Let it be observed, that slovenliness is no part of religion; that neither this, nor any text of Scripture, condemns neatness of apparel. Certainly this is a duty, not a sin. “Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness.”
-John Wesley, “On Dress”, 1791
Searching for some spiritual inspiration for mid-March, it is difficult to come up with much.
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, Lent starts Monday with “clean Monday”. If you’re into that, there are Kyra Sarakosti or Lady Lent cookies, plus you can eat a lot of shrimp and octopus and fly kites.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, Lent is already well underway, and this Sunday is the “Fourth Sunday of Lent”, or “Laertare Sunday” which is celebrated with pink priest vestments, and a relaxing of some Lenten prohibitions, like flowers on the altar. Laertare means “rejoice” in Latin, after the reading for the day, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her.” (Isaiah 66:10-11) I can’t say I really like Jerusalem; for one thing, it’s expensive, but I suppose everyone should see it at least once.
Nothing in particular going on in Judaism. In Islam, Lailat al Miraj was two days ago. In the pagan tradition, spring equinox is not until March 20.
Which brings us around to the Asian traditions, in particular, Losar, the Tibetan New Year observed in Nepal and elsewhere. This looks promising.
There are at least three types of Losar: Sonam Lhosar, observed in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and India, which began on February 12; Tamu Losar, of the Tamu, or Gurung, people of central Nepal, which is December 30 of each year; and Ghyalpo Losar, a Tibetan New Year observed in Nepal mostly by the Sherpa, Tibetan, Tamang, Bhutia and Yolmo people, beginning on March 13 in 2021, and lasting two weeks. Ah yes, the Sherpa guides are the ones who know the way up Mount Everest — spring must come late at that high elevation. Ghyalpo Losar it is.
According to ancient lore, Losar was first celebrated when an old woman named Belma who introduced the measurement of time based on the phases of the moon. In ancient times, people went to the local spring to perform rituals of gratitude. Offerings were made to the Nagas, or water spirits, who activated the water element in the area, and smoke offerings were made to the local spirits associated with the natural world. These rituals took place for an entire month leading up to new year’s day.
Good for Belma, inventing time, and thus an excuse for a feast. I also understand that in the Nepali ethnic groups, it is the women who have control over the brewing. The naga of course is a snake, and is absolutely huge in Buddhism, frequently adorning stairs leading up to the temple entrance.
The basic new year ritual consists of first, getting rid of the old year… taking this from the Nepali Wikipedia… 2-3 days before Losar the house and fire are cleaned, the garbage buried at a crossroads to get rid of bad energy, broken things discarded and the leftover food thrown away. Then on the 29th day of the outgoing (lunar) year, two days before Losar the family eats guthuka (or guthuk) soup (after offering a libation to the gods) with nine kinds of beans, and objects hidden in it according to the number of family members – the objects predict their disposition for the coming year (for example, wood means heartless). There is much “chhaang,” a heated beer. Then at midnight the new year comes in, and they go to the local well, perform ablutions, and bring water back as an offering, then do some purifications with incense. The second day is the main celebration, special dances, putting up new prayer flags on the stupas. The third day is party.
But wait, what is this? “Gyalpo Losar does not occur in 2021″? Who decides — a COVID committee? And what is this: “The second day of Losar is known as King’s Losar (gyalpo losar).” This is so confusing? But if you ask google what day is Gyalpo Losar, it will tell you Sunday, March 14. And there is a new moon on Mar 13, 2021 at 5:21 am.
So it appears the information we have is either incorrect or incomplete. Yet, I feel we must press on. Spiritual enlightenment is so hard to come by in March, and with COVID we need it more than ever. Also, religious traditions have always been borrowed and repurposed, since the beginning of time. We could do a lot worse than to emulate the Sherpa woman Belma, who invented time itself, and thus a feast. We must look at these traditions and see if they promise any goodies for us. Perhaps for the switch to daylight savings time.
So here are the accouterments for the Sherpa new year: “…Of all the new year purchases, green barley shoots, auspicious sheep head, colorful butter sculptures, Chemar box and fried Khapse pastry” are the must-have…”
So let’s break this down. Here are the Chemar box and butter sculptures. These are made by Tibetan nuns in India. (You remember the Dalai Lama and his entourage was exiled to India? Those nuns.)
