Lhabab Duchen: The descending day of Lord Buddha Lhabab Duchen

Seven days after the Buddha was born, his mother, Mayadevi, passed away, and was reborn into the Tusita Heaven. Now, in many religions, the aim of practice and devotion is to be reborn into heaven. This is not the case in Buddhism. As Chandrakirti, one of the greatest commentators on Buddhist philosophy, has said: “If you are an idiot, you will do lots of bad things and go to hell. If you are an idiot, you will do a lot of good things and go to heaven. Now, if you are wise, you will go beyond doing good and bad and reach liberation.”

Why is this? Well, according to Buddhism there are six realms of existence, which we call samsara. One of these is the heavenly or god realm, while another is our human realm. Now, as these realms are created by karma, they are a compounded phenomena, which means that they only exist due to the joining together of parts. In this way, like a table, a rainbow, or another such phenomena, once the parts that created them separate, the object or state will disintegrate and cease to exist. Simply put, all compounded phenomena are subject to change and are impermanent. In contrast, the state of enlightenment is permanent because it is not produced by the joining together of parts, but merely discovered. So, instead of aiming to rest in a temporary heavenly state, Buddhists strive to awaken to the truth and so gain liberation from the transitory realms of samsara.

Now, the Buddha was aware that his mother’s time in the heavenly realms would draw to a close once the karma that enabled her to be born there was exhausted, and

so Mayadevi was invited to the Trāyastrimśa Heaven, where the Buddha gave teachings that would enable her, and the gods who dwelt there, to gain liberation.

Altogether, the Buddha spent three months teaching in the heaven, before finally returning to this world. At that time, a triple staircase manifested to facilitate the Buddha’s return, the feet of which were near the town of Sankisa, in the present-day Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The Buddha then descended the central staircase accompanied by two gods, who, as a mark of respect, shaded him with a large parasol. The Descending Day of Lord Buddha, also known as Lhabab Duchen, commemorates this occasion, and it is one of the four major Buddhist festivals celebrated in Bhutan and the Himalayan region. The day falls annually on the 22nd day of the ninth Lunar month, which in 2022 is on November 15.

As the effects of positive and negative action are multiplied millions of times on Lhabab Duchen, it is customary for Buddhists to undertake meritorious deeds on this day, which include making offerings before images of the Buddha or enlightened beings, circumambulating sacred objects, and undertaking prostrations.

Now, in order to awaken to the truth and gain liberation, it is necessary to accumulate both merit and wisdom, and so in addition to undertaking these traditional practices, it is also beneficial to contemplate the fundamental truths of Buddhism, which are known as the Four Seals of Buddhism:

All compounded things are impermanent

All emotions are pain

All phenomena are empty of inherent existence

Nirvana is beyond concepts

For the sake of convenience, we can perhaps combine the accumulation of wisdom with that of merit by contemplating these Seals while making offerings.

As a means to consider the first Seal, we can perhaps contemplate a simple flower offering. Now, if we mentally retrace the blossom’s journey, we will discover that earlier it was a seed that grew through its interaction with moisture from rain, warmth from sunlight and nutrition from soil. From this insight, we recognize that, in reality, a flower is not a permanent entity that has always been a flower. Instead, it develops through the joining together of factors and will likewise fade and disappear once their bonding effect dissipates. This journey of forming, remaining, and disappearing is not only true for a flower but for everything that we can see, touch, smell, taste, hear, or even think. Basically, anything that comes into existence due to the joining together of parts, whether it be a rainbow, a human body, a universe, or a heavenly realm, will one day fall apart.

‘All emotions are pain’ is a little more difficult to grasp, but once again we can use the flower-offering to analyse the truth. Basically, when we do not recognize that, like a flower, we are also comprised of many parts and so interconnected with the world around us, we develop a mistaken view that there is an independent self and a separate other. With this dualist outlook, our interaction with others is inevitably tainted by some kind of desire or hope, no matter how subtle, and with this hope comes the pain of fear – a fear that the hope will not be realized.

Think of this insight in the context of the flower-offering. Even if it is accompanied with a good motivation, the sense of having an independent “I” will unavoidably create a desire for personal gain. This may not be a gross desire, such as wanting an expensive car or a luxurious house, but there will at least be a hope that the wish accompanying the offering can be fulfilled or that the offering will bring us a sense of satisfaction. And, as I mentioned earlier, the flip-side of any wish or hope is a fear – a fear that it will not be achieved. To put it simply, any emotion that appears from the dualistic mind is a source of suffering.

‘All phenomena are empty of inherent existence’ was partly discussed in the first contemplation. By mentally retracing the history of the flower, we discovered that it grew from a seed through its interaction with the environment. Therefore, if we examine a flower deeply, we will not find anything that exists independently as a bloom, but instead discover a temporary object that is comprised of a number of factors, such as rain, sunlight, and soil. In this respect, it is no more real than other assembled phenomenon, such as a mirage or a rainbow. If we extend our observation further, we will realize that it is not only a flower, a rainbow, or a mirage that are empty of a permanent identity, but that no phenomenon possesses a truly existent essence. When we grasp this concept, we realize that nothing we encounter can satisfy our desires any more than water in a mirage can quench a man’s thirst. As a result, we no longer invest time and energy in pursuing material gains, falsely believing that they can bring us lasting pleasure.

If our contemplations have enabled us to gain some understanding of the first three insights, then we will realize that everything is empty of a truly existing essence and, in this way, no more real than an illusion or a dream. This is not only true for the flower, but also for our strongly held moral beliefs of right and wrong and good and bad. Basically, the final insight severs all attachments to our self- created illusions. In this respect, we understand that nirvana, or enlightenment, is beyond any concepts that we try to grasp or hold on to. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche describes enlightenment in this way:

When you don’t have obsession, When you don’t have hang-ups, When you don’t have inhibition, When you are not afraid you will be breaking certain rules,

When you are not afraid you will not fulfil somebody’s expectations.

What more enlightenment do you want?

That’s it.

Contemplating the Seals in this way enables us to both generate wisdom and create merit.

Finally, after we have completed a meritorious deed, it is traditional to dedicate the merit to the liberation of all sentient beings. In this way the potency of the deed is preserved in a similar way that the moisture of a drop of water is conserved by adding it to the vastness of ocean.

Shenphen Zangpo

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan.

Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programs.