Vesak: Buddhists worldwide live by the Dharma to celebrate Buddha

Temple lit with lights at night, against water

The Gangaramaya Temple, in Sri Lanka, during Vesak. Photo by Nazly Ahmed, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, MAY 10: The word “Dharma” resounds around the world this week, as Buddhists, monks, non-Buddhists and international UN offices pause to observe Vesak. A Buddhist observance, Vesak recalls a trio of events: the birth, enlightenment and death of Guatama Buddha. Per the request of Buddha himself, devotees focus especially on carrying out the Buddha’s teachings by living kindly, giving generously and abiding by the Dharma (or Dhamma, spellings vary). Specific dates of observance are determined by various lunar calendars, and so vary slightly.

A VEGETARIAN MEAL AND HYMNS OF PRAISE

Despite varying dates, Vesak celebrations across the globe begin the same way: with adherents gathered at a local temple, before sunrise, to watch the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag. Hymns of praise rise through the air, as attendees line up to offer flowers, candles and food. A shared vegetarian meal with follow, but it’s in the flowers and candles that devotees understand the truth of Vesak: that life, as with all things, will wither away and decay. All that is eternal is the Dharma truth.

VESAK ACROSS THE GLOBE

The World Fellowship of Buddhists tried to formalize the celebration of Vesak as Buddha’s birthday in 1950, although festivals of a similar fashion had been custom for centuries. Aside from parallel morning ceremonies, Vesak festivities vary around the world: In Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for Vesak and liquor shops, slaughter houses and casinos are closed; in Japan, a sweet Hydrangea tea is poured over statues. Nepalis can claim Lumbini as the birthplace of Buddha, and their holy temple—Swayambhu—is opened only one day per year, on Vesak. Since Vesak is a public holiday in Nepal, even non-Buddhists get into the spirit by donating and volunteering on this special day. Processions line the streets in many countries during daylight hours, while colorful lanterns light the skies at night.

In 1999, the United Nations resolved to internationally observe Vesak at its headquarters and offices.

NEWS 2017

Wonder how Vesak will be observed around the world, this year?

 

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Categories: Buddhist

Obon: Ancient Buddhist festival reaches peak numbers in Japan

People drumming in the street with crowds on either side and festival atmosphere

Taiko drummers taking part in a Obon festival, San Jose, 2015. Photo by Wilson Lam,

AUGUST 2016: A sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes, and a celebration of Japanese culture that began last month reaches peak numbers in August, as the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors, Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

“Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” The purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made. The sacred Bon Odori dance is at the center of Obon festivities, with teachers performing difficult steps on yagura, elevated stages, and attendees circling the stage as they imitate the dance. Though there is a basic pattern to the dance, specifics vary by region and culture.

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada.

Read the full ReadTheSpirit story on Obon 2016 here.

 

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia

Obon: Japanese communities worldwide begin month-long festival season

People in street clothes dance underneath lanterns with Japanese inscriptions

The Tsukiji Honganji Bon Dance Festival. Photo by Guilhem Vellut, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, JULY 13: Crisp cotton kimonos swirl through the streets, colorful trays of cool and tangy sushi await diners and the music of the Bon dance all announce the arrival of Obon—a centuries-old Japanese festival whose activities span an entire month around the globe. From Tokyo to Las Vegas, Buddhist temples in cities around the world host Obon festivals: vendors offer tantalizing Japanese cuisine, temples fill with visitors and an Asian cultural influence is in full force. Originally a Buddhist-Confucian custom, the Japanese have been visiting ancestors’ graves and honoring the spirits of deceased loved ones during Obon for more than 500 years.

Bondancersize? Yes, it’s a real thing! The Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin (headquarters of Hawai’i’s largest Japanese Buddhist denomination) offers weekly classes on Bon dance; Bondancersize, an enormously popular class geared toward seniors, has been reported as bringing in close to 100 students. (Watch a video of the class on YouTube, filmed less than two months ago.)

The traditional story behind Obon begins with a disciple of Buddha. When this disciple used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. (Obon is shortened from Ullambana, meaning “hanging upside down” and implying much suffering.) The disciple mourned his mother’s state, and pleaded to Buddha for a way to free her.

In response to his disciple’s request, Buddha suggested one thing: to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had completed their summer retreat. The disciple did as he had been instructed, and saw his mother freed. In great happiness, the disciple danced with joy—and, thus, the first “Bon dance” was performed. Duly, upon viewing his mother, the disciple had come to a full realization of the many sacrifices his mother had made for him, and he was exceptionally grateful. Even today, the deeper roots of Obon lie in paying respects to ancestors—thus easing their suffering—and expressing joy for the sacrifices that loved ones have made.

