Buddhist Religious Year

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BUDDHIST RELIGIOUS YEAR . The Buddhist religious year celebrates seminal events in the life of the founder and the early religious community and sanctifies the annual changes of the seasons and the cyclical passage of time in which the life of the community is embedded. Particular cultural traditions adjust and amplify both dimensions of the Buddhist calendar according to their own histories and circumstances.

Each Buddhist culture developed its own religious calendar punctuated by particular ceremonies, rituals, and festivals. Chinese Buddhists, for example, celebrated the life of the Buddha and various bodhisattvas, the death anniversaries of certain figures in Chinese Buddhist history, various celestial beings (tian gong ), the emperor's birthday, and such seasonal events as the celebration of the new year and the end of summer. In Tibet, the religious year included not only celebrations for the Buddha and major religious figures such as Padmasambhava, but also monthly commemorations of a wide variety of deities and saints and the celebration of the new year. Within any given cultural tradition the specifically Buddhist events of the yearthe life of the Buddha, the observance of the rains retreat (vassa ), and so forthare likely to be articulated with the agricultural cycle. Thus, in much of Southeast Asia, Buddha's Day occurs at the onset of the monsoon rains in May; the kahina ceremonies, in which gifts are presented to the monks, comes at the end of vassa, the end of the planting season; and the merit-making ceremony in honor of the Buddha's appearance as Prince Vessantara comes in FebruaryMarch, after the rice harvest. In short, the Buddhist religious year is closely integrated with the cycle of rice cultivation and its accompanying economic activities.

For the purposes of this article we shall not divide the Buddhist religious year chronologically, in part because of the variance among Buddhist calendars from culture to culture. Rather, we shall first examine the major observances of the Buddhist year as defined by the events in the life of the Buddha and the founding of his religion (sāsana ), and then seasonal celebrations, in particular, the New Year. Although these two dimensions of the Buddhist religious year are separable for analytical purposes, within the lives of Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, Thai, Sri Lankan and Burmese Buddhists the distinction is, at best, moot. From the perspective of the individual, furthermore, the religious year is also marked by life-transition ceremonies of an annual (e.g., birth and death anniversaries) or occasional nature, for instance, house consecrations. In traditional Buddhist societies, then, the religion essentially sanctified and made meaningful all aspects of life, whether cosmic, communal, or individual.

In short, the experience of the tradition calibrates the religious year, its founding, the major events within its early history, its most significant turning points. The major annual observances of the Buddhist year include, but are not limited to, the life of the Buddha, the proclamation of the Buddha's teaching, or dharma, the founding of the monastic order, the beginning and end of the monsoon rains retreat (vassa ), founder's celebrations, and saint's anniversaries. Observances celebrated more frequently, monthly or bimonthly, weekly or daily, include sabbath ceremonies, the fortnightly monastic confessional, or Prātimoka, and daily monastic rituals.

Celebrating the Buddha

Buddhist doctrine traditionally divides the Buddha's life into eight or twelve acts, many of which are commemorated in various ways in particular Buddhist cultures. These acts include the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, first discourse, entry into nirvāa, descent from Trāyastriśa Heaven, where he had instructed his mother in the Abhidharma, the simultaneous appearance of the 1,250 arhats at Veuvana monastery in Rājagha, and the miracle of Śrāvastī, where the Buddha miraculously multiplied himself into an infinite number of flaming manifestations, thereby vanquishing the heretics who had challenged him to a magical competition.

Buddha's Day

Buddha's Day, or Visākhā Pūjā in the Theravāda tradition, is considered by many to be the most holy day in the Buddhist year, as it commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death (i.e., parinirvāa ) of the Buddha, believed by Theravāda Buddhists to have occurred miraculously on the same day of the week. In Theravāda countries this celebration, known as Vesak in Sri Lanka, occurs on the full-moon day of Visākhā (Skt., Vaiśākha; AprilMay). Vesak celebrations in Southeast Asia focus on the monastery. Devotees observe the precepts and listen to sermons on the life of the Buddha. In Thailand, the traditional Vesak sermon, the pathama-sambodhi, continues throughout the entire night. It begins with the wedding of Suddhodana and Mahāmāyā, the Buddha's parents, and concludes with the distribution of the Buddha's relics and an accounting of the reasons for the decline of Buddhism in India. The text is a composite of scripture and popular commentary in which the Buddha is depicted as a teacher and miracle worker. In addition to attendance at monastery services, other common Vesak practices include watering bodhi trees within monastery compounds, circumambulation of the cetiya reliquary at night with incense and candles, acts of social service such as feeding the poor and treating the sick in hospitals, pilgrimage to sacred sites, and the bathing of Buddha images.

