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  • Writer's pictureSabchu Rinpoché

The meaning of Saga Dawa Düchen

A long, long time ago, a great being was born in the Indian subcontinent, who later became known as the Buddha, the Awakened One. What he shared with the world, which he called Dharma, is unparalleled, a pure medicine for systemic illnesses of sentient beings. Concerned by the illnesses, those who took the prescription as per his guideline are referred to as Sangha. Let us first and foremost earnestly venerate these three which are called the Three Jewels.


Four Scenes from the Life of the Buddha: Enlightenment; Kushan dynasty, 2nd-3rd c. AD, Gandhara.


Before there was so called Sangha and before there was the revealed medicine called Dharma, there was the Buddha, the origin of the former two. Düchens are the commemoration days, marking important life-events of the Buddha. As followers of the Buddha, it is imperative that we know the origin, the source of our refuge, the physician we are relying on. It is on Düchens, when we revere the peerless teacher, the Buddha, and that we become more aware of the imperativeness of doing so.


As Buddhists, before anyone else, we ought to know our teacher, the Buddha. With this intention, I present this note to you. Let us continue orienting our physical, verbal, and mental activities toward the goal of removing systemic illnesses and enhancing innate qualities. Let us put aside some time, on the occasion of the four Düchens in a year, to re-read the life and legacy of the Buddha.


Seated Buddha, Western Himalayas, possibly Ladakh or Lahul.


Saga Dawa Düchen


Although all four Düchens are equally important, however, out of the four, Saga Dawa Düchen is treated a tad higher customarily. This is due to one of the events that took place on Saga Dawa – the enlightenment of the Buddha, and because the goal of all Buddhist practitioners is to become Buddha themselves.


The Name for the Day


Saga Dawa or Vaiśākhā is the fourth month in lunar calendar. It is one of the twenty-eight constellations, Saga (Skt. Vaishākhā, वैशाख; Tib. ས་ག་). In English, it is Alpha Librae. ‘Dawa’, in Tibetan, is for ‘moon’ and since month consists of a cycle of the moon, ‘dawa’ means month too.

The excellent teacher (Tib. སྟོན་པ་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ་)


The excellent teacher we are revering on Saga Dawa is, the one and only, Śākyamuni. It is said that, in the beginning, the Buddha, while he was a trainee on the path, cultivated bodhicitta, the heart of altruism. Then for three incalculable great kalpas or eons, he accumulated merit and wisdom. At the end of a thousandfold lifetimes, he became a fully-trained bodhisattva. He excelled perfectly in all purifications and all attainments. At last, he attained the awakened state (Skt. dharmakāya, धर्मकाय; Tib. ཆོས་སྐུ་), the absolute truth, in a pure abode called Akaniṣṭha (Tib. འོག་མིན་). Unmoved from this state, he benefits sentient beings in an unfathomable manner, which is referred to as Buddha’s enlightened activity (Tib. ཕྲིན་ལས་).

In order to benefit beings, he manifests in two visible forms (Skt. rūpakāya, रूपकाय; Tib. གཟུགས་སྐུ་): a form that is beyond the domain of dualistic mindset (Skt. saṃbhogakāya, संभोगकाय; Tib. ལོངས་སྐུ་), and a form that is within the domain of dualistic mindset (Skt. nirmāṇakāya, निर्माणकाय; Tib. སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་).


Of these two, the relevant manifestation for today’s commemoration is the latter. Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha that we know of, is believed to be a manifestation of the already-enlightened Buddha, who is beyond our dualistic apprehension, who resides in Akaniṣṭha. If one asks, on what ground do we believe that? We believe that on the basis of our trust in the infallible words of Śākyamuni who, in the following verses, uses the relative terms such as “there” and “here,” denoting Akaniṣṭha and human realm respectively:


The absolute Buddha attained buddhahood there, The emanation (Buddha) attained Buddhahood here.

— Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (a prominent Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtra set in Laṅkā, today’s Sri Lanka)



In order to benefit sentient beings, the Buddha descended into the world of dual-minded people, our world. This is considered the first in the series of his twelve great deeds.


