Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hare Year Greetings

Miniature from a manuscript of the Jataka stories that were written by the Third Karmapa

Well, at long last Losar, Tibetan New Year, is nearly upon us. (Don’t panic. I said nearly. You’ve still got time to deep fry those kabtse.)

It might sound too much like a shampoo commercial if I  were going to wish you a Happy Hare Year. Anyway, in the interest of precision, Tibetans don’t wish people a “happy” year. They like to share both the happiness and the sorrow of their friends and family. What they do wish is something they call tashi (bkra-shis), and we might call auspiciousness. Auspiciousness has to do with auspices, meaning a good outlook from a divination. In Italy they call it Auguri and, so, are wont to say “Buon auguri!”  This makes me think of things auguring well for the future as I believe they must. But Tibetan tashi translates Sanskrit mangala, and I believe it does mean auspiciousness in the sense of sign of good things to come.

Buddhaghosa, the famous 5th-century Pāli commentator (or, as I’ve been told, the committee of commentators that passes under his name), analyzes auspiciousness into three kinds, auspicious sights, auspicious sounds and auspicious scents and textures.  Among the sights that are auspicious to see first thing in the morning he mentions, a bird of prey, a bilva sprout, a pregnant woman, a youth, a full pitcher, a fresh fish, a thoroughbred horse or a carriage pulled by the same, a bull, a cow, and so on.  I wonder if he would consider a rabbit auspicious to see in the morning. Well, of course I mean one that was not running away from what little remains of your lettuce patch.

We’ve discussed already the difference between the hare and the rabbit. Some regard this as quite the crucial distinction. I managed to get myself in over my neck by offering the merest suggestion there may be some truth to rabbit parthenogenesis, as you probably remember (I for one will never forget it). Maybe that was why Ownerless Donkey excited so many comments, not just that rabbits are the most popular of animals.

To go back to the subject of auspiciousness, I once translated a brief explanation of the symbolism of the Eight Auspicious Symbols by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in which He draws out their more profoundly Buddhist meanings. In my translation I haven’t tried to tone down the tone of it, as you will see. Read slowly.  Slowly, I said.

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The Eight Auspicious Symbols

The reason and need for putting the eight auspicious symbols in various painted and sculpted forms in temples, in town and countryside, in buildings and homes:

1.         The Parasol made of Precious Substances: a sign of starting an extensive festival of cool shade of comfort and betterment, shielded from the oppressive heat of temporary and longlasting sufferings including, in the present lifetime, unfortunate accidents and obstructions; in future lives, the sufferings of gods and men and the three lower realms -- animal, preta and hell realms.
2.         The Golden Fish: a sign that just as small fish swim through the ocean fearlessly wherever they please, we as well as others are able to move without fear of sinking in the ocean of sufferings and go, on our own power, from comfort to comfort with nothing getting in the way.
3.         The Vase of Great Treasures: a sign of the satisfaction of never seeing the end of all the things for which one wishes, the blessings of cessasion of suffering along with those of life in the three realms (desire, form and non-form), including long life, glory and wealth.
4.         The Lotus: a sign that without any impurity from faults of the ten non-virtues, the petals of pure virtues open free and relaxed while we imbibe at our ease the honey-like sap of resting assured of longlasting comfort.
5.         The Rightwise Spiraling Conch: a sign of goading us into action for the comfort and betterment of ourselves and others, arousing beings from the sleep of unaware ignoring by broadcasting the lovely sounds of Dharma, profound or detailed as it may be to suit the constitutions and inclinations of those capable of spiritual involvement.
6.         The Endless Knot: a sign that religious and secular are joined in an interactive chain, one helping the other along; similarly with the integration of method and insight on the Path to Enlightenment, of Voidness and interdependent origination paired without opposing each other, as well as of knowledge and love in the experience of the Goal of Buddhahood.
7.         The Victory Banner: a sign of the victory of all our own and others' actions of body, speech and mind over the oppressive weight of unfortunate accidents and obstructions, and of the complete victory of the Buddha's precious teachings over the dark delusionary forces.
8.         The Golden Wheel: a sign that, by relying on the precious wheel of the holy Dharma preached and realized by the Buddha which turns unceasingly through all realms of the universe, all beings work for the power and beauty of goodness with no strings attached.

Wherever the eight auspicious symbols are found, it is a sign of the multiplying of good signs and good fortune in that place.

7His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Eight Auspicious Symbols, Mongolian painting; HAR 50808

If you have gone to homes, monasteries or events of the Tibetan communities around the world and haven’t noticed these symbols at every turn, it’s a sign you haven’t been paying very much attention.

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Himalayan Art has a delightful page devoted to a Mongolian hare painting that looks just like this:

See this page; then go here and look in upper left hand corner.

On the Himalayan Art page I just linked there is a very cool graphic showing how you are supposed to see the hare in the moon. Many Americans (I know, I’ve experimented with them) try and fail to see it. They are used to seeing the Man, not the Hare. Funny thing is I’ve always seen a very different hare shadow on the moon (well, at least since I was in highschool), one with two distinct and very tall ears sticking up. I think if we can’t even see the same rabbit (or hare) in the moon (not to mention those poor dears incapable of seeing any rabbit at all), it could be a good analogy to illustrate why it is that any two of us are not seeing the same world despite our appearing to share it.

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Sources of auspiciousness:

Barbara O’Brien, The Jataka Tale of the Selfless Hare.  Look here. If you want to read the complete unedited story, you can't do better than Peter Khoroche’s translation made directly from the original Sanskrit. It’s chapter six in his Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Ārya Śūra's Jātakamāla, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1989).