The celebration of Buddha's Day is both ancient and widespread. The seminal events of the Buddha's career coalesced into Vesak by the Theravādins are acknowledged independently in other Buddhist cultures. In Tibet, for example, the traditional religious year included celebration of the Buddha's conception or incarnation on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, the attainment of Buddhahood on the eighth day of the fourth month, the Buddha's death, or parinirvāa, on the fifteenth day of the fourth month, and the Buddha's birth on the fourth day of the sixth month of the Tibetan year. The first of these events, the Buddha's incarnation, occupied a preeminent place in the Tibetan religious year, in part because of its assimilation into the New Year carnival. It was a day when special respects were paid to the Dalai Lāma, and the Buddha's mother, Mahādevī, was solicited for special boons. In China, Korea, and Japan, the Buddha's birthday has been marked, in particular, by a procession of Buddha images and the bathing of these images. These traditions associated with Buddha's Day or Buddha's Birthday appear to be of early origin.

The Mahāvasa mentions a procession of Buddha images during the reign of Duhagāmaī (Sinhala, Duugämunu; r. 10177 bce), for which the prototype may well have been a ceremony described in Aśoka's Fourth Rock Edict. Faxian observed a similar procession in India during his visit in the fifth century of the common era. The tradition of bathing Buddha images appears to be symbolized by the Lalitavistara episode of the two nāga serpents, Nanda and Upananda, bathing the bodhisattva after his birth, an episode depicted at such far-flung sites as Tun-huang and Borobudur. The Mahāsattva Sūtra describes a similar event where the Buddha is bathed by Indra and the four deva kings. It designates the eighth day of the fourth lunar month as the time when all devotees should wash his images in respect of the Buddha's power to grant boons.

Buddha's Day ceremonies and festivities embody both normative and popular dimensions of the Buddhist tradition, as do other celebrations marking the Buddhist religious year. Although relatively free of non-Buddhist elements, the focus on the Buddha imagewhether through consecration, procession, or lustrationhas primarily a mythic and/or magical significance. The Buddha is honored as a being greater than any other deity, and as a granter of boons. On the popular level, this aspect of Buddha's Day has assumed a greater importance than remembrance of the Buddha as the Enlightened One and great teacher.

The commemoration of Buddha relics

According to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, after the Buddha's death his relics were divided among the eight cakkavatti (Skt., cakravartin ) rulers of India, who enshrined them in cetiya (Skt., caitya, reliquary mounds) at eight locations throughout India. While the obvious symbolic nature of this story belies its historicity, by the Mauryan period in India (fourth to second century bce) caitya the likes of Sāñcī and Bhārhut had become important centers of pilgrimage and popular piety. The early association of Buddha relics with kingship in India points to a pattern perpetuated throughout much of Buddhist Asia: the enshrinement of a major Buddha relic as a monarch's attempt to legitimate his rule through the appropriation of the buddhasāsana (the Buddhist religion), and, even more importantly, to base his realm around a center of magical, sacred power. Buddhist chronicles often make no clear distinction between the sacred boundary of a Buddhist sanctuary housing a major Buddhist relic and jurisdictional limits of towns or larger political units. Both temple and kingdom, in one sense, derive their identity from the Buddha relic. Consequently, ceremonies commemorating the enshrinement of a Buddha relic are often major annual celebrations honoring the person of the Buddha that empower both the religion and the state. An outstanding example of such an annual celebration is found in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, the most elaborate national festival celebrates the arrival of the eyetooth relic of the Buddha, which is enshrined as the palladium of the kingdom in the Daladā Māligāwa (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy. The Dhātuvasa (Chronicle of the tooth relic) states that the relic was brought to Sri Lanka from Kaliga in India during the reign of King Kitsirimeghavaa (352377). The king enshrined the relic in the capital, Anurādhapura, ordered that a grand festival celebrate its arrival, and dedicated the whole of Sri Lanka to it. Faxian, who visited Sri Lanka in the ninth century, gives us a record of the annual festival celebrating the tooth relic, reputed to have been brought to Sri Lanka only ten days after the Buddha's parinirvāa. He reports that the procession of the relic around the precincts of the capital occurred in the middle of the third lunar month. The procession he witnessed passed between five hundred people costumed to represent the five hundred lives (jātaka ) of the bodhisattva according to the Theravāda tradition. The Daladāsirita (History of the tooth relic), written in the fourteenth century, describes in great detail the annual circumambulation of the tooth relic around the capital. The procession was marked by the sprinkling of holy water throughout the city sanctified by the chanting of the paritta. Today, the festival takes place during the month of Āsāha (Skt., Āādha; the lunar month of JulyAugust) in the town of Kandy. The festival, which has taken on a carnival atmosphere, goes on for eleven nights, culminating in the twelfth day with a water cutting ceremony.