The Birth


2566 years ago, Śuddhodana, the king of the Śākya kingdom, and Māyādevī, a princess of Koliya Kingdom got married. After a long time, Māyādevī dreamt of a 6-tusked, white elephant circumambulating her three times and then entering into her womb from the right side. This is considered the second deed of the Buddha: entering the mother’s womb. Pregnant Māyādevī decided to deliver the baby in her paternal home in Devadaha, the capital of Koliya. She set on her journey to Devadaha and while resting in the forest named Lumbinī, still on her way, she gave birth to a baby boy. The birthplace, in today’s context, is in the Rupandehi District of Lumbini Province in Nepal. Immediately after birth, the boy took seven steps and proclaimed: “In this world, I am supreme.” Thus, prince Siddhārtha Gautama was born. This is the third deed of the Buddha.


Journey of a Seeker


In search for the truth, the true cause of all the suffering, anguish, and lamentation, Siddhārtha set forth on the journey of a seeker. This is considered the sixth deed of the Buddha. He met with various esteemed religious teachers of the time, such as Udraka Rāmaputra and Āḷāra Kālāma. Training meditation under them, Siddhārtha’s meditative equilibrium rapidly reached all the way from the first to the fourth dhyāna level. Correspondingly, Siddhārtha experienced the greatest physical wellbeing, joy, mindfulness, and equanimity, but he felt this is not yet all that he was searching for. His concerns were beyond these positive outcomes of the meditation. He wanted answers to his existential questions.


Siddhārtha Gautama meets the ascetic Udraka Rāmaputra, 8th-9th c. CE, Borobudur Temple, Indonesia.


Nairañjanā Riverbank


Following his quests, he reached to the shores of the river Nairañjanā (Skt. नैरञ्जना) in Uruvilvā (Skt. उरुविल्वा) (the former name of Bodh Gayā and its vicinity), in the current-day Indian state of Bihar. Sitting under a tree for six years, he continued looking inward. Siddhārtha progressively attained higher and higher mental attainments. This is considered the seventh deed of the Buddha. The six years of austerities took toll on his body.


Siddhārtha fasting, 2nd-3rd c. AD, Gandhara, Pakistan.


Under the Bodhi Tree


At the end, a new realization dawned upon him. He realized that he must not neglect his body. Breaking away from his previous mental state, he started walking toward the Ficus tree, now famously known as the Bodhi tree, one-hour walking distance from the riverbank. This was on the 14th day of Saga Dawa. This is considered the eighth deed of the Buddha. Laying down a mat of kuśa grass on the vajra seat, under the Bodhi tree, Siddhārtha meditated.


Siddhārtha at the Bodhi Tree, 100-200 CE, Gandhara, Pakistan.


Overcoming Māra


In the night, a horde of Māra’s manifestations arrived, disturbing Siddhārtha’s deep absorption. One after another, all manifestations failed to move Siddhārtha from his samādhi. Instead, Siddhārtha completely tamed Māra’s vicious intention. Marking the victory over Māra, Siddhārtha, therefore, is also addressed as Victor or The Victorious One. This event took place before the dawn of the 15th day of Saga Dawa. It is considered the ninth deed of the Buddha.



Settling into the Extraordinary Meditation


In the early dawn – the astronomical dawn of the 15th day – Siddhārtha then settled back in his meditation, swiftly progressing from the first to the fourth dhyāna. He experienced all the corresponding experiences of the levels of meditative absorption. With the intent of actualizing the absolute knowledge of all phenomena, Siddhārtha directed his mind toward that purpose. He began seeing through “the pristine divine eye beyond that of humans,” looking at all sentient beings. He saw the workings of sentient beings’ karma. He saw how sentient beings create karma and how they experience the results of the created karma.


In the mid-dawn – the nautical dawn – he directed his mind to recollect past lives of his own and others. He began recollecting lifetimes “starting with one, two, three, four, and five lifetimes, then ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty more lifetimes, then one hundred lifetimes, one thousand lifetimes, one hundred thousand lifetimes, then many hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, ten million lifetimes, a billion lifetimes, ten billion lifetimes, a trillion lifetimes, and a quadrillion lifetimes, then several billion, several tens of billions, several trillions, and several quadrillions of lifetimes, all the way up to the lifetimes in an eon of destruction, an eon of formation, an eon of both destruction and formation, and several eons of both destruction and formation. He remembered the former lives of himself and others in the greatest detail, thinking, “In that place I had this name, this surname, this family, this caste, this diet, this lifespan, stayed for this duration, and experienced these kinds of pleasure and pain. After falling from there, I was born here. After falling from there, I was born here…”


Enlightenment of the Buddha, Pala Period (750-1197), Bihar, Northeastern India.