Charles Hallisey, Auspicious Things, contained in: Donald S. Lopez, ed., Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press (Princeton 1995), pp. 413‑426. The sutta translated here appears to be Buddhaghosa's source for the list of auspicious sights (see p. 416). There are lots of brief Maṅgalastotra and Maṅgalagāthā texts in the Tibetan Kanjur, but I don't know that anyone studied them, do you?

If you would like a longer, more detailed explanation of the Eight Auspicious Symbols, go to Dagyab Rinpoche's book Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture: An Investigation of the Nine Best-Known Groups of Symbols, Wisdom (Boston 1995).

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The frontispiece has a Tibetan label reading Ri-bong Dben-pa-la Dga'-ba, or, Rabbit who Loves Solitude. It isn’t the same story as the 6th chapter of the Jātakamāla of Āryaśūra.  It’s chapter 43 in the continuation written by the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorjé (1284‑1339). If I had more energy, I would look it up in this book: The Tibetan Rendering of the Jātakamālā of Āryaśūra, Supplemented with 67 Additional Jātaka Stories by the Third Karma-pa Rang-byung-rdo-rje, "reproduced photographically from a rare manuscript preserved in the library of the Stog Rgyal-po of Ladakh," Kagyud Sungrab Nyamso Khang (Darjeeling 1974), in two volumes.

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You may not have noticed over in the sidebar, but PSz of Thor-bu blog gave Tibeto-logic one of those highly coveted Liebster awards. This is a kind of pyramidal scheme, which is to say you are supposed to pass it on to 3 or 5 (there seems to be no agreement) of your favorite (or most loved, as I believe the name means) small blogs with less than 300 followers (Tibeto-logic certainly meets this last qualification). I decided to pass mine on to only two blogs that I believe deserve more attention. I mean first of all The Lost Yak blog by Geoff. Go there and have a look. Geoff has a talent for writing directly to the subject, no messing around. I would also recommend you aim your browser at a special blog that sees Tibetan culture as something that bears weight, that is made up of all kinds of marvelous or even auspicious substances. The name itself, Sitahu, is one of those substances. It has a very useful collection of links. And if you are the writer of the Lost Yak or of Sitahu, Hey! This badge is for the two of you! You don’t have to pass it on to anyone if you don’t want to.  Nothing bad will happen. Just the contrary, you should take it as a sign that good things will be coming your way.


  1. Endless Thanks!


  2. Hi Tan-Tan,

    Hope all is well and prospects are looking good.


  3. Tashi Delek phunsumtsog/
    amaputrug kukhamsang/
    tendu dewa thobparshog//

    Here it seems Losar is exclusively for mothers and children. This is how the Central Tibetans ("bod pa") wish one another during Losar.

    Amdos do not talk about "tashi". They simply say, Losar zang! (meaning happy losar!)

    Kampas, espcially in the Karze regions, call losar, Chöksum (meaning 13). They say, Chöksum zang!

    So, not all Tibetans wish "mangal" during Losar, let alone calling it a Tibetan way of wishing a happy losar.

  4. Dear Anon.,

    Thank you for the clarification and for cutting through my central-Tibetano-centrism, which I try over and again to overcome. I have trouble still with matching the word happiness with a particular Tibetan word. Does dewa mean happiness or something more like comfort and ease? And gawa? Is it joy? And does zang in Amdo and Kandze mean 'happy' or, like in old classical Tibetan just 'good'? And why do Kandze people wish a 'Good Thirteen'?

    Full and perfect auspiciousness and good comfort.
    Good health for mother and child.
    May you obtain permanent comfort.

    Does that seem like a fair translation of the good wishes at the beginning of your comment? (I only try to hack out a quick translation for the benefit of readers who don't read Roman phonetic Tibetan.)

    Thanks for writing. This year I ought to be in a place where Losar is celebrated for a change. We'll have both a happy and an auspicious one.


  5. Go to any Tibetan regions surrounding Xining or Chengdu, and you will see a Losar celebration very different from the one in Utsang and Ngari. You know what? Ngariwas say "Tayi Dha lak", which must be "Tashi Delek" in Zhangzhung accent or Zhangzhungized Tibetan.

    They call it Chöksum because the celebration lasts for 13 days and the 13th day is a big festival with horse race etc.

    Now, the most difficult thing you asked: the meaining of "zang" or "zong". Myi zonpo, Karpa (kelpa) zongpo, could mean good man and good age (golden age). I don't remember a case where it can be used in the sense equivalent to Shimo (kyipo), or dhemo or dheshi (dhekyi). So what is normally understood in everyday life perhaps is:

    Shimo (kyipo)=happy
    dheshi (dhekyi)= health+happiness=comfort/ease

    Losar zong, literally should be "Good Losar", but is bad/strange English (isn't not?)

    Good New Year
    Good Christmas

    instead of

    Merry Christmas
    Happy New Year

  6. Dear Anon,

    Thank you so much. So very enlightening. Good wishes for a happy (skyid-po) and auspicious (bkra-shis) Losar!


  7. Dear D,

    I thought you might like to know, or be reminded, that a wellknown Nepalese Tibetologist by the name of Ramesh Dhungel wrote a short piece on auspiciousness and its symbols in the journal of the CNAS. The link is here:

    It's freely available.



  8. Thanks for reminding me, Anon!


  9. For some reason when I try to go to the Lost Yak blog ( I get a message that it has been made "private" and can only be accessed by those who are invited to see it. You even are given a box to fill in with your login name and secret password. In retaliation I have decided to revoke its Liebster Award. I think this is only fair.



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