Similar festivals occurred in East Asia, as well. During the Tang dynasty (618907) the festival that attracted the largest crowds in the capital, Xi˒an, centered around Buddha relics. During the second or third lunar month, tooth relics from four temples and a fingerbone relic from the Famen Si were put on display for a week. The Famen Si relic was, on occasion, put on public view inside the royal palace. A ninth-century memorial by Han Yu claimed that the display of the relic produced such a frenzy on the part of the viewers that they burned their heads, roasted their fingers, and threw away their clothes and money. Such annual festivals honoring Buddha relics calibrate the religious year not so much in terms of the life of the Buddha but in terms of the magical power of his bodily presence, a presence fraught with political as well as religious significance.

Honoring the Buddha's dharma

The Buddha's teaching, or more narrowly conceived, particular Buddhist texts, are often honored in annual ceremonies and ritual celebrations. In Tibet, the feast of the First Discourse was traditionally held on the fourth day of the sixth lunar month. In modern Thailand, the commemoration of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta occurs on the full moon of Āsāha, the eighth lunar month, at the beginning of the monsoon rains retreat (vassa ). In addition to the first discourse, the tradition also celebrates the Buddha's preaching of the Abhidharma to his mother and the teaching of the Prātimoka, the core of the monastic discipline (Vinaya), which the tradition holds took place three months before the Buddha's parinirvāa. These celebrations may be assimilated into other parts of the Buddhist year, as, for example, in Tibet, where the Buddha's descent from Trāyastriśa Heaven marks the end of the monsoon rains retreat.

As an example of an annual popular ceremony celebrating a particular text we look to the preaching of the Vessantara Jātaka in the Theravāda countries of Southeast Asia. This ceremony is known in Thailand as Thet Mahāchāt. To be sure, the occasion focuses on the Buddha's perfection of the virtue of dāna (generosity) and on the efficacy of puñña (religious merit), but it also clearly demonstrates the power of the dharma as a text, not only as a teaching or narrative, but as something with special potency in both its written and oral form. Thus, as with the annual celebrations focusing on the Buddha, which remember not only the seminal events of his life but also the magical power of his physical presence, annual celebrations remembering the dharma refer not simply to the Buddha's teaching of Dharma, Abhidharma, and Vinaya but to the power of the text, especially as chanted.

In northeastern Thailand the preaching of the Vessantara Jātaka, which recounts a former life of the Buddha as Prince Vessantara, occurs in FebruaryMarch after the rice harvest. While the ceremony includes various animistic and Brahmanic elements, the celebration focuses on the preaching of the thirteen chapters of the Thai version of the story. Monks famed for preaching particular chapters may be invited by sponsors whose donations to the sangha (Skt., sagha; the monastic order) are thought to be particularly meritorious. Prior to the recitation of the text the laity may enact the journey of Vessantara from the kingdom of Sivi and back again, having passed the tests to his generosity arranged by the god Indra. When the entire story is preached the ceremony, which begins in the morning, lasts well into the night.

In China, Korea, and Japan texts such as the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra (Lotus sūtra) were the objects of major ceremonies. In Japan the Ninnōkyō, or Sūtra of the Benevolent Kings, was from the seventh to the thirteenth century one of the most important scriptures in Japanese Buddhism. It became the object of a public cult (ninnō-e ), and ceremonies celebrating it were frequent at the Japanese court in order to ensure the maintenance of the dynasty and the welfare of the state. In Tibet, the fifteenth day of the third lunar month commemorated the preaching of the Kālacakra Tantra; each monastery also annually celebrated the particular Tantra to which its school ascribed special importance.

