The Buddha’s Vacation: Understanding the Buddhist Holidays and Ceremonies

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What are the Buddhist holidays, ceremonies, and other events each year?

Something that many new Western Buddhists do not know is that Buddhism is not a single religious tradition!  There are more than one school of Buddhism, many different traditions and scriptures, and many country specific and cultural practices.

Photo by Alan Peto

Buddhist laypersons often celebrate these holidays in different ways, however the religious practice is always central.  For example, they may participate in activities such as chanting, reciting sutras, bringing offerings (food, flowers, candles, etc.) to the temple, supporting monastics, meditating, or listening to a Dharma talk (teaching) from a monastic.

Compared to the Gregorian calendar we all know and use, Buddhists base their holidays largely on the lunar calendar.  This is why the dates often change every year.  For example, many know that Christmas is always December 25th, but a Buddhist holiday will depend on the lunar calendar for that year.

Major Buddhist Holidays

What are some “major” holidays that most Buddhists know and celebrate?  There are a few!  Again, there are many Buddhist traditions, so this does not mean all Buddhists celebrate the same holidays.

Dharma Day, Dhamma Day, Asanha Puja Day

A replication of the Buddha teaching the Dharma to his monks. (Photo via Pixbay)

Celebrated on the first full moon in July.  This holidays commemorates the Buddha’s first teaching at Deer Park to his five former ascetic companions.  Upon hearing his Dharma talk, his five former disciples became the Buddha’s first disciples and was the start of the very first Buddhist Sangha.

Buddhist New Year

Celebrated on different days depending on the country.  This is not practiced on the “Western” new year (January 1st), but based on the New Year of the Asian country that is celebrating it, which is why there are different dates.  Various activities occur, where laypersons will help to clean the temple, Buddha statues, make offering to their deceased ancestors, make special food for monastics, and even light lanterns.  Children especially enjoy this holiday as they receive red envelopes with money.

Pavarana (End of Vassa) Kathina Ceremony

CC0 Photo via Pixabay

Celebrated in October.  Theravada monastics go on a three-month retreat during the rainy season (which is why it is traditionally called the ‘Rainy Season Retreat’).  After the retreat, laypersons can practice generosity and show their support of the sangha and monastics by offering them new robes and other items they need.  Often called the ‘Robe Offering Ceremony’.

Guan Yin (Kannon) Celebration

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. Photo by Alan Peto.

Celebrated on the full moon of the second lunar month.  Guanyin Bodhisattva‘s day of enlightenment is the sixth lunar month, and day of renunciation is on the ninth lunar month.  A popular holiday in east-Asia and central-Asia, such as China, Tibet, etc., where laypersons chant/recite Guanyin’s name at temple or at home, burn incense, and reflect upon their own compassionate nature.  Some may even go on pilgrimage to  Mount Putuo, an island in Zhejiang Province, where the Chinese believe Guanyin was awakened.

Ullambana, Hungry Ghosts, Bon/Ubon

Celebrated in August or September.  Based upon the story, and sutra, of Maudgalyayana, who was able to see his mother suffering in the afterlife.  The Buddha told him to make offerings in order to liberate his mother and others who feel into the realm of [hungry] ghosts.  There are many ways this is celebrated now where we also show kindness, such as by giving offerings to monastics (bedding, daily needs, robes, etc.), providing offerings to ancestors and others, etc.  In Japan, the “Bon” festival, and dance, is based upon Maudgalyayana who was so happy that he was able to help his mother that he danced with joy.

Buddha’s Birthday

Buddha Birthday Photo by Paul Stein on Flickr

Celebrated on the first full moon day in May.  Perhaps the most important and celebrated holiday in Buddhism is the Buddha’s birthday, although each tradition and country may practice it differently.  In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated separately than Vesak in Theravada (where multiple events of the Buddha’s life are recognized on the same holiday).  Both the Buddha’s Birthday and Vesak typically occur on the same day.  Laypersons often come to the temple to clean and decorate them at this wonderful time.  For Mahayana Buddhists, a popular tradition is to pour water that has been scented with flower petals over a ‘baby Buddha’.  This is a ritual not to actually ‘clean’ the Buddha statue, but symbolically to purify our body, speech, and mind, in accordance with the Buddhist path and teachings.  There is often many other activities depending on the country and tradition.

Vesak / Wesak

Celebrated on the first full moon day in May.  The most important and popular holiday in Theravada Buddhism where the Buddha’s birth, awakening (Buddhahood), and death (Parinirvāna), are celebrated.  Laypersons often go to the temple where raising of the Buddhist flag occurs, singing, reciting scripture, and bringing offerings all occur.  Laypersons may also release animals and insects as a symbolic act of liberation.

Bodhi Day

The emaciated Buddha. Photo by SHLOKE

Celebrated on the eighth day of the 12th moon of the year.  There are many holidays celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment, such as Vesak (which also combines other events in the Buddha’s life).  However this one is specific to his enlightenment.  Laypersons often use this time to meditate (just like the Buddha did to attain enlightenment), have special meals, chant, and recite sutras.  This holiday is often either in December, or January.  The December date (12/8), is often based on numerous factors when we take in our regular Gregorian calendar, and has found acceptance with many Western Buddhists because it falls nicely during a traditional holiday month: December.  However, it is often recognized to actually be in January as the correct date.

