Tibetans have been celebrating the new moon of the first month of the New Year for centuries in the meadows and fields and mountains of their Himalayan homeland. In the midst of winter, light and life are celebrated with Lo (year) Sar (new) – days of prayer and preparation, followed by days of feasting and fellowship.
Everywhere that Tibetans live, all over this amazing world, there is Losar, and the beauty and inspiration of centuries of tradition are being spread around the globe.
Here at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, seat of His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa in America, Tibetans and their friends from America and all over the world spend many days preparing for the feast of new life that is Losar.
Chapter One: Staff of Life
Tsampa (roasted barley flour) is a staple food on the Tibetan plateau. Preparing it as the offering of pure food for monastics doing pre-Losar prayers to Losar Mahakala is the task of many hours. We’re honored to have Lekshey Chonyi prepare our Losar tsampa. She creates it with a mix of old and new world methods.
Starting with whole barley grain and a pan full of hot sand, the barley is toasted to perfection by continuous motion.
After straining out the sand, the barley is put through a food mill (a time-saving improvement).
Prayer observances begin with Losar Mahakala (pre-Losar protector pujas.) Thanking the protectors for their assistance in the old year and requesting their help in the New Year is the function of the prayer services, which begin with a half-day service on an afternoon, followed by three days of pujas from before dawn until after dusk. Here, the finished tsampa is enjoyed with Tibetan butter tea during the first morning tea service at 5:30 a.m. in the Main Shrine Room.
Lama Choenyi carries a long-life arrow and a conical-shaped “chemar” – one of many ways tsampa is used in the Losar ceremonies.
On Losar Day itself, tsampa is handed out to participants after the first Losar morning puja – that of bodhisattva Green Tara, compassionate savioress – to toss into the air as an aspiration for aupsiciousness in the New Year.
After Losar Green Tara puja, participants offer white scarves (katas) to the throne of His Holiness Karmapa, and visit the golden chemar on the shrine to offer pinches of tsampa to His Holiness with a circling gesture.
Chapter 2: Wheatgrass and Butter Lamps
Light in the darkness of winter is symbolized by the farmer’s first crops (sprouted wheatgrass) and devotional lamps filled with clarified butter.
Sprouting grass in enough vessels for every shrine at KTD (that’s 8 shrines) starts 10 days before Losar – with Leksey’s loving hands.
KTD Abbot Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche strains clarified butter to fill one of many butter lamps offered during pre-Losar and Losar festivities.
Modern LED lamps take their place on the shrine as offerings for all Losar activities and pujas.
Finished sprouted wheatgrass grace the main shrine and library shrine at KTD.
Chapter 3: Every Inch of the Monastery Is Cleaned. Every Inch.
Before Losar, the old year’s dust is swept away to clear a path for a new beginning. How do you clean every inch of a large shrine room – including the ceilings and thangkas (paintings on fabric depicting deities)? With scaffolding, of course.
The main shrine display of the Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – includes an 11-foot-tall Buddha image on a 6-foot base and several side shrines. Shrine displays are disassembled, cleaned, and re-assembled. Even the crystals on our 108 lamps for World Peace are dusted. This effort takes the total involvement of every staff member, and some volunteers as well.
Chapter 4: Provisions for a Celebration
Eight shrines inside the Monastery are decorated for Losar – not just with tsampa and wheatgrass and lamps, but with candy, fruit, nuts, and other delicious holiday treats. In addition, we need to purchase rice to fill up every offering bowl, and flour, sugar, tea, cloth, and other items to offer in the pre-Losar fire offerings. The shopping team gets up early, and drives to Flushing and Jackson Heights in Queens, NY to do the Losar shopping, coming home with two carloads of merchandise.
Chapter 5: Khapsay – the Beauty of a Fried Confection
In the days before Losar, a team of volunteers gathers on an auspicious day to make khapsay, the flour-and-sugar fried cookies that are stacked high on Losar shrines and individual tables. The process takes an entire day and includes making the dough, forming ornate shapes that are filled with tradition. Whether tending the fryer or making the dough, everyone joins in the work. Singing songs and enjoying a hearty lunch of chili salad and pizza helps keep the workers going. Among the volunteers are the Karmapa Service Society of New York.
Completed khapsay are stored in boxes and carried to the shrines, where they are artfully stacked to make a beautiful and bountiful display.
Chapter 6: Making Torma Offerings, Setting Up the Shrines
During the three and a half days of Protector pujas that precede Losar Day, hundreds of tormas – ritual offerings made of grain, water, oil and butter – are prepared in the KTD torma room. Monastics and lamas from KTD and the Karme Ling Retreat Center spend hours creating, painting, and ornamenting the offerings. Each has a different meaning, and all symbolize our respect for our dharma and local protectors. Hundreds of pounds of rolled oats are used each year for the basic dough.