Thus, while the Buddhist year celebrated the Tripiaka in terms of three events in the Buddha's legendary life, other texts, which often dealt with such popular topics as the bodhisattva, miracles, and, more specifically, magical protection of the state, were often the occasion of annual ceremonies. In short, on the level at which the dharma enters into the popular perception of sacred time, it too, like the figure of the Buddha, takes on magical significance that protects the individual and guarantees social and political wellbeing.

Celebrating the Religion

The religious year not only celebrates the person and life of the Buddha and his teaching, but the founding of the Buddha's community or monastic order, the establishment of the Buddha's religion in various parts of Asia, the monastic year as focused on the period of the monsoon rains retreat, and particularly important religious figures such as holy founders and reformers of the tradition.

The founding of the Sagha

The founding of the sagha is tied to the miraculous event of the Buddha's appearance before the 1,250 arhats at Veuvana Mahāvihāra in Rājagha. All had received ordination from the Buddha with the words "Ehi bhikkhu" ("Come, O monk"); according to tradition, the Buddha used this occasion to hand down the Prātimoka to his assembled followers. In short, the unannounced, miraculously simultaneous gathering of over a thousand monks ordained by the Buddha himself became the occasion for establishing the rule of order for the Buddhist monastic life.

In Thailand this event in the religious year is celebrated on the full moon sabbath of the third lunar month (Māgha) and is known as Māgha Pūjā. The celebration follows a relatively simple pattern. At about dusk crowds of laity gather in temple compounds to circumambulate the temple cetiya before entering the preaching hall for an evening of chanting and a sermon. The traditional text used for the occasion is a gāthā on the Prātimoka composed in the early nineteenth century by King Rama IV when he was a monk. It encourages the sangha to be a field of merit through constant attention and heedfulness, a teaching similar to the Buddha's instructions to the monks at Veuvana to do no evil of any kind, be established in the good, and to maintain a clear mind.

Establishing the tradition

Various types of annual events celebrate the establishment of Buddhism in a particular location or cultural area. These events range from commemorations of the arrival of Buddhist missionaries to the founding of particular temples or monasteries, often with royal support, for instance, the Shōmusai festival of the Tōdaiji in Nara held in May in commemoration of the death of the Japanese emperor Shōmu (701756) and his patronage of Buddhism.

Temple or pagoda festivals and holy days commemorating events in the life of the Buddha are the most often observed Buddhist ceremonies in Myanmar. Nearly every Myanmari will attend at least one pagoda festival annually. Unlike observances connected with the life of the Buddha, Myanmar temple and pagoda anniversaries are much more in the nature of a country fair. At larger temples the event may last a week with a temporary bazaar featuring commercial goods for sale, games of chance, and of course, numerous makeshift restaurants. Evenings will be filled with various kinds of dramatic performances, including traditional plays and dances and the showing of films. Temple anniversary celebrations also provide an opportunity to solicit donations, often as part of merit-making ceremonies. As in the case of the annual festival at Wat Cedi Luang in Chiangmai, northern Thailand, ceremonies may also include significant non-Buddhist elements such as propitiation of the guardian spirits of the area or region. In the case of Wat Cedi Luang, the anniversary celebration in May includes propitiation of the foundation pillar of the city (identified with the Hindu god Indra) as well as offerings to the autochonous guardian spirits of Chiangmai, a ceremony performed somewhat surreptitiously outside of the city.

In Sri Lanka the establishment of Buddhism on the island is celebrated about a month after Vesak with the Poson festival. The major activities take place at Anurādhapura and Mahintale, where thousands of people come to honor Mahinda, the patron saint of Sri Lanka, who is reputed to have brought the dharma to the island at the request of his father, King Aśoka. Later, Mahinda's sister, Sanghamittā, came to the island to establish a Buddhist order of nuns. She brought a branch of the sacred bodhi tree with her, which was planted in the capital. Paying homage to the sacred bodhi tree is an important part of the festivities that take place.

The rains retreat

The earliest form of Buddhist monastic organization seems to have been mendicancy. In the Mahāvagga of the Vinaya Piaka monks are encouraged to adopt a peripatetic existence. During the monsoon rains, however, the Buddha's disciples gathered in more stable communities. Indeed, assuming that mendicancy characterized the earliest Buddhist monastic practice, cenobitism may well have grown out of the tradition of rains-retreat residence (vassāvasa ).

