saga (Alpha Librae) is one of the 28 constellations that mark the passage of the moon across the nighttime sky, and it is the constellation associated with the fourth lunar month which is referred to as saga. Dawa can be translated into English as moon or month. Saga Dawa is the period of time during which we celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is the most important month of the year for practice and merit accumulated during this period is multiplied many times over.

In 563 B.C.E., Prince Siddhartha was born to a noble family of the Shakya clan, in the garden grove at Lumbini, in the foothills of the Himalayas in southern Nepal. Before Siddhartha’s conception, his mother, Queen Mayadevi, had a dream in which an exquisite, white elephant entered her body, and from the moment of his birth he showed and manifested extraordinary signs. Some traditions commemorate Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth, specifically, on the seventh lunar day of the Saga Dawa (May 18, 2021), while others celebrate it on the May 15th.

A prayer that can offered to honor his birth is this Prayer to Shakyamuni by Mipham Rinpoche:

With your great compassion, you chose this world of conflict and degeneration,
And made five hundred vast aspirations.
You are praised like the immaculate white lotus, for whoever hears your name will never fall back into saṃsāra—
Most compassionate teacher, to you I pay homage!

The pinnacle of this sacred month is the 15th lunar day, or full moon (May 26, 2021). This day is called Saga Dawa Düchen (Düchen means “great holy day or occasion”). It is known in Pali as vesākha and in Sanskrit as vaiśākha. This is the specific day that marks the commemoration of the Buddha’s birth, his enlightenment and his parinirvanana.

At the age of 35, Prince Siddhartha sat down at the foot of a bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, India, and set the heartfelt intention that he would not rise until he had reached full awakening. After 49 days of resolute practice, he accomplished what he set out to do and proclaimed:

 Profound peace, natural simplicity, uncompounded luminosity, I have found the nectar-like Dharma!

After his first teaching in which he presented the Four Noble Truths, Shakyamuni Buddha spent the next 45 years embodying his realizations and sharing his wisdom. He entered parinirvana (liberation after death) in a forest grove in Kusinagar in his 81st year while surrounded by 500 disciples. With his last breath, he said to his students:

It is in the nature of all things that take form to dissolve again.
Strive with your whole being to attain liberation.

It can be challenging to maintain a regular spiritual practice and be engaged in our daily lives, especially as many of us transition from a year of homebound living to being fully engaging with our communities. This month of Saga Dawa is an ideal time to reflect on how we want to emerge from this year of the pandemic and to make heartfelt intentions about what is most important in our lives and how we engage with the world. This is a potent moment in which we can align ourselves with and draw inspiration from Shakyamuni Buddha’s radical and heroic determination.

– Lama Döndrup