Tsagaan Sar – Mongolia’s lunar New Year’s

On February 22, Mongolia will celebrate Tsagaan Sar, the first day of the new year according to the Buddhist Lunar calendar. The ‘Year of the Iron Rabbit’ has finished and the ‘Water Dragon Year’ begins. Each year is connected with one of the 12 animals in the lunar circle of 12 years. These animals are always combined with elements and colors, and the coming year of a Water Dragon is commonly called ‘The Year of the Dragon’ in Western terms. It is one of the most positive and strongest of all of the twelve star signs.
The Dragon is the Fifth animal in the cycle, Dragon Years follow the Rabbit and recur every twelfth year. The Dragon is a symbol of good fortune and a sign of intense power. In the Oriental philosophy, the Dragon is said to be a deliverer of good fortune and a master of authority. Therefore, those people born in Dragon years are to be honored and respected.
Therefore a Dragon year is considered as one that brings happiness and good fortune.
The day before Tsagaan Sar is time to clean and prepare for the approaching New Year; be it in the family or in the monasteries. From the Buddhist point of view it’s a time for purification, especially to purify negative karma accumulated in the past.
Early in the morning of the New Year it’s tradition for some people to climb on top of a mountain to see the first sunrise of the New Year. Tsagaan Sar has been celebrated in Mongolia for many centuries and started at the time of Chinghis Khaan.
Only later, the celebration became a Buddhist Festival too. In the past it always showed a deep combination of Mongolian customs and Buddhism. Tsagaan Sar is also a family festival lasting several days. Traditionally, besides cleaning, the festival should start with feasting on the night of the new moon. Then, everybody dresses up nicely in traditional clothes. In the morning after the New Moon, people visit first the eldest person of the family and their parents. It is a good opportunity to renew family ties and to introduce new members to others.
When people meet, the younger greets the elders in a special way, in an arm-hold embrace (zolgokh), symbolizing veneration and support. This gesture is combined with the exchange of the traditional blue scarf (khadag) folded in a special way with the folded edge facing the elder person, symbolizing trust.
Gifts are exchanged and normally given and received with both hands, or with the right hand supported at the elbow by the left. Every family has some offering prepared for people visiting. Nobody leaves without having received something to eat and to drink, having taken something from the offering and having received a gift – it’s tradition that one shouldn’t give only one gift, so people give two or three gifts.
Besides visiting family members and friends, many Mongolians go to the monasteries to pray, make offerings and receive blessings from a holy place.
For any Buddhist, it is advisable to concentrate as much as possible on improving the mind during the first 15 days after Tsagaan Sar. There are specific practices recommended. Some people take the eight Mahayana Precepts every day, abstaining from any non virtuous action, including eating meat, drinking alcohol, singing or dancing or eating after noon and more than once the day. Practicing morality doesn’t mean to follow blindly some rules handed down by Buddha or some wise man, but to understand the nature if the mind and realizing which actions bring happiness and which ones bring only suffering in the long run.
In Tibet the New Year is called Losar. Depending on the calculation of the astrologers it’s on the same date as the Mongolian New Year, or at a different date. This year Losar will be celebrated at the same day like Tsagaan Sar.
In the Tibetan tradition, Losar is celebrated for 15 days, with the main celebrations on the first three days. It was the Great Teacher Lama Tsong Khapa who started in 1409 the Great Prayer Festivals (called Monlam), beginning from the first new moon until the full moon of the lunar New Year.
The main purpose of the Great Prayer Festival is to pray for long life of all the holy Gurus of all traditions, for the survival and spreading of the Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha - in the minds of all sentient beings, and for world peace. The prayers, offered with strong faith and devotion, help to overcome obstacles to peace and generate conducive conditions for everyone to live in harmony.
That time of the year was chosen because Lama Tsong Khapa firmly believed in the life story of the founder, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha as told in the Indian Buddhist Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish called ‘Overcoming the Six Teachers:’ “Buddha was challenged by six rival teachers to a contest of miraculous performances. For many years, Buddha evaded their challenges, letting people believe that he was afraid of their magical powers, losing his royal patrons, and causing doubts and worries to grow among the people. Finally, in the city of Shravasti, Buddha accepted the challenge and stood before a huge assembly of people from the entire central north Indian area. He proceeded to perform miracle after miracle during the first fortnight of the lunar New Year. The rival teachers were eclipsed almost immediately, as Buddha produced
spectacular manifestations. He threw down a toothpick and grew a giant wish granting gem tree. He rinsed his mouth with scented water, and celestial lakes with divine ducks and jewel lotuses appeared. He concentrated and emitted rays of light, and hosts of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and gods filled the skies.
Teachings of liberation and awakening, reverberating in every language known to man, illumined the minds of all assembled. He even manifested a vision of himself multiplying infinitely, his compassionate energy becoming clearly present to everyone’s awareness.”

Ueli Minder, adviser and teacher at the Mongolian Buddhist organization ASRAL NGO




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