A Tibetan friend just sent me this very nice digital eCard for the Tibetan holiday known as Losar. Losar (lo-gsar) means Year New.*
(I assume the eCard isn't under any copyright, but in any case its use in this blog is entirely non-commercial.)
(*unmarked adjectives come after their nouns, not before like in English. Where in English you say white house, in Tibetan you say house white. Get used to it.)
Sending Losar greeting cards is a new custom, unknown to traditional Tibet. So Losar eCards are needless to say much newer still. The absence of cards and eCards was no great loss back then. Believe me, there was plenty to do with family and friends living close by.
Today's (technically last night's) new moon begins the Earth Mouse year. In 1027 CE Tibet had its first rabjung (rab-byung) year. Well, the first year of the Jovian sixty-year cycle is called the rabjung year, a direct translation of Sanskrit prabhava. Tibetans use the name of the first year of the Jovian cycle for the entire set of sixty years as well. These Jovian cycles themselves are numbered. I would like to point out an interesting thing in the first line of the eCard. The first three syllables mean "Tibetan Royal Era year" followed by the number 2135,* then the four following syllables, "rabjung mountain moon," followed by a genitive ending, and the last four syllables of the first line, "earth mouse sky-year."
(*Tibetan numbers look a little different from Arabic and Indian forms of the numbers, but work in just the same way. It has become customary in recent times to give the Royal year. But let's try and be real for a moment. Traditional chronologies are by no means in agreement about when the first Emperor ruled Tibet. Modern historians see little use in giving an entirely dubious numeric value to this event.)
Now I can hear you saying, What the heck is this mountain moon about? Well, interesting that you ask, grasshopper. At least since the 10th century (if not as appears likely much earlier) when the Kalacakra ('Wheel of Tine') Tantra made its debut in India, there has been a custom, mainly in works on calculation and chronology, to use words in place of numbers. I call them numeric code-words. Mountain means 7. Why? Because there are 7 circles of mountains in traditional Abhidharma cosmology. Moon means 1. That's because the earth only has one moon. (Clearly, the system was not invented on Jupiter.) Why were code-words used instead of numbers? I don't know. It was an Indian tradition that Tibetans kept on following.
But then that would seem to translate into the number '71', wouldn't it? Wrong! When you make use of numeric code-words, the numbers are always (and I mean always) read from right to left. Mountain moon means 17. And why 17? you're thinking.
Ah! We are now in the 17th rabjung. Let's see. Well, the first rabjung started with the rabjung year, or Earth Hare year, that corresponds to 1027.* A lot happened in that year. Naropa is said to have died in India. The Kadampa teacher Potowa was born... But most relevant for us right now is the fact that the Kalacakra tantra was for the very first time translated, together with its most important commentary named Vimalaprabha, from Sanskrit into Tibetan language.
(*Csoma de Kőrös, a Hungarian traveler-scholar who is sometimes called the first Tibetologist, thought the first year of the first rabjung had begun in the year 1026. That's why for a few generations after him Tibetan dates when 'translated' were off by one year. Of course, even today Tibetan dates, when translated, may well be a year off because people fail to take into account the only partial overlap between the 'years' of the two calendrical systems.)
Herein lies a mystery. The number 60 is very important in Kalacakra. Kalacakra time measurement includes not only 60-year cycles, but there are actually 60 hours in a day. Uh huh, right, that means Kalacakra hours were only 24 minutes long, just enough for the TV sitcom after subtracting the time taken up by commercials; but yes, due to the degeneration of time, by now that might be more like 15 minutes for the commercials.
The Kalacakra itself lists Sanskrit names for each of the 60 years in the cycle. It does *not* name them for the animals and elements as Tibetans do. The truth is that Tibetans (just like their neighbors) most usually made use of the simpler 12-year animal cycle of years already in the middle of the 7th century or so. It might seem that they adjusted their customary 12-year cycle to conform with the Kalacakra by combining the 12 animals with the 5 elements. (But this would not be true. In fact, the earliest known use of a Jovian cycle or "sexagenary" date in Tibetan would be the Iron Ox year in the Sino-Tibetan Peace Treaty of 821-822 CE; see Uray's article for more.) The five elements were, perhaps surprising to some, not the five elements as known to the Greeks and Indians: earth, water, fire, air, ether. Instead, they used the five elements as known to China: fire, earth, iron, water, wood. When combined with the 12 animals, each element is repeated twice.
To illustrate this last point, the first year of the rabjung is the Fire Hare. The years that follow the Fire Hare are, in order: Earth Dragon, Earth Snake, Iron Horse, Iron Sheep, Water Monkey, Water Hen, Wood Dog, Wood Pig, Fire Mouse, Fire Ox, Earth Tiger, Earth Hare... You get the idea, I guess and hope. (You might have noticed that I've ignored the minor complication of the gender elements here.)
This year is 2008 CE, so 981 years have passed since 1027 CE. 981 divided by 60 equals 16.35, which puts us well into the 17th set of 60. In fact we are now entering into the 22nd year of the 17th rabjung, which started about this time of year in 1987 CE. The Sanskritic name of this year, according to the Kalacakra system, is Sarvadharin, which is Kun-'dzin when translated into Tibetan. It means Holder of All, which might be considered as an epithet of Shiva. Tibetans hardly ever make use of these Sanskritic year names, although they are sometimes encountered in the colophons of Tibetan books.