Practical explanations for the origin of the observance of a rains retreat fail to take account of its more archaic, magical nature, which is associated with ascetic practice. Various aspects of early Buddhist monastic life and discipline can be interpreted as contrasting the sexual continence of the monk with its polar opposite, the feminine principle of life, gestation, and generation. This principle is embodied not only by women, whose contact with celibate monks is highly circumscribed, but by mother earth, who gives birth to life-sustaining crops. Monastic confinement during the monsoon rains-retreat period might be interpreted as protecting the life-generating power of the earth from the ascetic power of the monk and, correspondingly, defending the monk from the potencies of the earth during the most crucial gestation period of the cycle of plant life. Such an interpretation of the symbolic-magical significance of the origin of the rains-retreat period provides insight into one of the most important annual calendric rituals in Theravāda Buddhist countries, celebrations at the onset and, in particular, at the conclusion of the rains retreat, or Buddhist lenten period.

Both the beginning and end of the rains-retreat period are marked by auspicious rituals held on the full-moon sabbaths of July and October. The onset of vassa often witnesses many ordination ceremonies, for in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos many young men observed the custom of accepting ordination for one lenten period only. On the July full-moon sabbath the laity will process to the monastery bearing gifts (dāna ) for the monks. During the sabbath service monks and laity will be exhorted to observe an austere lent, thereby emphasizing the primary theme of the rains-retreat period. Especially for monks, the lenten period is a religiously observant time. More time is spent inside the monastery in study, meditation, and monastic devotions. In short, vassa epitomizes the lifestyle of the monk as an ascetic, nirvāa -seeking follower of the Buddha. On a magical level, his more rigorous practice during this period charges the monk with power, to which the laity gain access through the rituals marking the end of the rains retreat.

In Theravāda countries the end of the Buddhist lenten period provides the occasion for the most significant merit-making ceremonies. In Myanmar, the full-moon day of October marks the reemergence of the Buddha himself from Trāyastriśa Heaven. Oil lamps ringing monastery pagodas represent the mythic heavenly torches that lit his descent to earth. During the ceremonies that take place over the month following the October full-moon sabbath the laity give generously to the sangha, especially gifts of new robes (kahina ). In Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia kahina ceremonies were and are often marked by processions to the monastery compound highlighted by the gift of a "wishing tree" (padesa ) reminiscent of the trees in the Southern Island of the Buddhist cosmology that supplied the populace with all their needs simply for the asking. Symbolically, this annual celebration provides a ritual mechanism whereby the laity can gain access to the magical-spiritual power of the monks generated during the rains retreat. Thus, even this most exemplary period of the monastic life has a parochialized, magical significance that serves the immediate needs of the laity.

Celebrating the saints

The Buddhist year not only commemorates the Buddha and his teaching, the monastic order and its institutionalization at various times and in various places, but also the lives of saints. In Mahāyāna and Tantrayāna cultures bodhisattva days honor popular mythic savior figures, for instance, Guanyin (Avalokiteśvara), as well as legendary patriarchs (e.g., Bodhidharma) and historic reformers such as Hakuin. Some Buddhist figures are celebrated at the national level (e.g., Padmasambhava in Tibet) while others are of regional or more local significance.

Traditionally, the Chinese celebrated Guanyin's birthday on the nineteenth day of the second lunar month. In addition, her enlightenment and entry into nirvāa were also celebrated on the nineteenth day of the sixth month, and nineteenth day of the ninth month, respectively. Guanyin is celebrated as a merciful savior, the granter of intelligent sons and virtuous daughters, and the dispeller of natural catastrophies. In popular Chinese accounts of Guanyin's origins she is depicted as having been a royal princess from Sichuan Province by the name of Miao-shan who, as a consequence of her ascetic piety, was reborn as a bodhisattva destined to return to the human realm as the merciful Guanyin.

Bodhidharma is looked upon as the founder of the Chan (Jpn., Zen) school of Buddhism in China and the first of six traditional Chan patriarchs. His death anniversary is celebrated on the fifth day of the tenth lunar month. Other annual celebrations commemorating founders of Buddhist schools honor, among others, Baijiang, a noted Chan master of the Tang dynasty (nineteenth day of the first month) and Zhiyi, founder of the Tiantai school (the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh lunar month).