Small “bultor” offerings, which are blessed and taken outdoors at various parts of the ceremonies for offering, are made in large groups.
Larger offerings stay on the shrine throughout the pre-Losar and Losar ceremonies. They are made of special dough that is more resilient and resists cracking. The shapes, colors, and ornamentation for these offerings were devised by awakened masters of the past, and carry great blessing. Red and white tormas are prepared for the protectors.
A major effort is put into creating the Kangsol, a 13-torma arrangement for the top of the Mahakala shrine. Through determination and great energy by all, 13 tormas and their ornaments are finished in a single day.
Meanwhile, permanent protector tormas made of modeling material and painted by Lama Choeyni of Karme Ling Retreat Center wait for unpacking.
A vivid portrait of His Holiness the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa watches over the library.
The large Losar shrines are temporary, and are built in the days before the pre-Losar Mahakala pujas begin. Shrine pujas tables, boxes, and even a dining room table are arranged, covered with brocade, and soon become a splendid Losar Mahakala shrine. A Mahakala protector thangka completes the shrine.
Shrine assembly is personally supervised by KTD Abbot Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.
A hint of things to come arrives on the 25th lunar day of the last lunar month of the old year. While shrines and tormas are being prepared, the monthly Karma Pakshi Gurusadhana is performed with a generous tsok feast.
Chapter 6B: An Auspicious Offering – New Permanent Protector Tormas
One of the more colorful aspects of a Tibetan shrine are the tormas – sculptures of flour and butter that can either stand for a Buddha, bodhisattva or protector or represent a food offering to a Buddha, bodhisattva or protector.
The main protector of the Karma Kagyu tradition is Mahakala, and KTD has a special shrine room dedicated to him. But there also is a representation of Mahakala in KTD’s Green Tara Shrine room, and Lama Choenyi of the Karme Ling Retreat Center has created a complete set of Gonpo (Protector) Mahakala Choepa (Offering) Tormas for the Green Tara Shrine.
A dedicated ritual artist, Lama Choenyi spent 18 months creating the eight new tormas (some of which are more than 12 inches tall and weigh more than 10 pounds). In the process, she learned a lot about the most cutting-edge methods and materials used in the ancient art of torma-making: she experimented with special air-dry clay and used modern technology (including a pasta kneading machine) to combine different types of Fimo modeling compound to create the flower-like ornaments on the outer skin of the torma.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche was delighted with the work, and took special care in filling each and every Torma with blessing substances. They will be radiating blessings for many years to come.
The new permanent tormas and the dough-and-butter Kangsol tormas share the beautiful Mahakala Shrine. Khenpo Rinpoche is pleased.
Chapter 7: Losar Mahakala Puja
Preparing 50 pounds of tsampa – for using in Losar shrines, placing in fire offerings, and providing nourishment for monastics through three days of pujas (prayer recitations) – is a labor of love and a source of virtuous karma for all involved!
Preparing Tupa for breakfast, served in the main shrine room.
Tibetan tea and veggie pali, first day offering by Leksheyla.
The Losar Mahakala choppon and choyuk.
Losar Mahakala lamp offerings.
The Vietnamese community offers breakfast.
The abundant and colorful Losar Mahakala Tsok (feast).
The drachoe torma is offered outside on a stone away from any disturbance.
Chapter 8: Sang Smoke Offering Puja
The day after the Mahakala protector pujas end – the last day of the year, before Losar – is dedicated to creating auspiciousness for the New Year. Creating auspiciousness involves reciting scriptures, prayers and names of the Buddha, and making auspicious offerings to enlightened beings and local protectors. The Sang (smoke offering) collects fragrant woods, incense, medicinal herbs and spices, foodstuffs, gem powder and silk threads and offers those to smoking coals that create billowing smoke that pleases all beings. As the master of the ceremony imagines all beings enjoying a feast of goodness, plate after plate of Sang offering substance (topped with offering tormas) is carried to the smoking coals for a fruitful offering.
Lamas from Karme Ling mix all the offering substances by hand; masks are worn to protect the purity of the offerings.
Tending the smoking coals in the Monastery Courtyard takes skill and patience. Juniper boughs are used to produce a sweet smell.
Many pounds of Sang offering substance are packed onto mounds on plates and topped with silk flags and dough medallions. Volunteers carry them out with a tea chalice to the sound of cymbals, horns, and drums. The feast of offering has begun!
Out the door of the Main Shrine …
…. And to the smoking coals.
The offering is fed to the smoking coals for the benefit of all beings!
Overhead, the sun and clouds reflect the play of auspiciousness dedicated in the pujas by forming rainbows around the sun and dots of light. These signs indicate the success of the purification of all negative karma of all sentient beings.