Parinirvana / Nirvana Day

Buddha on his deathbed surrounded by grieving disciples. Photo by Alan Peto at the British Museum, London, UK.

Celebrated on either the 8th or 15th of February.  Mahayana Buddhists observe the death of Shakyamuni Buddha and his entrance into “final” Nirvana, “Parinirvana”, where he dies and completely escapes the cycle of birth and death. Statues and paintings showing the Buddha laying on his side, known as the “reclining Buddha”, is of his Parinirvana. Depending on the tradition, there are different activities such as meditation, donations to support monastics, reciting the Nirvana Sutra, recounting the final days of the Buddha’s life, and other spiritual activities.

Poya Days

Specific to Sri Lanka, every single full moon day (called a “Poya”), is a public holiday and day of concentrated practice.  Certain Buddhist holidays, such as Vesak, are also a Poya day in Sri Lanka.  Each full moon has a Poya Day and specific name and event related to the Buddha and Buddhism.  This includes the Buddha’s Birthday, Buddha’s Enlightenment, the Buddha’s sending out of 60 disciples as missionaries, the Buddha’s personal visits to Sri Lanka, when Buddhism came to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, and the first Buddhist council held after the Buddha’s death.

 

Buddhist Holidays by Month

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This list is not intended to be all encompassing as there are numerous events depending on the Buddhist tradition, and country.

Be sure to ask your Buddhist temple for their calendar (many are online, typically on their website) so you can stay abreast of the different events and celebrations they have.  If you are ever unsure of what to “do” during one of these events, just ask!  Monastics and volunteers at temples are often more than willing to explain the significance, and how you can take part.

All dates listed in this article were for the 2021 calendar year and change for subsequent years based on the lunar calendar.  I will attempt to update this article (and this blurb) when the dates have been updated.

January

  • 1/20: Bodhi Day (Lunar Calendar date): Refer to the explanation on 12/8.
  • 1/28: Mahayana New Year: This marks the beginning of the new year for Mahayana Buddhist countries. The actual date fluctuates depending on country and tradition, with some having this occur in early February.

February

  • 2/5: Tibetan New Year (Losar): This three-day event starts during the last days of the old year. There is a mix of elaborate ceremonies, Buddhist teachings, and secular celebrations. On the final day, Tibetan Prayer Flags are replaced with new ones.
  • 2/8: Nirvana Day: Mahayana Buddhists observe the death of Shakyamuni Buddha and his entrance into “final” Nirvana, “Parinirvana”, where he dies and completely escapes the cycle of birth and death. Statues and paintings showing the Buddha laying on his side, known as the “reclining Buddha”, is of his Parinirvana. Depending on the tradition, there are different activities such as meditation, donations to support monastics, reciting the Nirvana Sutra, recounting the final days of the Buddha’s life, and other spiritual activities.
  • 2/12: Chinese New Year and Vietnamese New Year (Tết): This is not a Buddhist holiday, however Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists traditionally begin their New Year by going to their Temple in order to offer incense, prayers, and participate in other activities. It is often the busiest time for Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhist Temples.
  • 2/15: Parinirvana Day: Refer to the explanation for “Nirvana Day” on 2/8. Some Mahayana Buddhist traditions or practitioners will celebrate this day on 2/8, rather than 2/15.
  • 2/20: Chunga Choepa (Tibetan): Also known as the “Butter Lamp Festival”, this event celebrates miracles performed by Shakyamuni Buddha. Colorful sculptures make out of yak butter during the event.
  • 2/26: Lantern Festival (China): Emperor Mingdi, during the Eastern Han Dynasty, was a devoted Buddhist. He was told that light lanterns are a way to worship the Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month. This gradually became a Buddhist ritual and a popular festival.
  • 2/27: Magha Puja Day (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos): This is a national Buddhist holiday in Thailand, and either falls in February during the lunar calendar, or March with the Gregorian calendar. The Buddha historically delivered his teachings during the third lunar month of the year, which is the origin of this celebration.

March

There are no major holidays or other ceremonial events in March.

April

  • 4/8: Buddha’s Birthday (Hanamatsuri / Japan): Also known as the “Flower Festival”, laypersons in Japan bring fresh flowers to temples in remembrance of his birth in a grove where trees were blossoming. A baby Buddha figure is also symbolically “washed” during this event.
  • 4/13: Water Festivals (Bun Pi Mai & Songkran): Images of the Buddha are washed, and various offerings are made at Temples in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Sand stupas are commonly made and found in yards all over.
  • 4/27: Theravada New Year: Taking place on the first full moon of April each year, countries that have Theravada Buddhism as their dominant religion celebrate new year at this time.

