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.

BUDDHISM TODAY: STATS AND FACTS

  • 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.

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.)