The “auspicious sheep head” I think we can forget, in sheep communities they have a little sheep statue, in pig farming communities it’s a small pig statue. We would probably need a burger-and-fries statue, which would probably not be all that inspirational, even if it was practical for generating an abundance of junk food for the coming year.
The “green barley shoots” are very nice and I thought at first they were chives. Unfortunately it looks like you have to either grow them ahead of time or buy them in a Tibetan market, which might be difficult, depending on your neighborhood.
Finally here is something useful: khapse, which is basically deep fried cookies, lots and lots of cookies. They make so many of these cookies that they are still eating them when July rolls around. Here are some screenshots of Tibetan nuns making cookies for their monastery.
There are all kinds, they put some on the family altar, the smaller ones are for snacking.
The recipes look simple, you can find them here:
Or you can just imagine making them, it’s probably easier.
From the comments:
As it turns out, making the cookies is somewhat dangerous, and is done outside because of the hazard of the hot oil. You make the scorpion first, for protection, in the same way you deep fry one donut first, because adding a donut to the hot oil makes it sputter and changes the temperature of the oil, and the first donut never comes out quite right.
From Atlas Obscura:
Each cook molds a symbolic, scorpion-shaped cookie first. This initial offering is not made for snacking, but to ward off bad luck, including kitchen mishaps. Families hang the auspicious animal in their kitchen for the duration of Losar.
We must have these scorpions.
As it turns out, everyone seems to know about these scorpions, but they are not that easy to find. Here is one picture, but you can’t see the head. Or maybe they have pincers up front. It looks like it was pressed on a patterned board, which is a thing.
This is another scorpion mention from How to Make a Life:A Tibetan Refugee Family and the Midwestern Woman They Adopted, By Madeline Uraneck · 2018:
Tibet and Nepal are old, older than Buddhism, and have pockets where the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, as well as unusual forms of Buddhism like Tantrism, and Vajrayana (“Buddhist Yogini, following the non-celibate path”, lol) have flourished. See here.
Here is a scorpion story, from an earlier era:
“…within Buddhist Vajrayana the scorpion (Tib. sdig-pa) symbol is a transformative one, and Ngak’chang Rinpoche writes:
“‘The seal stamped in black is the scorpion which is used as the symbol of the Tantrika. The scorpion is symbolic of the power of transformation as the scorpion is known as the most dangerous and destructive creature. Because every aspect of duality—no matter how viciously deranged—remains undivided from the nondual state, even the most horrific states of mind can be transformed.’
“In fact, the Tantric community of ngakpas and ngakmas, naljorpas and naljormas (collectively called the go-kar-chang-lo’i-de), owe the continuity of their tradition to the power of the scorpion, as this famous tale reveals:
“‘When in the ninth century, King Langdarma and his hostile ministers set about to suppress the Indian Buddhist teachings and to close the Buddhist monasteries such as Samye, he summoned the Tantric master Nubchen Sangye Yeshe and his disciples into his presence, although all of them were not Buddhist monks but rather Tantrikas (sngags-pa). The arrogant king challenged Nubchen, inquiring, “And what power do you have?” “Just observe the power I can manifest merely from the reciting of mantras!” Nubchen replied and raised his right hand in the threatening gesture of tarjini-mudra.
“Instantly, in the sky above the Tantric sorcerer, the king saw nine giant scorpions appear, each the size of a wild yak. The king was terrified at this vision. So he promptly promised not to harm the white-robbed Buddhist Tantrikas and to refrain from disrobing and exiling them as he had done with the maroon-robbed Buddhist monks….”
Hmm, here’s some healing amulets with scorpions: “Guru Tragphur (Dragphur) is a very powerful and wrathful form combining Garuda with Hayagriva, Vajrapani, Vajrakilaya and Yangdag Heruka. It is especially useful for extreme negative harm from the Gyalpo class.”
The Gyanlpo, which means “king”, is one of the eight types of spirits – haughty gods and spirits – “the spirits of evil kings or of high lamas who have failed their vows.” Wikipedia is full of these, and one can never have too many amulets for protection against them.
So this pretty much rounds up the March spiritual exercises – first, cleanliness as a pathway to godliness – and even now my fuzzy cotton flannel internet jammies are finishing up in the laundry – and second, scorpion visions for protection. Do display them behind your stove, or screensaver, or whereever. We never did find that scorpion cookie pattern that everyone seems to know how to make, so just for good measure, here’s some more Tibetan scorpion designs.