Bodhi Day, Rohatsu: Mahayana Buddhists celebrate light and enlightenment

Candles in a Buddhist Temple (1)

Candles in a Buddhist Temple. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 8: December brings a season of light for several world religions, and as Christians light Christmas decorations and Jews light candles on the menorah, Buddhists celebrate light with a holiday known as Bodhi Day (or, in Zen Buddhism, Rohatsu).

Sanskrit for “enlightenment,” Bodhi Day is observed by Mahayana Buddhists, who celebrate Buddha’s enlightenment; for Theravada Buddhists, Buddha’s enlightenment is recalled together with his birth and passing, on a different holiday (Vesak). For members of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, Bodhi is often spent studying and meditating on the Dharma. In select Japanese monasteries, Rohatsu incorporates a week-long sesshin, or meditation retreat.

As Christians spend the weeks before and after Christmas in a revel of lights and celebration, so some Buddhists stringing colored lights onto a ficus tree, in representation of the many paths that can lead to enlightenment. Some families may bake cookies in the shape of the Bodhi tree’s leaf, in recollection of Buddha’s enlightenment beneath the tree in Bodhgaya, India. (Family Dharma has ideas for celebration). Buddhists everywhere perform good works and services for others.

BUDDHA, KARMA AND THE FOURFOLD PATH

The historical Buddha was born Siddhartha Guatama, a wealthy nobleman, in approximately the 6th century BCE (date calculations may vary). Having been shielded from the realities of death and sorrow throughout childhood, it wasn’t until he reached his 20s that Siddhartha was exposed to the concept of suffering and sought to discover its root. (Wikipedia has details.) After years of asceticism deep in the forests of India and Nepal, Siddhartha was beneath a tree in Bodhgaya one cool winter’s night when he came to several realizations. Within the pages of the Pali Canon, discourses written by Buddha describe the three stages of enlightenment, that night: understanding the need to break free of the cycle of life and death, the laws of karma, and the Fourfold Path. Finally, at the end of the realizations, Siddhartha reached nirvana. At this time—at age 35—he became known as “Buddha,” or “enlightened one.”

For some Buddhists, Bodhi Day and nirvana represent cheer and joy; for others, nirvana embodies perfect inner peace.

IN THE NEWS: TRENDING BUDDHISM IN JAPAN

NPR and other news sources are reporting the decline of Buddhism in Japan, but one American Buddhist priest in Okayama is hoping to change that statistic: through a Buddhist hip-hop movement, Priest Gomyo’s “Hoodie Monks” are reaching out to a younger generation. (World religion News has the story.) Though 75 percent of Japan’s total population still identifies as Buddhist, the majority only practice the religion after the death of a loved one. According to the Michigan-born Gomyo, “In Japan, it’s not about exposing young people to Buddhism—it’s all around them—it’s more about showing them that Buddhist is more than something you do at funerals.”

Inspired by the Beastie Boys song, “Bodhisattva Vows,” in the early 1990s, Priest Gomyo began rapping and was given his movement’s name by a friend who noticed that the priest wore a hooded sweater under his monk’s work clothes during the winter. Today, the Yugasan Rendaiji temple in Okayama is home to the “Hoodie Monks,” and the priest notes that, “elements of hip-hop do have a nice correlation with elements of Buddhist practice. The MC rapping is represented in Buddhism by chanting. … in Buddhism we use Taiko drums or wooden blocks to keep the beat when chanting in a group.”

Several countries over, actress Emma Watson has also been expressing an interest in Buddhism recently, citing her desire to become certified in yoga after having become interested in the literature of the Buddhist religion. (Read more here.)

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.