Parinirvana Day: Mahayana Buddhists recall the death of Buddha

Budda Mahayana

A Budda statue at Mahayana Buddhist temple in New York. Photo by *Etoile de Mer*, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 8 and SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 15: The day Buddha reached complete Nirvana—Parinirvana— is observed by Mahayana Buddhists on Parinirvana Day, recalling the physical death of Gautama Buddha at the age of 80. Though some Mahayana adherents observe this event on February 8, many reserve the meditation retreats and special times of contemplation for February 15. On this day, temples are opened to laypersons, laypersons bring gifts to monks and nuns—all focused on the teachings of Buddha.

Did you know? The Mahayana tradition is followed by over half of the world’s Buddhists.

As recorded in the Parinirvana Sutra (spellings of the ancient record’s title vary), Buddha knew his life was nearing its end, and at this time, he confided to his disciples that he had told them all he knew. Buddha encouraged his monks to continue preaching his teachings, so that people would understand life and Nirvana for years to come.

Buddha taught that upon achieving enlightenment, Nirvana means the extinguishing of hatred, ignorance and suffering. The soul is released from samsara, the karmic cycle of life and death, and one enters a state beyond human understanding or imagination.

Buddha’s last words were relayed to his monks: “All conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive for your liberation with diligence.”

MAHAYANA VS. THERAVADA: DIFFERENCES IN THOUGHT

Worldwide, Buddhists generally classify themselves as either Mahayana or Theravada (two traditions within the Buddhist faith). What separates these two traditions?

  • While Mahayana followers accept the Buddha as the founder of Buddhism, they also consider him one of many Buddhas. (Theravada considers him one-of-a-kind.)
  • Mahayana religious practice includes prayer, chanting and meditation for both monks and laypersons. (In the Theravada tradition, it is more common for monks to meditate and laypersons to pray.)
  • Mahayana Buddhism includes an array of rituals and mysticism. (Theravada has a more rationalist point of view.)

Parinirvana Day: Mahayana Buddhists recall Buddha’s entry to complete Nirvana

Golden hued statue of seated Buddha on black background

Photo by Paul Kenjerski, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 15: Mahayana Buddhists mark the day Buddha reached complete Nirvana—Parinirvana—on Parinirvana Day, recalling the physical death of Gautama Buddha at the age of 80. Though some Mahayana adherents observe this event on February 8, most reserve the meditation retreats and special times of contemplation for February 15. On this day, temples are opened to laypersons, laypersons bring gifts to monks and nuns—all focused on the teachings of Buddha.

As recorded in the Parinirvana Sutra (spellings of the ancient record’s title vary), Buddha knew his life was nearing its end, and at this time, he confided to his disciples that he had told them all he knew. Buddha encouraged his monks to continue preaching his teachings, so that people would understand life and Nirvana for years to come.

Buddha taught that upon achieving enlightenment, Nirvana means the extinguishing of hatred, ignorance and suffering. The soul is released from samsara, the karmic cycle of life and death, and one enters a state beyond human understanding or imagination.

Buddha’s last words were relayed to his monks: “All conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive for your liberation with diligence.”

Bodhi Day, Rohatsu: Buddhists celebrate enlightenment with lights

Close-up of heart-shaped tree leaf on a tree

A leaf of the Bodhi tree, beneath which Buddha achieved enlightenment. Photo by metabrilliant, courtesy of Flickr

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.

Close-up of lightbulb on string of multicolore Christmas lights

Some Buddhists string lights on a ficus tree for 30 days following Bodhi Day. Photo courtesy of

SESSHIN, NIRVANA AND THE FICUS TREE

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. (DoItYourself.com 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.

IN THE NEWS:
‘GREENING’ IN CHINA?

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.

 

Mahayana New Year: Buddhists meditate, gather with family and friends

Two smiling Mahayana Buddhists in front of city buildings, additional monks in background

Mahayana Buddhists in Nepal. Photo courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, JANUARY 16: Most of world marked a Gregorian New Year just two weeks ago, but for Mahayana Buddhists, the New Year comes today: on the 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 meditation.

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 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.  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.

Did you know? The Mahayana tradition began in India and claims 56 percent of Buddhist practitioners—the largest tradition within Buddhism today. Traditions within Mahayana include Zen, Chinese Chan, Pure Land, Tiantai, Nichiren and Vajrayana.