In the late dawn, just at the break of dawn – civil dawn, the phase before sunrise – Siddhārtha began directing his mind toward the suffering, the origin of suffering, and cessation of suffering. He achieved deep realizations, going from ignorance to old-age and death, the sequence which is called the Twelve links of dependent origination or Pratītyasamutpāda (प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद) in Sanskrit:


Brick inscribed with the Sūtra on Dependent Origination, c. 500 CE, Gupta period, Uttar Pradesh, India.


1. Ignorance (Skt. अविद्या, avidyā; Tib. མ་རིག་པ་, ma rigpa, Wyl. ma rig pa): fundamental ignorance of the truths and the delusion of mistakenly perceiving the skandhas as a self.

2. Formation (Skt. संस्कार, saṁskāra; Tib. འདུ་བེད་, duje, Wyl. 'du byed): as long as there is ignorance there is the formation of karma: positive, negative and neutral. This forms the rebirths in the various realms.

3. Consciousness (Skt. विज्ञाना, vijñāna; Tib. རྣམ་པར་ཤེས་པ་, nampar shepa, Wyl. rnam par shes pa): formations cause the consciousness of the next existence. The consciousness which propels one towards the next existence is called the impelling consciousness. And the consciousness that is led to that particular state, once the conditions have come together, is known as the consciousness of the impelled result. These two aspects of consciousness are counted as a single link since together they establish the link between two lives.

4. Name-and-form (Skt. नामरूप, nāmarūpa; Tib. མིང་དང་གཟུགས་, ming dang zuk, Wyl. ming dang gzugs): the five skandhas. By the power of consciousness one is linked to a womb, and there the body develops: the form and the four ‘name’ skandhas of sensation, perception, formation and consciousness.

5. The six āyatanas (Skt. षडायतन, ṣaḍāyatana; Tib. སེ་མཆེད་དྲུག་, kyemche druk, Wyl. skye mched drug): the six inner āyatanas of the sense faculties then arise.

6. Contact (Skt. स्पश, sparśa; Tib. རེག་པ་, rekpa, Wyl. reg pa): the coming together of objects, sense faculty and consciousness is contact.

7. Sensation (Skt. वेदना, vedanā; Tib. ཚོར་བ་, tsorwa, Wyl. tshor ba): from contact arises sensation – pleasurable, painful and neutral.

8. Craving (Skt. तृष्णा, tṛṣṇā; Tib. སེད་པ་, sepa, Wyl. sred pa): there then develops a desire not to be separated from pleasurable sensations and to be free from painful sensations.

9. Grasping (Skt. उपादान, upādāna; Tib. ལེན་པ་, lenpa, Wyl. len pa): as craving increases, it develops into grasping, i.e. actively striving never to be separated from what is pleasurable and to avoid what is painful.

10. Becoming (Skt. भव, bhava; Tib. སིད་པ་, sipa, Wyl. srid pa): through this grasping one acts with body, speech and mind, thus creating the karma that will determine one’s next existence.

11. Rebirth (Skt. जाित, jāti; Tib. སེ་བ་, kyewa, Wyl. skye ba): through the power of this becoming, one is reborn in a particular birthplace whenever the necessary conditions are assembled.

12. Old age and death (Skt. जरामरण, jarā-maraṇa; Tib. རྒ་ཤི་, ga shi, Wyl. rga shi): following rebirth there is a continual process of aging as the aggregates change and develop; and eventually there is death when the aggregates finally cease.


Buddha Śākyamuni Calling the Earth to Witness his Enlightenment, 11-12th c. CE, Northeast India.


Becoming The Awakened One


Recounting this moment, our most precious peerless teacher Buddha proclaims:

I accurately understood precisely how this massive heap of pure suffering, with its anguish, lamentation, pain, despair, and torment comes into being and how it ceases. I accurately understood the precise identity of suffering, the source of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to its cessation. Thus, bhikus, sure enough, during the final station of night, just at the break of dawn, right at the time for the beating of the morning drum, the Bodhisattva – the being, the good being, the supreme being, the great being, the ox among men, the elephant among men, the lion among men, the bull among men, the hero among men, the champion among men, the adept among men, the lotus among men, the white lotus among men, the supreme beast of burden among men, the unexcelled charioteer among men – reached unexcelled, perfect and complete awakening.

