New Year: Mahayana Buddhists mark a fresh start with meditation and cleansing

Buddhist New Year Mahayana

A line of Buddhist statues. Photo by kmarius, courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, JANUARY 28: A Gregorian New Year was observed by most of the world just a few weeks ago, but for Mahayana Buddhists, the New Year comes today: on the first full moon day of January. Though customs and moon sightings vary by region, devotees in Mahayana countries—such as Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, China, Japan, Nepal, Vietnam and Indonesia—mark the New Year as a time of both meditation and gatherings.

Did you know? The Mahayana tradition began in India and claims a majority of Buddhist practitioners—the largest tradition within Buddhism today. Traditions within Mahayana include Zen, Chinese Chan, Pure Land, Tiantai, Nichiren and Vajrayana.

Though Buddhism stresses the importance of frequent and even daily self-reflection, the New Year stands apart as celebrated with visits among family and friends (though many may be virtual this year) and the release of old karma. In many regions, statues of Buddha are bathed in a sacred ceremony. Having cleaned their homes in preparation for the New Year, many homes host a feast of traditional foods and the exchange of well wishes.

Buddha statues, half view

Photo by Martin Vorel, courtesy of LibreShot

A quieter, more solemn custom involves the printing of past sins onto slips of paper, then casting them into a fire in attempts to free oneself from the negative consequences of bad karma and to garner a fresh start.


  • Buddhists make up approximately 1 percent of the adult population in the United States, and about two-thirds of U.S. Buddhists are Asian Americans, according to Pew Research Center estimates and an article released in 2019.
  • Mahayana Buddhism is commonly practiced in Northeast Asia, and it is common for local customs to blend with religious customs. In the United States, Mahayana Buddhism is more prevalent among immigrants from countries where Buddhism is practiced than in the general population.
  • Mahayana Buddhists believe that adherents to Buddhism—not just monks—are capable of achieving enlightenment. A goal of Mahayana Buddhism is to serve others and to assist others in reaching enlightenment, too.

Obon, Ullambana: Japanese festival honors ancestors, culture

Blue dress dancer Obon California

Dancers at Lodi Obon, in California. Photo by –Mark–, courtesy of Flickr

MID-JULY through MID-AUGUST: A festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes and a celebration of Japanese culture commences, as the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Worldwide, this festival spans an entire month: “Shichigatsu Bon,” celebrated in Eastern Japan, begins in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon” commences in August; “Kyu Bon,” or “Old Bon,” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

2019 update: According to, the peak of the 2019 Obon travel season is anticipated to take place between August 10 and August 18. The busiest days for domestic travel are expected to be around August 10 (with people leaving the big cities), and August 17-18 (with people returning to the big cities).

Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors—Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common at during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.


“Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” Bon-Odori—and the Buddhist legend it stems from—recall a disciple of Buddha who used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother. When the disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering, he asked Buddha how he could help her. The disciple made offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat and, soon after, saw his mother released from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. With his new-found insight, the disciple suddenly saw the true nature of his mother—her selflessness, and the sacrifices she had made for him—and with extra joy, he danced what is now the Bon-Odori. (Get a Buddhist perspective here.) A primary purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made.

San Jose Obon

Interested in a peek at last year’s Obon festival in San Jose? Click on the image to view a short video. (Video by Brandon Gregory, courtesy of Vimeo)

A taste of Obon: Looking for recipes to celebrate Japanese culture? The Spruce Eats offers a variety of Japanese cuisine suggestions, suitable for Obon. 

The official dance of Obon, though it follows a universal pattern, differs in many details by region. Music and steps typically reflect a region’s history, culture and livelihood. In addition, some regions incorporate items such as fans, small towels or wooden clappers into the dance, while others do not. Nonetheless, everyone is welcome to join in the Bon-Odori dance. When the festival draws to a close, paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers, symbolizing the ancestors’ return to the world of the dead (Toro Nagashi). Fireworks often follow.


Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada. In Brazil, street Odori dancing complements the Matsuri dance, and Taiko (drumming) and Shamisen contests are held. Buddhist temples host events throughout the United States, and in Hawaii and California, events are abundant.

Asalha Puja: Seek the Dhamma; take cover for a Theravada rains retreat

Line of Asian men in orange Theravada Buddhist robes

A procession of Buddhist monks in Laos. Tomorrow, monks and nuns will begin the 3-month rains retreat. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JULY 22: Monsoon season is looming and Theravada Buddhists are preparing to head indoors, but first, they celebrate Dhamma Day. Today is Asalha Puja, the anniversary of Buddha’s first public sermon. One of the most sacred festivals in Buddhism, Asalha Puja commemorates the day Buddha “set into motion the wheel of the dhamma” with his first public teaching. (Wikipedia has details.) The Great Discourse on the End of the Ultimate was delivered to five ascetics at Deer Park, in India, containing basic concepts that would be expanded upon in all future sermons. Following this first sermon, Buddha accepted his first disciple.


After having reached Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree, Buddha questioned whether anyone would understand what he had learned. Five ascetics came to mind that might benefit, and Buddha made his way to Deer Park to deliver a sermon to them. On that full moon day of the eighth lunar month, Buddha spoke to the ascetics of the Middle Path and the Four Noble Truths, explaining that neither extreme self-indulgence nor self-mortification was the way to Nirvana. The theory of Four Noble Truths explained that there is suffering; there are causes of suffering, including craving; suffering can be overcome when craving is mastered; and the path leading to the cessation of suffering—and Nirvana—is the Eightfold Path.