Now whether I've bored you to tears, or not, with all those numbers and calculations, I feel like I should say something about what I think Losar means to Tibetans. That's truly difficult, but why not give it a try... I'd say that if you know what Christmas means to most North Americans of Christian background, then you might start to understand just how important Losar is to Tibetans. Of course, the Tibetan observances are very much different. There is no Christmas tree with bulbs and tinsel, and wrapped gifts beneath. Still, the stacks of Kabtsé* on the altar along with the pot of freshly growing grass and the sheep's head made of porcelain mean every bit as much to the Tibetan soul as the Christmas tree to most Christians. Family. Togetherness. Warmth. Prosperity. Abundance. Food. Fun. All that and more.
(*Kabtsé is a kind of deep-fried bread, twisted into various pretzel-like shapes. The stacked-up plates, called derkha [sder kha] are usually further decorated with colorful objects, especially hard candies, which adds to the 'Christmas tree' illusion. One of my favorite fried bread shapes is the bongui amchog (bong-bu'i a-mchog), a name that translates as 'donkey ears.' These make me think of Haman's ears, eaten during the Israeli (and Jewish) holiday of Purim. Well, differences aside, at least it is another kind of pastry 'ear' eaten during a particular festivity.
The object depicted in the eCard is called the Droso Chemar (gro so phye mar). It is a box (called a bo ['bo]) with a wooden divider in the center, and two wooden 'tags', one sticking up on each side. Both sides are filled to overflowing (perhaps overly clearly symbolizing or demonstrating abundance). If you visit a Tibetan friend on Losar, which I hope you will, you will most likely be immediately invited to take from the box a pinch of chemar (phye mar), that means a slightly buttered flour (I think some people add sugar), which you toss in the air and shout Tashi Deleg! (bkra-shis bde-legs), a phrase you will probably hear a lot during the days of Losar, and not all that much in other parts of the year. You'll also almost certainly be offered a beaker or bowl of chang (chang), a bittersweet beer traditional to Tibet since the beginning of time, which when good, as it often is, has a slight lemony taste that lingers on your tongue. The beer vessel and your beaker will both be decorated with a generous dab of butter, which as you all know is a symbol of wealth and nourishment, even if you like me should be doing your best to eliminate it from your diet. Don't be surprised if you discover big white splatches of chemar all over your clothing. It happens. This is a very good thing.
I don't want to speak too much about the gambling and drinking and partying that goes on, and on, starting on the second day of Losar. Or too much about other things both seriously meaningful and fun, like dressing up in your best new clothes, hanging up strings of multicolored Wind Horse flags (rlung-rta), feasting on 'Nine Soup' dumplings with special gifts hidden inside (dgu-thug),* visiting temples, burning juniper incense (bsang) on the mountainside, and the like. Did I mention dancing? Yes, I guess I did.
(*The hidden objects are omens for what will happen to the person who happens to get them during the following year, although they may not be taken entirely seriously, but all in good fun. Here are the objects according to my understanding: The person getting a dumpling containing paper will be bookish and good in school (or a victim of theft?); wood means being like a poor man walking with a stick; a pebble means a lifespan as lasting as diamond; salt is cleverness and fame; wool is for disease; and cayenne pepper for a temperamental personality or a 'sharp tongue.' Charcoal of course means you will have 'dark thoughts.' Onion means you will have body odor. I guess that last one might be a result of eating it. There have to be nine. Did I miss something? Yes, I guess I did.)
Oh well, all that was just therapy for myself, isolated as I am in a place in the world without any Tibetan community. Please do send a comment to let me know how you celebrated Losar this year, and don't neglect to tell me and everyone else what it means to you. Correct my misunderstandings. This is one subject about which truly every single Tibetan is the ultimate expert, your best Tibetologist. Losar is something so good that it just keeps on going for many people. Although surely an exception, I met one Tibetan man who was still partying non-stop into the month of May. I'm thinking this was, is and would be just way too much of a good thing.
Last year Phayul news site had a very nice article about Losar by Phayul correspondent Phurbu Thinley (Phur-bu-phrin-las), which you can find here.
I think this is certainly one of the the best things there is on the subject on the entire internet. Highly recommended. But see also Tsepak Rigzin's (Tshe-dpag-rig-'dzin) article "Losar" posted at Tibettalk. Or if like me you prefer to read it in print, try Tsepak Rigzin, Festivals of Tibet, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (Dharamsala 1993), pp. 1-8. For an account of Losar observances with real photographs from pre-invasion Tibet, including an unforgettable shot of a rope-sliding demonstration about to take place with the Potala as the backdrop, see Hugh Richardson, Ceremonies of the Lhasa Year, Serindia (London 1993), pp. 11-22.
For more examples of numeric code-words derived from the Kalacakra, look here. And thanks to the strange ways inherent in synchronicity and interdependent origination, on Wednesday, February 06, 2008, PSz of Thor-bu blog made a list of Sanskrit numeric code-words (go here and scroll down past the mysterious ruins until you get to them).
If just for fun you would like to hear somebody's idea about what your Tibetan birth-year means for your personality, etc., look here.
(Beware! Tibetan prognostics are often anything but reassuring.)
Here is a lovely little essay about Tibetan astroscience* by one of it's leading 20th-century practitioners, Professor Jampa Gyaltsen Dagthon (1939-1997).
(*Tibetan rtsis, which is translated 'astroscience', actually means 'calculation' in general, and includes mathematics, astrology and astronomy, among other matters.)
Here is a useful chart of the Tibetan and CE correspondences covering 1027 through 2046.
Géza Uray, ‘The Earliest Evidence of the Use of the Chinese Sexagenary Cycle in Tibetan.’ Contained in: Louis Ligeti, ed., Tibetan and Buddhist Studies Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csoma de Körös, Akadémiai Kiadó (Budapest), pp. 341-360.
There are quite a few technical writings on astroscience (besides the article by Uray you see here), and its sub-branch of chronology. I'll list them for you some other time. There's a lion in my library that requires my immediate attention. Now where did I leave those tweezers?