Among the great number of festivals observed in various so-called Buddhist countries, we have selected a few days throughout the year that seem to be significant and focused on Gauthama Siddharta’s life. These days, including our own way of celebrating them, have been carefully chosen as they may speak to us Western Buddhists more than perhaps ethnic festivals in different societies.
March – Avalokitesvara (Quan Yin) Birthday
This is a festival which celebrates the Bodhisattva ideal represented by Avalokitesvara, who is the perfection of compassion in the Mahayana traditions of Tibet and China. It occurs on the full moon day in March. Celebration: We gather for a special Dharma Service on the following Sunday morning, decorate the temple with flowers, followed by a pot-luck brunch.
May – Vesak or Visakah Puja (Buddha Day)
The birthday of the historical Buddha is celebrated on different dates by various schools of Buddhism. In most of Asia it is observed on the first full moon date of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar (typically May). But in other parts of Asia the day falls a month or more either earlier or later. Whatever the date, Buddha's Birthday is a time for hanging lanterns and enjoying communal meals. Joyous parades of musicians, dancers, floats, and dragons are common throughout Asia. In Japan, Buddha’s birthday – Hana Matsuri, or “Flower Festival” – is celebrated every year on April 8. Those who go to temples bring offerings of fresh spring flowers. One ritual found throughout Asia and in most schools of Buddhism is that of washing the baby Buddha. According to Buddhist legend, when the Buddha was born he stood straight, took seven steps, and declared "I alone am the World-Honored One." And he pointed up with one hand and down with the other, to indicate he would unite heaven and earth. The seven steps represent seven directions – north, south, east, west, up, down, and here. Mahayana Buddhists interpret "I alone am the World-Honored One" in a way that "I" represents all sentient beings throughout space and time – everyone, in other words. The ritual of "washing the baby Buddha" commemorates this moment. A small standing figure of the baby Buddha, with the right hand pointing up and the left hand pointing down, is placed on an elevated stand within a basin on an altar. People approach the altar reverently, fill a ladle with water or tea, and pour it over the figure to "wash" the baby.
Celebration: We here at Lotus Zen Temple follow the Japanese tradition and celebrate Visakha Puja with a special Dharma Service and a candle-lit procession to pay respect to the Lord Buddha. Sangha members are encouraged to bring flowers and various fruits to decorate the shrine as well as to share food for pot-luck.
July – Asalha Puja Day (Dharma Day)
In July, we celebrate Asalha Puja Day (Dharma Day). Asalha Puja means to pay homage to the Buddha in commemoration of the Buddha's first teaching: the turning of the wheel of the Dharma.
Asalha Puja falls on the full moon of the eighth lunar month (July), i.e. in the year 2012 on July 3. It was on this day that the Lord Buddha preached his sermon to followers after attaining enlightenment. The day is usually celebrated by merit making (performing good deeds), listening to a Dharma talk, and joining a candle-lit procession during the night or at the Dharma Service on the following Sunday.
November – The Elephant Festival
The Buddha used the example of a wild elephant which, when it is caught, is harnessed to a tame one to train. In the same way, he said, a person new to Buddhism should have a special friendship of an older or more experienced Buddhist. To mark this saying, we hold an elephant festival on the third Sunday in November.
Celebration: Every member of our temple is encouraged to invite a friend and/or sponsor a new participant, being his or her spiritual friend and offering help with Zen practice.
December – Bodhi Day
Traditionally the 8th day of the 12th lunar month has been observed on December 8th in Japan since the Meiji Restoration (1862-1869). It is the Buddhist holiday that commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni, experienced enlightenment (Bodhi). According to tradition, Siddhartha had recently forsaken years of extreme ascetic practices and resolved to sit under a Pipul tree and simply meditated until he found the root of suffering, as well as how to liberate oneself from it.
Celebration: We light candles (or electric lights) in our homes and in a special arrangement at the temple. At the end of meditation practice we gather for a seasonal party with food and cookies.
New Year's Eve Bell ringing
We ring the temple bell 107 times on the night before New Year’s Day and one time on New Year’s Day itself, just past midnight. There are several theories about this custom. For example, one is simply that people have 108 kinds of worldly desires and can get rid of them by ringing a bell. The other theory involves the Japanese word shikuhaku, which means "agony". It so happens that many Japanese words and sounds have several possible meanings. Ku, for example, means either "troublesome" or "nine". Shi means either "death" or "four". So if we do multiplication tables, shi (4) times ku (9) is thirty-six, and ha (8) times ku (9) is seventy-two. Then, thirty-six plus seventy-two is 108 — the number of worldly desires! By ringing the bell that many times, we hope to rid ourselves of this troublesome karma. Here is a traditional Chinese explanation: Like the knots or beads on a Mala, the bell is considered as an auspicious article in Chinese tradition. At great ceremonies, the temple bell is rung typically 108 times to begin the celebration. There are 12 months, 24 solar terms and 72 hours on the Chinese lunar calendar, 108 in all. According to Buddhist custom, people have 108 worries which are said to be removed by the bell. The bell-ringing at mid-night of New Year's would captivate many people as its echo carries around the vicinity, whether one is close by or just heard it via broadcast. Celebration:We begin meditation at 8 p.m. interspersed with special kinhin and dharma talks. We ring the temple bell 107 times right before midnight and one time on New Year’s Day itself, just past midnight. Then we immediately join in a party with seasonal foods & beverages.