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.


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.


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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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.


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

Ullambana and Obon: Buddhists, Japanese celebrate summer festival

Dancing Bon women in kimonos with lanterns

Photo by Jshyun, cortesy of Flickr

MONDAY, JULY 13: A sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes, and a celebration of Japanese culture commences; and, today, the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Worldwide, this festival spans an entire month: “Shichigatsu Bon,” celebrated in Eastern Japan, begins in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon” commences in August; “Kyu Bon,” or “Old Bon,” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

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. (Wikipedia has details.) Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common at 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.” Bon-Odori—and the Buddhist legend it stems from—recall a disciple of Buddha who used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother. When the disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering, he asked Buddha how he could help her. The disciple made offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat and, soon after, saw his mother released from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. With his new-found insight, the disciple suddenly saw the true nature of his mother—her selflessness, and the sacrifices she had made for him—and with extra joy, he danced what is now the Bon-Odori. (Get a Buddhist perspective here.) A primary purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made.


The official dance of Obon, though it follows a universal pattern, differs in many details by region. Music and steps typically reflect a region’s history, culture and livelihood. In addition, some regions incorporate items such as fans, small towels or wooden clappers into the dance, while others do not. Nonetheless, everyone is welcome to join in the Bon-Odori dance. When the festival draws to a close, paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers, symbolizing the ancestors’ return to the world of the dead (Toro Nagashi). Fireworks often follow.

Red and yellow lit lanterns on string

Photo by Fabian Reus, courtesy of Flickr

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. In Brazil, street Odori dancing complements the Matsuri dance, and Taiko (drumming) and Shamisen contests are held. Buddhist Churches of America temples host events throughout the United States, and in Hawaii and California, events are abundant.


Bon dances worldwide take on the values and culture of their regions, and in Oahu, Hawaii, 2015 will feature a Super Hero Bon Dance; a Buddhist Sangwa ceremony at Hawaii’s Plantation Village; children’s lantern parades; traditional drumming and dancing. (Learn more here.) Though travel is spread out through the month, experts estimate that the peak of Obon travel 2015 will be between August 8 and August 16.

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

Asalha Puja: Buddhists recall ‘setting in motion the wheel of the dhamma’

Young, medium-skinned children in school uniforms carrying items in a line

Children in an Asalha Puja ceremony in Thailand. Photo by Nikodemus Karlsson, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, JULY 1 and THURSDAY, JULY 2: Theravada Buddhists revere the teachings of the Buddha at his first discourse as part of Asalha Puja Day or Dhamma Day (dates vary by location). Following his enlightenment, Buddha was urged by his friends to begin preaching. When a journey ended in India, Buddha delivered his speech before five men. One of the men proclaimed an understanding of the Buddha’s concepts and asked to be made a disciple. The Buddha accepted, and the first order of monks was born.


In essence, Buddha’s first discourse contained the roots of all future teachings. Also referred to as “setting into motion the wheel of the dhamma,” the monumental first discourse set into place the four noble truths and the eightfold path. Today, all Buddhists—Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana alike—follow these basic assumptions.

In Buddhism, the four noble truths are as follows:

  • Life means suffering
  • The origin of suffering is attachment / craving
  • Cessation of suffering is attainable
  • The way of cessation is via the eightfold path

The eightfold path consists of: right understanding; right view; right speech; right actions; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; and right concentration.

Across Thailand and other communities of Theravada Buddhists, Asalha Puja is an occasion for donations, making offerings to temples and witnessing sermons. The day following Asalha Puja begins, in many Theravada communities, the three-month “rains retreat.” While the rainy season renews life in the natural world, monasteries host monks and nuns indoors—so that the new life may not be disturbed. In centuries past, wandering monks halted their travels during the rainy season.

