Buddhism is more contemplative than ritualistic, and historically it mixed with many different cultural traditions as it spread around the world. Below is a brief description of some of the more common Buddhist holidays:
Buddhist Festivals are always joyful occasions. Buddhism celebrates many holidays and festivals, most of which commemorate important events in the life of the Buddha or various Bodhisattvas. The date of the holidays are based on the lunar calendar and often differ by country and tradition.
Buddhist holidays are joyful occasions. A festival day normally begins with a visit to the local temple, where one offers food or other items to the monks and listens to a Dharma talk. Some of the most important Buddhist holidays and festivals are briefly outlined below.
Buddhist New Year
In Theravadin countries, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos, the new year is celebrated for three days from the first full moon day in April. In Mahayana countries the new year starts on the first full moon day in January. However, the Buddhist New Year depends on the country of origin or ethnic background of the people. As for example, Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese celebrate late January or early February according to the lunar calendar, whilst the Tibetans usually celebrate about one month later.
Vesak or Visakah Puja (“Buddha Day”)
Traditionally, Buddha’s Birthday is known as Vesak or Visakah Puja (Buddha’s Birthday Celebrations). Vesak is the major Buddhist festival of the year as it celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha on the one day, the first full moon day in May, except in a leap year when the festival is held in June. This celebration is called Vesak being the name of the month in the Indian calendar.
Sangha Day (Magha Puja Day or Fourfold Assembly Day)
Sangha Day commemorates the Buddha’s visit to Veruvana Monastery in the city of Rajagaha, when 1,250 arhats are said to have spontaneously returned from their wanderings to pay their respects to the Buddha. Sangha Day is celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month (March).
Asalha Puja Day (“Dhamma Day”)
Asalha Puja means to pay homage to the Buddha on the full moon day of the 8th lunar month (approximately July). It commemorates the Buddha’s first teaching: the turning of the wheel of the Dhamma (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) to the five ascetics at the Deer Park (Sarnath) near Benares city, India. Where Kondanna, the senior ascetic attained the first level of enlightenment (the Sotapanna level of mind purity).
Observance Day (Uposatha)
Observance Day refers to each of the four traditional monthly holy days that continue to be observed in Theravada countries – the new moon, full moon, and quarter moon days. It is known in Sri Lanka as Poya Day.
This day marks the conclusion of the Rains retreat (vassa). In the following month, the kathina ceremony is held, during which the laity gather to make formal offerings of robe cloth and other requisites to the Sangha.
Kathina Ceremony (Robe offering ceremony)
Is held on any convenient date within one month of the conclusion of the Vassa Retreat, which is the three month rains retreat season (Vassa) for the monastic order. It is the time of the year when new robes and other requisites may be offered by the laity to the monks.
At the end of one rains retreat (vassa), the Buddha was so pleased with the progress of the assembled monks that he encouraged them to extend their retreat for yet another month. On the full-moon day marking the end of that fourth month of retreat, he presented his now-famous instructions on mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati), which may be found in the Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118) – The Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing.
In the Burmese tradition, this day celebrates the occasion when the Buddha is said to have gone to the Tushita Heaven to teach his mother the Abhidhamma. 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.
Ulambana (Ancestor Day)
Is celebrated throughout the Mahayana tradition from the first to the fifteenth 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 fifteen days. Food offerings are made during this time to relieve the sufferings of these ghosts. On the fifteenth day, Ulambana or Ancestor Day, people visit cemeteries to make offerings to the departed ancestors. Many Theravadins from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand also observe this festival.