Monks and nuns will remain indoors for three months starting July 23 this year, spending the rainy season in the temple as did Buddha and his nomadic disciples. (Learn more from the Ministry of Culture, Thailand.) Yet the day before “Buddhist Lent” commences, adherents make offerings to temples and gather to hear readings from Buddhist scriptures. Sermons are delivered in temples, and devotees clean their homes. The Buddhist flag is hoisted high.


Asalha Puja is a government holiday in Thailand, but that’s just the halt of a joyous festival that began a week ago, on July 16. In the days leading up to Asalha Puja, Bangkok residents have attended candle molding ceremonies and mass prayer sessions; outside of Bangkok, robe offering ceremonies and meditation sessions were commonplace. (Thai News has the story.) All festivities were conducted in hopes that Buddhists would focus on the Dhamma, or truths taught by Buddha, during these special days.

A woman standing near a large rock carved with pillars and other indentations

A woman stands in Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist settlement near Kabul. International archaeologists are in a race to uncover the city’s treasures before a Chinese mining company excavates the area. Photo courtesy of Flickr

The largest rescue dig in the world is commencing at Mes Anyak, an ancient Buddhist settlement near Kabul, in Afghanistan. The race is on to excavate the collection of monasteries, statues, frescoes and architectural treasures before a Chinese mining company destroys the area, several news sources have recently reported. China attests that the area may hold up to $100 million worth of copper; geologists report the city was a major Buddhist settlement and part of the ancient Silk Road. With time of the essence, archaeologists from around the globe are working at a frenzied pace to uncover what they can, using everything from ground penetrating radar and georectified photography to pickaxes to uncover the remains. It’s unclear whether any digging will be permitted after summer is over.

Obon: Buddhists, Japanese culture embrace ancestors and Bon dances

Three Asian women dancing with kimonos, fans and traditional dress

The Bon Odori dance is an integral part of Obon celebrations. Photo courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, JULY 15-SUNDAY, AUGUST 18: It’s Obon season! From China to Japan to Hawai’i and in Buddhist communities worldwide, temples are adorned with hundreds of paper lanterns; devotees honor the spirits of deceased ancestors; the Bon-Odori dance invites participants of every age; flavorful chicken teriyaki, steaming bowls of udon and juicy watermelon slices are the common fare.

The festival of Obon lasts just three days, but when the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian at the beginning of the Meiji area, localities reacted differently—and now, different regions mark Obon at widely varying times between mid-July and mid-August. (Wikipedia has details.)

Obon is a shortened version of the term Ullambana, which, in Buddhism, indicates great suffering. By praying for ancestors’ spirits, it’s believed that their suffering can be lessened; the Bon-Odori dance is a joyful recognition of the alleviation of suffering.


Japanese culture has embraced Obon for more than 500 years, but the story of Bon Odori begins much earlier, with a disciple of Buddha. According to legend, this disciple possessed supernatural powers that he used to look upon his deceased mother. The disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and was suffering there. Deeply bothered, the disciple approached Buddha and asked how he might free his mother’s soul from the realm. Buddha instructed the monk to make offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, and when the monk did this, he saw his mother’s release. In joy, he also began to see his mother’s past unselfishness and the numerous sacrifices she had made for him. Now overjoyed, the monk danced the first “Bon Odori” dance. (The Shingon Buddhist International Institute has more.) Centuries later, adherents continue to recognize the sacrifices and goodness of their ancestors during the festival of Obon.


Spherical lanterns hung on a string and lit at night

Lanterns hung at the 2012 Obon festival in Japantown, San Jose, CA. Photo courtesy of Flickr

Legend has it that the monk of Bon Odori called upon Buddha in the seventh lunar month, and as such, Obon has always been a summer festival. (Interested in a short documentary of a Japanese observation of Obon? Check out this one on YouTube.)

Lightweight, cotton kimonos are commonly worn by dancers and festival attendees, with carnivals in some areas and a mix of summer and traditional foods. Bon dances are as different as the regions that perform them, with some using accessories like fans or towels and others imitating the area’s history. (This press story interviews a 77-year-old woman who has been dancing traditionally since age 4.) Modern Bon dance music can be written to the beat of well-known songs or kids’ tunes, and often, steps are intentionally simple so that everyone can participate.

Lanterns are hung on the front of houses throughout Obon to guide ancestors’ spirits home, and on the last day of Obon, the paper lanterns are illuminated with a candle and floated down a river or body of water to symbolize the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the deceased. (Make your own lanterns and teach kids about Obon with help from Circle Time Kids and In Culture Parent.) A grand fireworks display ends the ceremonies.


Though Obon is not a national holiday, many Japanese citizens take vacations during this time and return home for family reunions. (Get the scoop for 2013 in Japan at Japan-Guide.) Calendar interpretations vary widely, placing Obon in mid-July in Tokyo, in mid-August in China, and varying in other regions of Japan, such as Okinawa.

Outside of Japan, dates also vary in Brazil, which houses the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Hawai’i follows suit, where Japanese-American events are prominent. (In San Jose, Japantown provides food and entertainment in mid-July; the Kauai Museum in Hawai’i is currently running a “Buddhist Temples of Hawaii” exhibit; in Ontario, a press story covers the deep-rooted history of its Buddhist temple.) Street festivals stocked with Japanese culture, art and cuisine are also popular during Obon season.