Buddhism: Festivals | 9


Buddhist Festivals

There are a great many special days in the Buddhist tradition:

Some of these days celebrate significant birthdays (of the Buddha or of the Bodhisattvas), whereas others have to do with significant events in the monastic world.

Typically on a festival day laypeople go to their local temple or monastery and offer food to the monks, vow to uphold the five ethical precepts (pañcha śīla), and listen to the dharma; they also distribute food to the poor and make offerings of food, robes, and money to the monks.

In countries where the Theravada prevails (Thailand, Myanmar [Burma], Śrī Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos), the Buddhist New Year is celebrated for 3 days from the first full-moon day in April.

In predominantly Mahayana countries (China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet), the New Year typically starts on the first Fullmoon day in January, although this varies from country to country.

Vesākha (the Buddha’s birthday) is the most significant Buddhist festival of the year, as it celebrates the birth, Enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, all of which tradition holds occurred on the same day.

Vesākha takes place on the first full-moon day in May.

On the full-moon day of the 8th lunar month (approximately July), the Asalha Puja celebration takes place:

This holiday commemorates the Buddha’s first teaching, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” at the Deer Park in Sarnath.

Uposatha Days are 4 monthly holy days—when there is a new moon, a full moon, and quarter moons—that are observed in Theravada countries.

Pavāraṇā Day marks the conclusion of the rainy-season retreat (vassa).

The Kathina Ceremony (Robe Offering) is held on an auspicious day within one month of the conclusion of the three-month rainy-season retreat for the monastic order:

The ceremony marks not only the return of the monks into the larger community but the time when new robes and other requisites may be offered by the laity to the monks and nuns.

Specific to Myanmar (Burma), Abhidhamma Day celebrates the occasion when the Buddha is said to have gone to the Tushita Heaven to teach his dead mother the Abhidharma:

It is held on the full moon of the seventh month of the Burmese lunar year starting in April, which corresponds to the full-moon day in October.

In Thailand, at the end of the Kaṭhina Festival season, the Loi Krathong Festival (Floating Bowls) takes place on the full-moon night of the 12th lunar month:

People bring bowls made of leaves that they fill with flowers, candles, and incense and then float in the water. As the bowls float away, all bad luck is said to disappear.

The traditional practice of Loi Krathong was meant to pay homage to the holy footprint of the Buddha on the beach of the Narmada River in India.

Specific to Śrī Lanka, the Festival of the Tooth takes place in Kandy, where the tooth relic of the Buddha is enshrined:

The tooth itself, kept deep inside many caskets, is never actually seen. But once a year in August, on the night of the full moon, there is a special procession for it, which was traditionally said to protect the kingdom.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated throughout the Mahayana tradition from the 1- 15th days of the eighth lunar month:

It is believed that the gates of hell are opened on the first day, and the ghosts may visit the world for 15 days. Food offerings are made during this time to relieve the sufferings of these ghosts.

On the 15th day (Ulambana), people visit cemeteries to make offerings to the departed ancestors. Many Theravādins from Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand also observe this festival.

Avalokiteshvara’s birthday is a festival that celebrates the Bodhisattva ideal represented by Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin), who represents the perfection of compassion in the Mahayana traditions of Tibet and China:

The festival occurs on the first full-moon day in March.