May

  • 5/12: Buddha’s Birthday (South Korea & Taiwan): A weeklong festival that ends around the same time as Vesak (see 5/26). Like other Buddha’s Birthday events, a figure of the baby Buddha is also symbolically “washed”.
  • 5/18: Saga Dawa (Tibetan): This is the most sacred part of the year for Tibetans and is the Tibetan equivalent of Vesak (see 5/26).
  • 5/26: Vesak/Wesak (Buddha Day): One of the most important festivals for Theravada Buddhists. Also known as “Visakah Puka”, “Vesak Poya”, or “Buddha Purnima”. This day celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Shakyamuni Buddha. Mahayana Buddhists typically celebrate these three events separately, rather than together.

June

  • 6/24: Poson (also called Poson Poya):  This annual festival coincides with the June full moon and celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century B.C.  After Vesak, Poson is one of the most important holidays and day of practice for Buddhists.

July

  • 7/6: Birthday – The 14th Dalai Lama: One of the most well-known Buddhists globally, the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) of Tibetan Buddhism, was born on this day in 1935.
  • 7/6: Chokhor Duchen (Tibetan): A day of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists in commemoration of the Buddha’s first sermon where he explained the Four Noble Truths.
  • 7/16 or 7/24: Dharma/Dhamma Day (Asalha Puja): This day honors the Buddha’s first sermon which occurred in Deer Park (Benares, India). It also marks the creation of the Buddhist Sangha (community of monastics). Laypersons observe this day by providing offerings at temples and listening to sermons. The “Rain Retreats” (see 10/24), called Vassa, begins the day after Asalha Puja. Laypersons participate in Vassa by giving up things, such as eating meat or other luxuries, which is why it is sometimes referred to as “Buddhist Lent”.
  • 7/24: Guru Purnima (Nepal): This is not specifically a Buddhist observance. Both Buddhists and Hindus in Nepal observe this day as a way to show devotion to academic and spiritual teachers who teach without expecting anything in return.

August

  • 8/13: Obon/Bon Festival (Japan): Held in either July or August depending on location. Originating from the Ghost Festival of China (refer to 8/15), this holiday in Japan lasts three days and is well known due to the “Bon Dance”. This tradition originated from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana (“Mokuren”), who was a disciple of the Buddha who was able to see that his deceased mother had fallen into the realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. The Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the Buddhist monks in the Sangha and was able to release his mother from the Hungry Ghosts realm. Seeing his mother released, he danced with joy. Refer to the Ullambana Sutra.
  • 8/15: Zhongyuan or Yulanpen Festival (Hungry Ghost Festival – China): The most important festival of the Hungry Ghosts month (the entire seventh lunar month) where offerings of food, rituals, temple ceremonies, are other activities performed to appease the ghosts and avoid spiritual attack. Hungry Ghosts are creatures that are unable to satisfy their craving because of greed. Laypersons also provide offerings and candles to pay respect to deceased ancestors during this time.
  • 8/19: Birthday – Venerable Master Hsing Yun: The founder of the popular Fo Guan Shan (FGS), which has temples worldwide, was born on this day in 1927.
  • 8/23: Sangha Day (Chinese Buddhism): Similar to Magha Puja (see 2/27) in Theravada, Chinese Buddhist laypersons give offerings to monastics during this time.

September

There are no major holidays or other ceremonial events in September.

October

  • 10/11: Birthday – Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh: One of the most famous Buddhist monks in the world whose teachings spanned hundreds of books, peace organizations, and several Buddhist and layperson communities, was born on this day in 1926.
  • 10/20: Boun Ok Phansa (End of “Buddhist Lent”): See explanation on 10/24.
  • 10/24: Pavarana / End of Vassa (Theravada): Marks the end of the three month “Rain Retreat”, called “Vassa”, which is a period of intense meditation and practice. This day is for the “Kathina” or robe-offering ceremony.
  • 10/31: Lhabab Duchen (Tibetan): A Tibetan festival that commemorates a story of the Buddha where he had been teaching celestial beings in the god realm. After being begged to return to the human realm/world (where he could be a Buddha), he descended on three ladders made of gold and gems.

November

  • 11/20: Loy Krathong: Also known as “Krathong Law”, meaning “Floating a Basket”, it was a festival adapted by Thai Buddhists to honor the Buddha. Candles venerate the Buddha with light, while the basket floating away symbolizes letting go of hatred, anger, and other defilements.

December

  • 12/8: Bodhi Day (Rohatsu): The annual observance of the enlightenment of the Buddha. Bodi = Enlightenment. Bodhi Day is celebrated on different days depending on the tradition, and country. Some will observe during the lunar calendar which falls in January. When celebrated in December, Buddhists will use multicolored lights as a visual representation of the different pathways towards enlightenment. They will keep these lights, or other shiny objects (typically three objects) which signify the three jewels, up for 30 days.
  • 12/29: Buddha’s Enlightenment (China): The day Chinese believe the historical Buddha attained enlightenment over 2,600 years ago.

Article Notes

Disclaimer
The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only.  Alan Peto assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site.  The information contained is provided on an as is basis with no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness, and without any warranties of any kind whatsoever, express or implied.  Read full disclaimer here. Please let me know of any corrections or suggestions you may have.

This article is Copyright © by Alan Peto.
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