Bodhi Day, Rohatsu: Buddhists embrace Buddha’s enlightenment

“How marvelous, I, the great earth, and all beings are naturally and simultaneously awakened.”
Buddha, upon seeing the first morning star during enlightenment

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 8: It’s the season of light for several world religions—Nativity/Advent for Christians, Hanukkah for Jews, Yule for Pagans—and today, Mahayana Buddhists join the festivities by celebrating Buddha’s enlightenment on Bodhi Day (Rohatsu, in Zen Buddhism).

For some Buddhists, Bodhi spans the entire month; in Japanese Zen monasteries, Rohatsu incorporates a week-long sesshin, or meditation retreat, during which participants spend all waking time in intense meditation. For most lay Buddhists, however, Bodhi Day is spent contemplating the Dharma, dining on tea and cake and chanting Buddhist sutras. Families with children may string colored lights or bake cookies in the shape of the Bodhi tree’s leaf, celebrating their own traditions in the midst of the holiday season. (Find more ideas at Family Dharma.)

Note: Theravada Buddhist commemorate Buddha’s enlightenment on Vesak, a holiday that collectively celebrates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing into Nirvana.

The historical Buddha was born Siddhartha Guatauma in approximately the 6th century BCE (calculations vary by sect. Wikipedia has details). Born into a noble family, Siddhartha left wealth and luxury in his late 20s to seek the answer to the question: What is the root of suffering? Once he had seen the suffering of the commoners in his community, Siddhartha became determined to figure out why. He would go on to spend years in ascetic practice, retreating to the forests of India and Nepal for deep meditation. (Gain clarity in celebrating Bodhi Day in the 21st century in this article from the Huffington Post.)

Did you know? According to 2012 polls, approximately 14 percent of Asian Americans are Buddhist.

The details leading up to Siddhartha’s enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree vary by tradition: some believe that he made a vow to find the root of suffering, while others refer to temptations made by the god Mara (literally, Destroyer). Yet within the pages of the Pali Canon is a collection of discourses written by Buddha, describing the night of his enlightenment as occurring in three stages. (Get Buddhism fast facts at CNN.) During the first watch of the night, Siddhartha discovered the cycle of rebirth; in the second, he became aware of the Law of Karma; in the third, he understood the Four Noble Truths, and finally reached Nirvana. Upon enlightenment—at age 35—Siddhartha became a Buddha: “Awakened One,” or “Enlightened One.”


Archaeologists in Nepal recently discovered traces of a wooden structure beneath the Mayadevi temple in Lumbini—a structure believed to be the world’s oldest Buddhist shrine. (The Guardian reported.) Most intriguing to Buddhists is the fact that the structure has been scientifically dated to approximately the 6th century BCE—meaning that it could have been in existence when the historical Buddha was born at the temple site.

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