Story of the Tibetan Buddhist festival of Lhabab Duchen
While the rest of the world goes on its way with the usual secular and religious holy days of November — Veterans Day, All Saints, All Souls, the Day of the Dead and Thanksgiving — our friends in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism have a wonderful festival this month known as Lhabab Duchen.
It traditionally falls on the 22nd day of the ninth lunar month on the ancient Tibetan calendar.
This year it will fall on our secular calendar’s Nov. 20 It’s a great and powerful day for good deeds and it is held in special reverence in Tibet. This year it lands only two days before our Thanksgiving.
Tibetan Buddhists are part of the larger Mahayana Buddhist traditions, which elevates the Buddha to a cosmic level and places special veneration on the life and spiritual good deeds of the Buddha. Tibetans celebrate four such days, each focused on an important part of the Buddha’s life and work.
To understand the significance of Lhabab Duchen, perhaps a little bit of Buddhist back story is necessary. In the sixth century B.C., an Indian nobleman named Siddhartha Gautama engaged on a spiritual quest in which he sought the meaning of human life in general, and in particular he wished to find the path to freedom from reincarnation. After many days of spiritual struggle and meditation, he became the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, who had found this dharma, or teaching. This much is accepted by most Buddhists.
Tibetan Buddhists add to the story, saying that in his 41st year of life, the Buddha ascended to the 33rd heaven, where the gods reside.
Lhabab Duchen is the day when the Buddha returned to the earth after visiting that 33rd level of the heavens. While on that exalted level, the Enlightened One gave spiritual teachings to the gods. He also honored his mother by freeing her from Samsara, or the wretched cycle of endless rebirth based on karma, which Buddhists and Hindus regard as the difficult fate of mankind.
While the gods are at this high level, there is also desire present. Since desire is the force that dooms all to rebirth, the Buddha preached to the gods to assist them.
From a Western perspective it is worth noting that this wonderful story places the Buddha’s mother so highly that she resides with the gods themselves, and the Buddha is superior to the deities, which says a great deal about how highly he is regarded.
While in that high place, the Buddha also encountered one of his closest followers whom he had taught while on earth, a disciple named Maudgalyayana. This arhat, or perfected soul, had been murdered on earth by robbers, but his spiritual status was so exalted that he was free from rebirth. While the Buddha was in the 33rd heaven, Maudgalyayana had previously been preaching to the dead on how to escape the chains of karma. Now, out of compassion, he called on the Buddha to return to his earthly mission, so that he could share his teachings with men and women.
After a considerable debate, the Buddha agreed to return to the earth at the next full moon. When this occurred, Vishvakarma, whom Tibetans regard as the god of machines, created a triple ladder made of beryl, gold and silver, on which the Buddha descended back to the earth to continue his mission.
This return is regarded as one of the eight greatest deeds of the Buddha by Tibetans, and it was done out of compassion for humanity. It is this descent back to our troubled world which is celebrated on Lhabab Duchen.
Tibetan Buddhists regard Lhabab Duchen as “Buddha multiplying day.” This means that any compassionate or righteous action performed on this day is multiplied by 10 million in its spiritual power. On this day in actual history and modern times, pilgrims will visit Buddhist monasteries, particularly at Lhasa, which they regard most sacred.
Pilgrims will there prostrate themselves on the ground before the sacred images and burn incense to the gods, and some will paint ladders on the rocks nearby. The monks will chant special prayers, which are listened to by the faithful with considerable devotion.
Compassionate acts can be done across the world, such as lighting sacred lamps, because when the Buddha was in the heavens the faithful lighted light awaiting his return.
Reciting prayers is very important because special benefits accrue to those who recite the “Sutra of Remembering the Three Jewels,” a basic creed, which includes the words, “In nirvana where all suffering is transcended he does not abide; his abode is in the very summit of perfection, residing in that place where he perceives all living beings. Such are the sublime qualities that are the greatness of the Buddha, Victorious, Virtuous, and Transcendent.”
Most of all, the Tibetans believe that being generous with alms for the poor brings particular good karma and blessings.
In the West, perhaps we might smile at the simple belief that on one special day, all good deeds are 10 million times more valuable than those done on any other day.
But to some wretched soul who receives an urgently need gift of alms or act of compassion, perhaps the righteous act is worth infinitely more than words can say.