— Lalitavistara Sūtra



This event took place on the 15th day of Saga Dawa. This is considered the tenth deed of the Buddha. From the age of 35, after teaching the Five Excellent students, Tathāgata (another name for the Buddha) continuously, for 45 years, travelled near and far, gifting people the invaluable wisdom of his discovery, the Dharma.


My mahāparinirvāna will be after three months


At the age of 80, Tathāgata taught the Licchavi people of Vaiśālī, which is in present-day Vaishali district in the Indian state of Bihar, India. It is known as Vaiśālī or simply Vesali, meaning an expansive place. One day, while in Vaiśālī, Buddha foresaw that within three months it would be time to let go of his transient body. From Vaiśālī, via Pāvānagara, he travelled to Kuśāvatīnagara (which today is called Kuśinagar, a corrupted version of the former). His destination is today 53 km away from the closest major train station, Gorakhpur, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. At a grove called Ambavan, Buddha rested for many days. At last, the owner of the grove, a householder named Chunda, came to know Tathāgata was residing in his grove. Honored, Chunda venerated Tathāgata. Tathāgata guided Chunda and his family, as he did with anyone coming to meet him. Extremely touched, Chunda offered a meal to the Buddha and his entourage of students. What happened afterwards has a few different variants of narrative. The following is one of them: He unknowingly offered Buddha a questionable mushroom dish that he made. He appealed, “I made this with all my heart. Please take some.” After a pause, honoring the host Chunda, Buddha accepted the dish. But after consuming a mouthful, he requested him, “Please do not serve this to the others. Instead, throw it in the ditch.”


The parinirvaṇa of the Buddha, ca 3rd century, Gandhara, Pakistan.


Crossing the Hiraṇyavatī river (which is still called by that name, but a lot smaller than the original description), Buddha arrived at his destinantion, which was then called Śālavana (Skt. शालवन), or The Forest of Sal Trees. “Why you wish to come to Kuśāvatīnagara, all the way from Vaiśālī?”, Ānanda, Tathāgata’s attendant, asked. Tathāgata replied, “I came here to give refuge to a person.” He completed most of his final tasks here. Seeing the deteriorating condition, the students lamented, appealing to Buddha, “Without you, we would all be blind ones, without any sense of direction.” Tathāgata continued to guide their body, speech, and mind persistently according to his Dharma.


These teachings and accounts of this are contained in many sūtras, including Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.


On the day of his Mahāparinirvāa


In between, and under- the cool shadow of two big sal trees, on top of his ding ba (གདིང་བ་) (a specific type of cloth mat; a provisional guideline by Tathāgata approves seven clothing articles for ordained sangha member – this is one of the seven), Tathāgata lied down – his head, toward north; his feet, toward south; his face, toward west; his back, toward east; right arm under the right cheek; left arm laying straight-on, on the left hip – the posture is sometimes termed “the lion’s style”, borrowing the notion of Buddha as the “lion” of the two-legged beings, the supreme amongst humans.


The Last Person Receiving Refuge


Upon seeing a Jain teacher by the name of Subhadra, coming to meet Tathāgata, Ānanda stoped him. When Buddha was informed about who had come to meet him, Buddha announced: “Please let Subhadra enter, to see me. I came from Vaiśālī to Kuśāvatīnagara to give refuge to him.”


Thus, Subhadra became the last person taking refuge in Buddha in-person. At the gathering, Budda uttered his last words: “Sarva saṃskāra anitya apramādena sampādeya." – "All compounded phenomena are impermanent. The one with heedfulness (or conscientiousness), will obtain [the wisdom]." He then closed eyes for the last time.


The parinirvaṇa of the Buddha and attendant arhats, ca 1503, China.


In proper Mahāyāna terms: this was the closing of his twelve deeds of nirmāṇakāya display; the twelfth and the last deed. The final “act”, if you will. This event took place at dawn of the 15th day of Saga Dawa.


Cremation


For the next seven days, the Tathāgata’s body was venerated by devotees and students alike. It is believed that about 700,000 people, from various regions, gods and humans alike, gathered together to take part in the cremation. Taking the Tathāgata’s body out from the northern entryway of Śālavana, the procession marched toward a nearby grove named the Coronation Grove. Placing Tathāgata’s body atop the cremation pyre, all participants mourned and grieved. When the “first flame” was given to the pyre, the pyre did not burn. Shortly after, Mahākāśyapa, one of the senior student came to the gathering. After first leading the gathering’s body, speech, and mind in the right orientation, he offered the “first flame” once more, and the pyre rapidly glowed amber-red.