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Vesak: Buddhists observe Buddha Day with candles, charity and meditation

Looking down at crowd of Buddhist gathered, all with candles and wearing white clothing, at night

Buddhists gather for Vesak in Thailand. Photo by Captain Supachat, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MAY 4 and MONDAY, JUNE 1: On varying dates in May and June, Buddhists around the world mark Vesak (spellings vary), also known as Buddha Day or Buddha’s birthday. For many Buddhists, Vaisakhi marks the collective birth, enlightenment and passing away of the historical Buddha, and the occasion is met with deep meditation, shared vegetarian meals, donations to charity and the ceremonial bathing of Buddha statues. (Learn more from BuddhaNet.) The date of Vesak is based on Asian lunisolar calendars, and is noted in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and several other South East Asian countries—along with various locations across the globe.

Buddha’s birthday, celebrated as Vesakha, was officially determined at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, in 1950. On Vesak, devout Buddhists assemble at a local temple for pre-dawn ceremonies, including the hoisting of the Buddhist flag. Devotees may bring offerings, such as flowers or candles, in representation of the objects of this world that fade away. (Wikipedia has details.) 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.


As holidays can lose focus amid commercialization and modern culture, however—as happened with the American Mother’s Day—so, too, Vesak has become, in some regions, an occasion for the sale of countless buckets, loads of lotus flower-shaped lanterns and an overabundance of candles. Distracting crowds form at some events. Focus is sometimes shifted from the simplicity of time in the temple.

Groups of Buddhists are urging devotees to reclaim the intent of Vesak, as is noted in The Nation. In the same way, the Asian Tribune recently published a story, with Vesak wishes, to its readers. In London, as celebrations begin for Vesak, a noted Buddhist figure was interviewed about the true reasons behind the holiday.

Since 1999, the United Nations has observed Vesak at its headquarters and offices.

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Parinirvana Day: Mahayana Buddhists recall Buddha’s entry to complete Nirvana

Golden hued statue of seated Buddha on black background

Photo by Paul Kenjerski, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 15: Mahayana Buddhists mark the day Buddha reached complete Nirvana—Parinirvana—on Parinirvana Day, recalling the physical death of Gautama Buddha at the age of 80. Though some Mahayana adherents observe this event on February 8, most reserve the meditation retreats and special times of contemplation for February 15. On this day, temples are opened to laypersons, laypersons bring gifts to monks and nuns—all focused on the teachings of Buddha.

As recorded in the Parinirvana Sutra (spellings of the ancient record’s title vary), Buddha knew his life was nearing its end, and at this time, he confided to his disciples that he had told them all he knew. Buddha encouraged his monks to continue preaching his teachings, so that people would understand life and Nirvana for years to come.

Buddha taught that upon achieving enlightenment, Nirvana means the extinguishing of hatred, ignorance and suffering. The soul is released from samsara, the karmic cycle of life and death, and one enters a state beyond human understanding or imagination.

Buddha’s last words were relayed to his monks: “All conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive for your liberation with diligence.”

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Mahayana New Year: Buddhists embrace fresh start

Buddhist with hat sitting on bridge meditating

A Japanese Buddhist. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JANUARY 5: Buddhists of the Mahayana tradition celebrate a New Year on this, the full moon day of January. (Dates vary by region.)

In preparation for the New Year, Buddhists clean their homes and extend greetings to family and friends. Buddha statues are ceremoniously bathed, and candles are lit in homes and at temples. On a more personal level, Buddhists examine their own thoughts and actions and attempt to clean the sins of the past year. Many also resolve to improve their ways in the New Year ahead.

Buddhist tradition, today generally split into the Theravada and Mahayana movements, began in India with the historical Buddha. The larger movement worldwide—Mahayana—is known as the Great Vehicle, and encompasses Zen, Tibetan and Shingon Buddhism. Most practicing Mahayana Buddhists reside in North Asia, in countries such as China, Mongolia, Tibet, Korea and Japan.

Theravada Buddhists—most commonly found in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos—mark the New Year on the first full moon day of April.

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