Holidays and Regular Observances
What kind of religious calendar do Buddhists observe?
Since Buddhism has long been identified with so many different cultural settings, there is some variation in the ways Buddhists keep track of sacred times. The basic religious calendar remains tied, at least nominally, to the ancient Hindu combination of lunar and solar reckoning, but many Buddhists now observe some festivities on fixed dates. The earliest Buddhists apparently did not concern themselves with marking special occurrences on their calendar. But within a generation or so, India’s growing and spreading Buddhist communities began to incorporate religious social occasions into ordinary life. As Buddhist communities arose outside of India they naturally tended to blend religious observances imported by Buddhist missionaries with the indigenous festivities of the land. In most places where Buddhism is an important presence today, the reckoning of years begins with the date of the Buddha’s entry into nirvana (which coincided with his death). In any given year, Buddhists observe various festal occasions. Some commemorate major events in the life of the Buddha, others celebrate different institutional features of the tradition, others are tied to seasonal festivities, and still others are linked to events only in certain countries.
Precise dates of the following major Buddhist observances vary somewhat by subcommunity and region, as well as from one solar year to another. They are listed here according to solar calendar months in which they most often occur. Many communities also observe seasonal festivities associated with the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and some mark special times each month for heightened devotion, marked by the new, full, and quarter moons.
Magha Puja: Also called Sangha or Fourfold Assembly Day, recalls the Buddha’s speaking to a gathering of 1250 arahats.
Parinirvana Day: Theravada Buddhists observe the Buddha’s final entry into Nirvana. Mahayana Buddhists call it Nirvana Day and recall the Buddha’s death on the occasion.
New Year (Theravada): Three-day celebration beginning with April’s first full moon, featuring a symbolic cleansing of monasteries and Buddha images, paralleling a spiritual purification of all bad karma and renewal of Buddhist values.
Buddha Day: Occurs during the full-moon, known variously as Wesak, Visak, or Vaishakha, is Buddhism’s principal and most widely celebrated festal day. For virtually all Buddhists the day mark’s the Buddha’s birth, but some also recall his attainment of enlightenment and his death on the day.
Varying “retreat” activities find increasing visits to temples, young men entering monasteries for brief experience of the monk’s life.
Asala: Also known as Dharma Day because of its association with the Buddha’s preaching his “first sermon,” in which he set in motion the “wheel of Dharma” just after achieving enlightenment.
Some Buddhists (especially in Sri Lanka) celebrate the Festival of the Tooth at full moon, with special reverence for one of the Buddha’s most important “relics.”
Kathina: Theravada Buddhists observe Kathina month to end the rainy season, with increased pilgrimage visits and merit offerings, including presentation of new robes to monks.
Bodhi (“Enlightenment”) Day: Some Buddhists commemorate Gautama’s becoming the “Buddha” as a result of his enlightenment in meditation beneath the Bodhi tree.
Buddhists in various places commemorate three important events in the Buddha’s life: his birth, his enlightenment, and his entry into nirvana. Theravada Buddhists celebrate them all on the same day, called simply Buddha Day, on the full moon day of Vaishakha (April/May). Some Mahayana groups hold separate festivities on fixed dates, with Buddha’s birth observed on April 8 (called Hanamatsuri in Japan), his enlightenment (called Bodhi Day) on December 8, and his final entry into nirvana on February 15. Religious activities on these occasions include special gatherings in monastery temples. Devotees bathe images of the Buddha, listen to narratives of the Buddha’s life, circumambulate his relics enshrined either in large structures called chaityas or small stupa- or pagoda-shaped reliquaries, and water small bodhi trees. Theravadins combine the festivities because tradition says that all three events occurred on the same day in different years. In Theravada southeast Asia, Buddha Day remains associated with the onset of the monsoon rains and the planting of the rice crop.