Lama Choenyi, as a shrine master for the puja, carries the long-life arrow around the smoking coals with chemar, Losar tsampa. The roasted barley flour is then shared with all participants to share the auspiciousness, while horns play on the front steps of the Monastery.
Deep rumbling radung horns and high piercing gyaling horns play as all participants circle the fire tossing juniper boughs on the smoking coals and shouting “Lha Gyal Lo” – may all be victorious for us!
The smell of juniper pervades the monastery courtyard. The offering is complete!
Chapter 9: Losar Green Tara
Days of pujas and prayers and cleaning and arranging offerings are done. Losar dawns with a cold sky filled with sunlit clouds. A New Year, a new energy is stirring.
Outdoors it’s cold, but in the main shrine room, a separate shrine holds offerings for Green Tara, the feminine aspect of compassion. She’s called “the quick one, without fear,” and her practice is done first thing on Losar morning to dispel obstacles for the New Year. All the offerings are fresh and beautiful, to accumulate the virtue of the bodhisattva.
Heralding the New Year with the sound of gyaling horns.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche visits the Losar offering table before His Holiness Karmapa’s throne…
… then casts a white offering scarf upon the main shrine’s Buddha image …
… before making offering and receiving blessing from His Holiness.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s table, piled high with khapsay offering and ceremonial tea (Tibetan butter tea) and rice (sweet saffron rice).
KTD President Tenzin Chonyi, his wife Lekshey and sister Wangchen Pema share offerings at Losar Green Tara.
Ceremonial sweet saffron rice and Tibetan butter tea are first offered to His Holiness Karmapa and then offered to Rinpoche and all guests.
President Tenzin Chonyi greets more than 100 guests with a welcome speech. Guests began arriving for Tara at 8 a.m., and continued to arrive through the special luncheon after the morning’s ceremonies were done.
Losar Green Tara Puja
Serving tea and rice is great merit for all ages!
Chanting Karmapa khyenno mantras, guests line up to present offerings to His Holiness Karmapa.
Paths worn in the heavy snow of the courtyard made the traditional tossing of tsampa (Remember the barley flour roasted in the early days of the pre-Losar planning period?) a treat as guests formed the shape of a heart – in the heart of His Holiness’ monastery.
The golden chemar full of tsampa sits before the Tara shrine, ready for guests to take a pinch to toss in the air for offering and auspiciousness. Saffron tints every water bowl, creating a golden display.
Chapter 10: A Celebration to Remember
In the KTD kitchen, led by Josephine, the cooks are working on the enormous vegetarian feast that will be given to guests at lunchtime.
Losar Green Tara puja is followed by other prayers and celebrations. Children play in the gathering areas and after lunch, a small stage appears next to the Lama Table for musical guests to perform.
Khenpo Tenkyong and dharma students perform White Tara’s Long Life mantra for Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.
Lama Karma Drodhul chants a prayer for Khenpo Rinpoche.
Tenzin Chonyi’s Tibetan comic opera is an audience favorite.
Ryan’s banjo and Max’s mouth-harp playing enchanted the children.
Young people offer music and dances to Khenpo Rinpoche’s delight.
The Tran family offered a delicious Vietnamese meal at the end of the day on Losar. May All Beings Benefit!
Chapter 11: A Meaningful End to a Beautiful Offering
From the first moments of Losar Shopping to the 8th Day of the New Year, activities at KTD may pause briefly, but never stop. Some quiet days follow the festivities of Losar Day, but five days into the New Year, KTD hosts its annual Four-Session Guru Yoga by Mikyo Dorje retreat. People come from all over the country (and the world) to sit for seven days of retreat, reciting the Guru Yoga of the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje four times a day. The power of this sadhana to purify negativity is strong, and people feel a great blessing reciting “Karmapa Khyenno” with Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and the lamas of KTD and Karme Ling.
But on the third day of the retreat – the 8th Day of Losar – the Four-Session Guru Yoga by Mikyo Dorje retreat practice is paused so that all of the Losar Offerings can be placed in a great bonfire accompanied by chanting and ritual music. “The human beings have already had their Losar,” said Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, who began the tradition of “Phurab” fire offerings, or sang, several years ago. “Now it is time for the nonhuman beings to have their Losar.”
The chemars full of tsampa, the mountains of stacked khapsay cookies, candies, fruit, nuts – and even the giant Green Tara Torma and the 13 large Kangsol Protector tormas made in a single day – all of these precious offerings are stacked up on large tables in the center of the shrine room and slowly carried out to an enormous fire burning in the courtyard.
As prayers for the removal of obstacles, the expansion of virtue, and the protection of dharma are recited, tray after tray of offerings – purchased with devotion, made with love and care in accordance with old tradition – are fed to the roaring flames. Like the sweeping of the sand mandala at the end of a ceremony, the grand offerings are blessed with meditation and prayer, and transformed into merit through the constant miracle of impermanence.