“Victory of the Buddha” from a 1922 book published in India.
December 8th marks a Buddhist holiday called Bodhi Day on the Western-Solar Calendar. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha attained Enlightenment on the “8th day of the 12th month”. Many Buddhist cultures still observe this holiday according to their local lunar calendar, but in Japan and the West, it is observed on December 8th.
Buddhism doesn’t really have a lot of holidays. So why make a holiday for the Enlightenment of the Buddha? It helps to explain the background a little.
The teachings of Buddhism are known as the Dharma. The Dharma is not something you take faith in or “believe” in. It is viewed the same way you view the Law of Gravity: whether you believe in it or not, it still works the same. Instead, your “goal” is to understand and appreciate it, and put it into practice.
The Buddha didn’t invent the Dharma. He discovered the Dharma. He attained it through many, many lifetimes of preparation, trial and error. In his own words:
“This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise….”
So the Buddha attained awakening to the Dharma, and thus he set the wheel in motion, teaching others and establishing a community which persists today in many parts of the world. But it will not last forever.
You see, Buddhism thinks big. Big time, big universe, etc. Universes grow and collapse, worlds are born and die. But the Dharma always exists. At times it is hidden, other times a Buddha will somehow discover it without anyone to help them. They will again set the wheel in motion, revive the community and liberate people. And again, the community will eventually fade and the process repeats.
So, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is one of many that have existed since eons past. Maybe these Buddhas resided on different worlds, maybe different universes, who knows? But, in any case, the historical Buddha is the Buddha of our time and era. So, we celebrate his extremely rare accomplishment, and the gift of his teachings to the world. It’s a reminder that anyone, given dedication and vision, can ultimately attain the same reward.
The Buddha is living proof of this.
Bodhi Day Today
So, how do people celebrate Bodhi Day today?
It varies a lot by traditions and personal preference. For many, it’s a special day reserved for renewed practice. A person can vow to follow the Eight Precepts from sunrise until the next sunrise, or even just vow to uphold the basic Five Precepts. In the Zen tradition, they call Bodhi Day Rohatsu, and devote themselves to more intense Zen meditation practice.
Others can choose to celebrate with family by setting up a little “Bodhi Tree” like the one the Buddha sat under during his enlightenment. These can be simple Christmas trees with a Buddha statue underneath. You can decorate with ornaments, popcorn-strings, etc. Or, you can find a nice potted tree and use that instead. We like to give presents to our kids on Bodhi Day, similar to Christmas. We try to give wholesome gifts like books and such, and also spend more time with the kids.
Many people will also attend temple services, even if they don’t normally go. If they can’t make it, then they might just study the Dharma a little and maybe recite a sutra, or even part of a sutra. Others will provide fresh offerings to their Buddha shrine such as flowers, incense, water, fruit, etc.
Bodhi Day is really all about saying “thank you” to the Buddha, and following his advice to put the teachings into practice. How you do it is up to you. The expression of gratitude and dedication to practicing the Dharma are what counts.
Happy Bodhi Day everyone!