Girl smiles while drumming on large Taiko drum

Taiko drumming is an integral part of many Obon festivals. Above, a girl participates in San Francisco’s Obon festival. Photo by Mark, courtesy of Flickr

Did you know? When the ancient Japanese lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar, the date of Obon spread out: “Shichigatsu Bon” became the modern observance, marked in Tokyo and eastern Japan in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon,” based on the lunar calendar, is celebrated in mid-August. “Old Bon” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

BON DANCES,
TEA CEREMONIES
& FIREWORKS

Whether in Japan, Korea, Argentina or a community of Hawai’i, Obon festivals often span several days and include public Bon dances, tea ceremonies, fireworks and carnivals. Festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in many regions of the United States and Canada. In Hawaii, festivities span an even longer period than they do in Japan: Bon festivals are held June through September, from the Garden Island to the Big Island.

On a more personal level, Obon means that families take time to freshly decorate household altars and reunite with family members at ancestral gravesites. Most every Bon festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating of paper lanterns. At the culmination, hundreds and thousands of paper lanterns, illuminated by interior candles, can be seen floating down rivers and streams. The belief is that ancestors’ spirits are symbolically returned to the world of the dead.

RECIPES, PERSPECTIVES & A PAPER LANTERN DIY

Cooking up some traditional Japanese Obon cuisine in your kitchen? Check out the recipes at JapaneseFood.about.com.

How does the Japanese Obon differ from the American Obon? This writer gives an inside perspective.

Thinking of crafting a paper lantern? Find simple-to-follow instructions for a DIY lantern, here.

 

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia

Vesak: Buddhist lanterns and ceremonies celebrate the sacred ‘triple gem’

Temple lit at night beside water

The Gangaramaya Temple in Sri Lanka, lit during Vesak. Photo by Nazly Ahmed, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, MAY 21 and SUNDAY, MAY 22: Millions of glowing lanterns shine brightly in Buddhist communities worldwide, as the collective birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha is observed with the holiday of Vesak. Known also as Visakha Puja or Wesak (spellings vary), Vesak begins before dawn in many regions, with ceremonies, decorated temples, shared vegetarian meals and deep meditation. In 2016, Vesak is commemorated on May 21 in most regions of India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia; in Indonesia, this year’s Vesak occurs on May 22. This holy day is greeted by devout Buddhists across Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, the Phillippines, Thailand and several other South East Asian countries—along with various other locations across the globe.

Did you know? Some Buddhists informally refer to Vesak as “Buddha Day,” or “Buddha’s Birthday.”

Buddhism has been practiced for millennia, but it wasn’t until 1950 that the official decision was made—at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists—to observe Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday. Today, devotees bring offerings to temples—such as flowers or candles—in representation of the objects of this world that fade away. Monks provide lectures, and laypersons wear white clothing. It is expected that Buddhists will try to bring some happiness to the unfortunate on this significant day, and review the Four Noble Truths.

Did you know? The design of the Buddhist flag is based on the six colors of the aura believed to have surrounded Buddha after his enlightenment. It is used in almost 60 countries, especially during Vesak.

In commemoration of three major events—the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the historical Buddha—Vesak is recognized by all Buddhist sects. It acknowledges the peace that Buddha brought to the world through the “triple gem”: Buddha himself, the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (Buddha’s disciples). Most Buddhists today use candles and small lamps to illuminate temples, streets and homes, representing the light of Buddha’s teachings. In Japan, legend has it that a dragon appeared in the sky on Buddha’s birthday and poured soma (a ritual drink) over him.

Interested in making your own Vesak lantern? Check out this site’s DIY instructions, which include using everyday materials such as drinking straws and tissue paper.

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of India

New Year: Ring in 2016 with global traditions and fresh perspectives

New Year's 2016 greeting

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31 and FRIDAY, JANUARY 1: Happy New Year!

Fireworks, champagne toasts and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest kick off the start of the Gregorian year worldwide, as revelers usher in the year 2016. In several world countries, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day means family gatherings, elaborate meals and plenty of parties. From the United States to Mexico, Ireland and Japan, time-honored traditions meet the latest global trends on New Year’s Eve In New York, celebrities and party-goers watch the famed “ball drop” in Times Square, counting the seconds as the 12,000-pound crystal ball lowers to ground level.