The Distribution of the Relics of the Buddha, 1st-2nd c. Gandhara, Pakistan.


This concludes the Saga Dawa Düchen pertinent life-events of the excellent teacher, Śākyamuni.


Other Important Accounts on the 15th day of Saga Dawa


There are some more accounts that also falls on the 15th day of Saga Dawa. Some of these records are found only in the Pāli canon:


• Yaśodharā was born on the 15th day of Saga Dawa,

• Ānanda, Tathāgata’s first cousin and attendant, was born on the 15th day of Saga Dawa,

• Kanthaka, Siddhārtha’s favorite white horse, which he rode passionately, was born on the 15th day of Saga Dawa,

• Chanda, Siddhārtha’s confidante and charioteer, was born on the 15th day of Saga Dawa,

• The Bodhi tree, under which Siddhārtha became Buddha 35 years later, germinated on the 15th day of Saga Dawa,

• Siddhārtha’s father King Śuddhodana successfully installed the seven treasury vases in his palace on the 15th day of Saga Dawa,

• Siddhārtha Gautama and his wife Yaśodharā got married on the 15th day of Saga Dawa.


 Aśoka Cakra, the Sun Temple, Konark, India.


The excellent teaching (Tib. ཆོས་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ་)


To commemorate this day, it is recommended to practice a series of excellent teachings. The followings are the highlights of the excellent teachings for Saga Dawa Düchen:


• taking refuge and developing bodhicitta,

• practicing the Four Immeasurables and tonglen,

• the Seven Branches,

• bringing the Buddha and his deeds into one’s mind by paying Homage to the deeds of the Buddha,

• recitation of a sūtra, the words of the Buddha,

• life-release or Treasury of Blessings,

• enunciating profound mantras and dhāraṇīs,

• meditating, in the best way we can meditate,

• dedicating, in the best way we can dedicate,

• making aspirations, in the best possible way.



The excellent place (Tib. གནས་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ་)


No, we are not in Bodh Gayā. No, we are not on Vulture Peak Mountain. But wherever we are in our respective countries, we are not deprived of Dharma. We are not deprived of teachers. We have all the necessary provisions to sustain our lives and to support our practices, including the ability to connect with the teachers and be guided by teachers, at lightning speed. Wherever we are, we are, therefore, in an excellent place.


Vajrapāni Attends the Buddha at His First Sermon, ca. 2nd century, Gandhara, Pakistan.


The excellent students (Tib. འཁོར་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ་)


No, we do not have the Eight Mahāsattvas, such as Avalokiteśvara or Mañjuśrī, who are attending to the Saṃbhogakāya Buddha in Akaniṣṭha. But we have a living teacher – Gyalwa Karmapa – who for us, is no less than Tathāgata. We have several authentic teachers, who are effortlessly teaching the pure wisdom passed down from Tathāgata. I also believe that we have some trainee bodhisattvas of varied acumen amongst us. At the least, we have many genuinely invested people, of all creeds and colors, with tremendous confidence in Tathāgata and his teachings, who are trying their best.


The excellent time (Tib. དུས་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ་)


Being a participant as one of the students of Tathāgata, listening to and attending to Tathāgata would be excellent! But no – we are not in Tathāgata’s time. Nevertheless, we are still able to access the teachings of Tathāgata. The timeless Dharma is still as valid as it was. Anytime when we wish to learn anything about the vast and profound teachings of the Buddha, we are able to do so, within a few seconds of finger movement. We are alive. Our faculties are supreme, better than gods, it is said. Our ability to help ourselves and others is not impaired. We must have had some merits in the past, due to which, we have the necessary conditions for awakening. We have qualified teachers for guidance. We have confidence in the guides. We also have the sets of methods for awakening well-preserved in the lineage – Karma Kagyu. We have sentient beings all around us for whom we need to cultivate the qualities, such as boundless compassion and loving-kindness. To the peeled eyes and altruistic hearts, there are abundance of references of suffering and cause of suffering. This is the right time!


Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā manuscript, ca 1511, Nepal.


Above all, we are precisely on the special day of Saga Dawa Düchen, commemorating the peerless teacher. This is the excellent time to practice! Initiated by our qualities, when we act on them, anytime is the right time, the excellent time!



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