WEDNESDAY, APRIL 28: Many Buddhists of the Theravada tradition will celebrate the New Year with symbolic elements often found at the beach: sand and water. Commonly, laity bathe Buddha images and sprinkle water on monks and elders, while Buddhists in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia add to the ritual by building sand mounds at monasteries or on river banks. In Buddhist tradition, each grain of sand is representative of a wrongdoing (or, in Buddhist terms, a bad “mark” on one’s karma), and when the sand is washed away by the river or by other means, that bad deed is “washed away.” Dates vary by region, but generally, Theravada Buddhists reflect on their karma and wish others well during the next two or three days, or the first days after the full moon in April. In Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos—as well as any other place where Theravada Buddhists have a presence—devotees usually spend the New Year festival days in concentrated thought about the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. (For more about Buddhist traditions, visit Buddhist Gateway.)
Theravada Buddhism is the oldest surviving Buddhist school, dating back more than two millennia, to ancient India. (Wikipedia has more.) Since the 3rd century BCE, Theravada Buddhism has remained virtually unchanged. Theravada Buddhists practice conservative (or orthodox) Buddhism—almost exactly following the teachings of Buddha—and practice under a name meaning “the Ancient Teaching.” Today, more than 100 million followers of Theravada Buddhism exist around the world.
Currently, a source of tension within Theravada Buddhism is the role of women. Due to its conservative roots, Theravada leaders are most often men in Asian countries. When Buddhism spread to the Western world, however, this began to change. Spurring change were the relative equality of women in the West and the fact that Western Buddhists tend to be both very educated and socially liberal. In a paper written for the Institute of Buddhist Studies in California, Karen Andrews pointed out that even within this conservative school of Buddhism, a fair role of women is in order; after all, it is Buddha who, in a time when women were viewed as second-class citizens with few rights, declared that women, too, could become arhats. Amid a culture with different ideas, Buddha and his followers held that women, too, could become enlightened if they followed the path of renunciation. (For more on what’s happening now, visit the Theravada Buddhist Society of America.)
Want to read about a Western woman who became a Buddhist leader? Here’s a profile that includes the popular Buddhist writer Geri Larkin.
(By ReadTheSpirit columnist Stephanie Fenton)
(NOTE: To see more short articles about upcoming holidays, festivals and anniversaries, click the “RTS Magazines” tab at the top of this page and select “Religious Holidays.”)