The many holidays and festivals held by the Buddhist community during the year celebrate the birthdays of Bodhisattvas in the Mahayana tradition or other significant dates in the Buddhist calendar.
The Buddha advised his followers that if they were to thrive they should ‘meet together regularly and in large numbers.’ So festivals are central to the life of the Buddhist community. They provide an opportunity for celebration and the expression of devotion and gratitude to the Buddha and his teachings.
The principal Buddhist festivals celebrate “the Three Jewels”, the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddhist Teaching), and the Sangha (the spiritual community).
Wesak, Vesak, or Buddha Day: The Celebration of the Buddha’s Enlightenment
Wesak is the most important of the Buddhist festivals and is celebrated on the full moon in May, except in a leap year when the festival is held in June. It celebrates the Buddha’s birthday, and, for some Buddhists, also marks his enlightenment and death.
Many of the Buddha’s disciples also attained Enlightenment, and in the centuries that have followed there have been many other Enlightened masters. They too are recalled at Wesak with readings of accounts of their lives or from works they wrote themselves.
Enlightenment is also an ideal to which all Buddhists aspire. So Wesak is a chance to reflect on what it might mean for individual Buddhists.
Dharma Day: The Celebration of the Buddha’s Teachings
Dharma Day marks the beginning of the Buddha’s teaching, and is celebrated on the full moon in July.
The word “Dharma” can be translated as truth and is the term used for the path to enlightenment, or the Buddhist teaching.
Soon after his Enlightenment the Buddha went to find his former disciples and share his experience with them. This event could be seen as the start of the Buddhist religion, and this is what Dharma day celebrates.
On Dharma day there are often readings from the Buddhist scriptures and a chance to reflect deeply on their contents. Above all, on Dharma day Buddhists feel profoundly grateful that the Buddha and other Enlightened masters did share their teachings with other people.
Sangha Day: The Celebration of Spiritual Community
Sangha Day is the second most important Buddhist festival. It is a celebration in honour of the Sangha, or the Buddhist community, and is celebrated on the full moon in the third lunar month, either in February or March.
On Sangha Day Buddhists celebrate both the ideal of creating a spiritual community, and also the actual spiritual community which they are trying to create. Sangha Day is a traditional time for exchange of gifts; it has become a prominent festival among Western Buddhists even though it is little known in the East.
Dangha Day is also known as Fourfold Assembly or Magha Puja Day.
Paranirvana Day or Nirvana day: the Death of Buddha
Paranirvana Day celebrates the death of the Buddha, and is held on February 15th, although some Buddhists celebrate it on other dates including February 8th.
Strange as it may seem, Buddhists celebrate the death of the Buddha. His death came when he was eighty years old and had spent some forty years teaching after his Enlightenment. What is more, the notion that all things are impermanent is central to Buddhist teaching and, for Buddhists, loss and impermanence are things to be accepted rather than causes of pain and grief.
The day is used as an opportunity to reflect on the fact of one’s own future death and on people whom one has known who have recently died. Meditations are done for the recently deceased to give them help and support wherever they might be now.
Paranirvana Day is also known as Nirvana Day.
Buddhist New Year
In Thervadin countries like Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Lao, the Buddhist New Year is celebrated for three days from the first full moon day in April. In Mahayana countries the Buddhist New Year starts on the first full moon day in January, although some countries celebrate the Buddhist New Year at other times.