NEW YEAR’S EVE: FROM MEXICO TO KOREA, RUSSIA & NEW YORK

New York at night with lights and confetti for New Year's, crowds

New Year’s Eve in New York’s Times Square. Photo by Anthony Quintano, courtesy of Flickr

For many, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day traditions span centuries. In Mexico, it is tradition to eat one grape with each chime of the clock’s bell at midnight, making a wish with each grape. A special sweetbread is baked for the holiday, and in homes across the country, red, yellow and green decorations are hung, in hopes of luck in the New Year in life, love, work and wealth. In Korea, ancestors are paid tribute at the New Year, and in Canada, the United States and the UK, Polar Bear Plunges have steadily been gaining popularity as a New Year’s Day custom. In Russia, some blini is in order for a proper New Year’s party. Tradition traces the thin pancakes back to ancient Slavs, and today, Russian blini may be stuffed with cheese or served in a variety of other ways. (Find a recipe and more at WallStreetJournal.com.)

From Times Square: Since 1907, the famous New York City “ball drop” has marked New Year’s Eve for millions in Times Square and for billions more through televised broadcasting of the event. Notable televised events began in 1956, with Guy Lombardo and his band broadcasting from the ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. During the tenure of Guy Lombardo, young dick Clark began to broadcast on ABC, and following Lombardo’s death in 1977, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve soon became the hit of the nation. Dick Clark hosted the show for 33 years, and in 2015, Ryan Seacrest will host his 10th show, which is now called Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.

Celebrity lineup: Confirmed for this year is headliner Carrie Underwood, who will be joined by Luke Bryan, Wiz Khalifa and Demi Lovato. One Direction will headline the Billboard Hollywood Party in Los Angeles, and singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett will make a live appearance from his concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. This year, the show will pack 38 performances into more than 5 hours of music, beginning on Thursday, Dec. 31 at 8/7 c on the ABC Television Network. (The show can also be viewed live online.) Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift is set to release the world premiere of her new music video, “Out of the Woods,” during ABC’s telecast.

WATCH NIGHT AND MARY: A CHRISTIAN NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

In some Christian churches, New Year’s Eve is a night of quiet reflection, prayer and thanksgiving. There’s a long-standing Methodist tradition called “Watch Night,” a custom started by Methodism’s founder John Wesley, and some Protestant groups follow similar traditions. In Greece and in Orthodox Christian communities, New Year’s is spent singing Kalanda—carols—and eating the vasilopita, or St. Basil’s, cake. On January 1, the octave of Christmas culminates in the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

SHOGATSU: JAPANESE BUDDHIST SPECTACULAR

Two glasses filled with bubbly champagne against dark background

Photo by Bill Masson, courtesy of Flickr

In Japan, New Year’s preparations begin weeks in advance, with pressed rice cakes prepared in a variety of flavors and often cooked with broth for a traditional New Year’s soup. At midnight on Dec. 31, Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, which is an auspicious number in Buddhist tradition. After midnight, many families head to a local temple to pray, and then feast together afterward. The following morning, New Year’s greetings are exchanged and delicacies like sashimi and sushi are consumed.

PARTY PLANNING: RECIPES, HOSTING TIPS AND COCKTAILS

  • Drink recipes are at Forbes.com and L.A. Times. Looking for a Mocktail? Delicious combinations are available from HGTV.
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Categories: BuddhistChristianFaiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

Bodhi Day, Rohatsu: Mahayana Buddhists celebrate light and enlightenment

Candles in a Buddhist Temple (1)

Candles in a Buddhist Temple. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 8: December brings a season of light for several world religions, and as Christians light Christmas decorations and Jews light candles on the menorah, Buddhists celebrate light with a holiday known as Bodhi Day (or, in Zen Buddhism, Rohatsu).

Sanskrit for “enlightenment,” Bodhi Day is observed by Mahayana Buddhists, who celebrate Buddha’s enlightenment; for Theravada Buddhists, Buddha’s enlightenment is recalled together with his birth and passing, on a different holiday (Vesak). For members of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, Bodhi is often spent studying and meditating on the Dharma. In select Japanese monasteries, Rohatsu incorporates a week-long sesshin, or meditation retreat.

As Christians spend the weeks before and after Christmas in a revel of lights and celebration, so some Buddhists stringing colored lights onto a ficus tree, in representation of the many paths that can lead to enlightenment. Some families may bake cookies in the shape of the Bodhi tree’s leaf, in recollection of Buddha’s enlightenment beneath the tree in Bodhgaya, India. (Family Dharma has ideas for celebration). Buddhists everywhere perform good works and services for others.

