Holidays–Buddhist or otherwise–offer auspicious times for practice and reflection.
Q: What kinds of holidays does Buddhism have?
A: Buddhists around the world celebrate many different holidays, stemming from divergent cultural influences and the use of different calendars. The principal one, celebrated by Buddhists around the world regardless of tradition, is Vesak (pronounced way-sak), the commemoration of Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment. Vesak occurs every year on the full moon in May.
But there is variation in the observance of the various milestones of the Buddha’s life in different parts of the Buddhist world: In Japan, Buddha’s enlightenment day, known as Rohatsu, is marked on December 8. His birth is celebrated in April, around Easter, and in early October, Zen students celebrate Bodhidharma Day, honoring the founder of Zen.
In Nepal, Buddha’s birthday is a holiday called Buddha Jayanti and is celebrated on the full moon in April. Tibetans believe Buddha was born on the seventh day of the fourth lunar month, about one week before the Wesak Full Moon.
In Thailand and Sri Lanka, the full moon in October marks Pavarana Day, the end of the three-month rainy season retreat. Also in Thailand, Anapanasati Day, on the full moon of October each year, marks a day of meditation and mindfulness.
In Tibet, the most important holiday is Losar, or Tibetan New Year. Like Chinese New Year, Losar occurs in February, but the exact date varies each year according to the lunar calendar. In 2002, Losar will take place on February 13, the beginning of the Water Horse year, or 2129 according to the Tibetan calendar.
Traditionally, Losar is marked with activities that symbolize purification and ushering in the new: Buildings are thoroughly cleaned, people perform ritual ablutions on the morning of the new year, barley seeds are sprouted, and special fried bread, called kapsay, is prepared.
Tibetans also visit their guru or lama, make offerings to the local monastery, and visit their nearest and dearest friends and relatives on the second and third day of Losar week.
There are also four great Tibetan Buddhist holidays, celebrating the four events known as the “great deeds” of the Buddha. The first is Chotrul Duchen (Duchen means “great occasion”), which marks the end of the first 15 days of the new year and falls on the first full moon (February 21 in 2001). During this time some 2,600 years ago, the Buddha is said to have displayed a different miracle each day to spur the devotion and increase the merits of his disciples.
In Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, the event is commemorated with the two-week Monlam Chenmo festival. Traditionally, thousands of pilgrims streamed into the city and offered days of prayers and hundreds of thousands of butter lamps, illuminating the entire city and intending to spread light and blessings through the universe.
Next comes Saga Dawa Duchen, or Wesak, the full moon in May that marks Buddha’s enlightenment and death, or parinirvana. Then there’s Chokhor Duchen, commemorating the first teaching of the Four Noble Truths by the Buddha. This is celebrated on the fourth day of the sixth Tibetan lunar month, usually in July–shortly after the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6.
Finally, there’s Lhabab Duchen, which commemorates the Buddha’s descent from the deva (heavenly or angelic) realm after teaching his deceased mother, Mahamaya. Lhabab Duchen occurs on the 22nd day of the ninth lunar month each year.
Tibetans don’t celebrate a weekly Sabbath, but there are four holy days each month–roughly one per week: the eighth day of the waxing (rising) moon, sacred to the Medicine Buddha; the 15th (full moon day), sacred to the Buddha of Infinite Light, Amitabha; the eighth day of the waning moon, or the 25th of the lunar month, sacred to the dakinis, or Tibetan goddesses; and the 14th through the 15th day of the waning moon, or the day of no moon, which is considered Sakyamuni Buddha’s Day. The day just before the last day of the month, known as the 29th of the Tibetan calendar, is sacred to the dharmapalas, or dharma protectors.
Tibetans also fete the birthday of Guru Rinpoche, or Padma Sambhava, the eighth-century founder of Tibetan Buddhism affectionately known in Tibet as “the Second Buddha.” Guru Rinpoche’s birthday is the 10th day of the sixth month, sometime in mid- to late summer, and is celebrated with feasting and special spiritual rituals.
For Buddhists around the world, holidays, along with equinoxes, eclipses, and solstices, are considered moments of auspicious coincidence. Any actions during those holy days are believed to have much more karmic weight, for good or bad, than on any other day. Tibetans and Buddhists from other traditions recommend using these days for spiritual practice, as the results will be multiplied many times over for the benefit of all.