Bodhi Day, Rohatsu: Buddhists celebrate enlightenment with lights

MONDAY, DECEMBER 8: A season of light begins for Mahayana and Zen Buddhists, on the holiday known as Bodhi Day or Rohatsu. (Bodhi means “enlightenment” in Sanskrit.) While Theravada Buddhists mark Buddha’s collective birth, enlightenment and death on Vesak, those of the Mahayana school celebrate Buddha’s enlightenment with a day all its own: Bodhi Day. Tradition states that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama, underwent years of asceticism before vowing to sit beneath a tree in meditation until he uncovered the root of suffering. Buddha was sitting beneath a tree in Bodhgaya, India, when he achieved enlightenment.

During a cool Indian winter, the historical Buddha was meditating under a tree when he came to several realizations, all in one night: the truth of reincarnation; the need to break free from the cycle of death and birth; the laws of karma; and the Fourfold Path. (Wikipedia has details.) As he had meditated several weeks to achieve enlightenment, Buddha was physically weak and hungry, and one of his disciples fed him rice and milk. In custom, Buddhists today consume rice and milk on Bodhi Day.


In preparation for Bodhi Day, some Zen monks and laypersons undergo an eight-day sesshin, or group meditation. During the eight days, participants build up endurance until they can stay up an entire night in uninterrupted meditation. (Learn more from intercultural scenario analysis.) Traditions on Bodhi Day vary depending on how sects or individuals interpret the state of enlightenment: some view nirvana as cheerful and joyous, while others believe it embodies perfect inner peace.

As Christians are lighting Christmas trees and Jews lighting the menorah, many Buddhist families bring a ficus plant into the home, to pay tribute to the tree Buddha sat beneath when he achieved enlightenment. Multi-colored lights strung on the tree may represent the diverse pathways to nirvana, lit for 30 days from December 8. ( has additional suggestions.) Some children bake cookies with heart-shaped cookie cutters, in commemoration of the leaves of the ficus tree, and Buddhists everywhere perform good works.


The U.S. and China reached a major climate deal a few weeks ago, and many believe the formerly atheist country is changing its ways in light of a new surge in Buddhism. Millions of Chinese citizens are returning to the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples that were, in the past, condemned by the government, reported PBS. Some scholars attest that China’s colossal environmental problems are linked to the atheist values, and that with the laws of karma now being embraced by a growing number of Chinese citizens, major changes are taking place.


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