BUDDHA, KARMA AND THE FOURFOLD PATH

The historical Buddha was born Siddhartha Guatama, a wealthy nobleman, in approximately the 6th century BCE (date calculations may vary). Having been shielded from the realities of death and sorrow throughout childhood, it wasn’t until he reached his 20s that Siddhartha was exposed to the concept of suffering and sought to discover its root. (Wikipedia has details.) After years of asceticism deep in the forests of India and Nepal, Siddhartha was beneath a tree in Bodhgaya one cool winter’s night when he came to several realizations. Within the pages of the Pali Canon, discourses written by Buddha describe the three stages of enlightenment, that night: understanding the need to break free of the cycle of life and death, the laws of karma, and the Fourfold Path. Finally, at the end of the realizations, Siddhartha reached nirvana. At this time—at age 35—he became known as “Buddha,” or “enlightened one.”

For some Buddhists, Bodhi Day and nirvana represent cheer and joy; for others, nirvana embodies perfect inner peace.

IN THE NEWS: TRENDING BUDDHISM IN JAPAN

NPR and other news sources are reporting the decline of Buddhism in Japan, but one American Buddhist priest in Okayama is hoping to change that statistic: through a Buddhist hip-hop movement, Priest Gomyo’s “Hoodie Monks” are reaching out to a younger generation. (World religion News has the story.) Though 75 percent of Japan’s total population still identifies as Buddhist, the majority only practice the religion after the death of a loved one. According to the Michigan-born Gomyo, “In Japan, it’s not about exposing young people to Buddhism—it’s all around them—it’s more about showing them that Buddhist is more than something you do at funerals.”

Inspired by the Beastie Boys song, “Bodhisattva Vows,” in the early 1990s, Priest Gomyo began rapping and was given his movement’s name by a friend who noticed that the priest wore a hooded sweater under his monk’s work clothes during the winter. Today, the Yugasan Rendaiji temple in Okayama is home to the “Hoodie Monks,” and the priest notes that, “elements of hip-hop do have a nice correlation with elements of Buddhist practice. The MC rapping is represented in Buddhism by chanting. … in Buddhism we use Taiko drums or wooden blocks to keep the beat when chanting in a group.”

Several countries over, actress Emma Watson has also been expressing an interest in Buddhism recently, citing her desire to become certified in yoga after having become interested in the literature of the Buddhist religion. (Read more here.)

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Categories: Buddhist

Obon: Buddhist, Japanese festival reaches peak numbers

Asian girl in kimono and straw hat smiling, lit lanterns and others dancing in background

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

AUGUST 2015: A sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes, and a celebration of Japanese culture that began last month reaches peak numbers in August, as the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors, Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

“Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” The purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made. The sacred Bon Odori dance is at the center of Obon festivities, with teachers performing difficult steps on yagura, elevated stages, and attendees circling the stage as they imitate the dance. Though there is a basic pattern to the dance, specifics vary by region and culture.

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada.

Read the full ReadTheSpirit story on Obon here.

NEWS & UPDATES

Though some international Obon celebrations took place as early as July 1, events are spread over the course of two months—and, in Japan, experts estimate peak travel to be between August 8 and August 16.

Bringing 1.3 million to Shikoku Island: Japan’s largest Bon Odori dance festival takes place on Shikoku Island, where more than 1 million attendees gather in the heat of August for the four-day celebrations. (Read more here.) Each year, this festival takes place Aug. 12-15, offering a myriad of dancers, exhibitions, beating Taiko drums and refreshments ranging from sugared shaved ice to grilled octopus.

WWII veterans return war heirlooms to Japanese families: Seven decades after the end of WWII, seven veterans of WWII visited Japan to return silk flags carried by Japanese soldiers to the owners and their families. Carried as a type of talisman by Japanese servicemen in WWII, the flags were covered with personal messages and wishes from family and friends; American soldiers who took the flags from battlefields have been working with Japanese scholars through OBON 15, a nonprofit organization, to identify the owners of the flags.

San Jose Japantown’s 80th Obon: The Obon festival in San Jose celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, in what is one of the few Japantowns left in the United States. (San Jose Mercury News has the story.) The street festival has remained true to its roots despite growth and popularity, and taiko drumming, kimonos and traditional foods add to the air of reverence surrounding the sacred Bon Odori dance.

A sustainable Obon in California: This year, the Obon at Higashi Honganji offered guests no Styrofoam food containers or plastic bags, reusable water bottles and incentives to bring reusable bags and utensils, in part of a mission to produce zero waste. (Get details here.) Organizers say the efforts remind festival-goers of the mottainai concept: to reduce, reuse, recycle and respect the earth. In addition, wood from old Manto-e lanterns will be recycled and made into naruko, Japanese wooden clappers used during Bon dancing.

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia