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.

Bodhi Day, Rohatsu: Buddhists celebrate enlightenment with lights

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.


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. ( 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.


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.