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: 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

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

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.

THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS & THE EIGHTFOLD PATH

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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Categories: Buddhist

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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Categories: Buddhist