In Tibet saint-founders were the object of annual celebrations. The Rnying ma pa school, for instance, established a sequence of monthly ceremonies commemorating various aspects of Padmasambhava's life; the tenth day of the first month celebrates his flight from the world; the tenth day of the second month, his taking religious vows; the tenth day of the third month, his changing fire into water having been consigned to the flames by the king of Zahor, taking the name Padmasambhava, and so on.

In short, the lives of saints, founders, patriarchs, and reformers, whether deified in myth or valorized in legend, provide a special definition to the year in various Buddhist cultures. In the case of Padmasambhava episodes from the guru's biography provide a narrative structure of sacred time to the religious year. In other Buddhist traditions, death anniversaries commemorating key figures in patriarchial lineages integrate the year into a sacral continuum that includes the Buddha, the originator of the sect or school, the father of the subtradition, and so on down to the founder of the local monastery.

Seasonal Celebrations

The Buddhist religious year celebrates the seasonal changes, the agricultural calendar, and the seasons of human life and death. In Japan, for example, seasonal celebrations include New Year's Eve Day (Joya-e) and New Year's Day (Oshōgatsu), December 31 and January 1; the heralding of spring (Setsubun-e), February 3; spring and fall equinox (Higan-e), March 21 and September 21; Festival of the Dead (Obon), July 15; and Buddhist Thanksgiving Day (Segaki-e), sometime in the summer. Seasonal celebrations tend to be highly syncretic, with the Buddhist dimension competing with various non-Buddhist elements.

In Tibet, the New Year festival (Lo gsar) incorporated a Buddhist element, the great miracle of Śrāvastī, but its fundamental meaning is the exorcism of evil influences from the old year and the calling up of good fortune for the year to come. The elaborate ritual performances held during the New Year festival aimed not only at the welfare of the individual, but, even more so, at the good of the community. In Japan, New Year may be celebrated by visiting well-known Buddhist temples and shrines, but the traditional custom of eating pounded rice cakes (mochi ) and drinking sweetened wine (toso ) symbolized the hope for good health and longevity.

In Thailand, the New Year celebration (Songkrān) falls in the middle of April at the end of the dry season just prior to the coming of the monsoon rains. Although Buddhist temples and monasteries are the site of many New Year ceremonies, the New Year festival, as in Tibet and Japan, seems to have more to do with good luck and a healthy life in the year to come than with specifically Buddhist concerns. In the Thai case, elements of the New Year celebration are obviously intended as acts of sympathetic magic to abet the onset of the monsoon rains, necessary for the planting of the rice crop.

Seasons in the agricultural year are demarcated in various ways in the Buddhist religious calendar. In some cases, agricultural transition may be subsumed into specifically Buddhist events, such as the close relationship between Buddha's Day in monsoon, Theravāda countries, and the planting of rice. In other instances, however, these transitions may simply be made more meaningful by the Buddhist dimension of the culture in which they are embedded. For example, in Sri Lanka the seed-sowing festival (Vap Magula) traditionally held for the prosperity of the nation, is given Buddhist legitimation through the legend of Siddhārtha's presence at the plowing ceremony held by the future Buddha's father, King Suddhodana. In the modern period, all-night pirit (Pali, paritta ) ceremonies will be held before the festival, attended by ministers of state who play the role of traditional Buddhist kings. The harvest festival in Sri Lanka (Aluth Sahal Magalya) and Theravāda Southeast Asia focuses on the offering of first fruits in gratitude to the Buddha and the gods. In Sri Lanka, the contemporary harvest ceremony is held in Anurādhapura under the leadership of the minister of agriculture and development. Both the seed festival and the harvest festival undoubtedly represent Buddhist transformations of Brahmanic ceremonies.

Although individual life-transitions ordinarily do not define a community's religious year unless the person occupies a position of signal importance in China, Korea, and Japan, annual festivals for the deceased achieved national significance. While the festival represents the pervasive significance of the propitiation of ancestral spirits in these cultures, the Buddhist tradition provided its own distinctive validation. According to legend, the Buddha's disciple Maudgalyāyana descended to the deepest hell to rescue his mother from its torments. The Buddha advised Maudgalyāyana that by making offerings of food, clothing, and other necessities to the monks on behalf of the denizens of hell they would be relieved of their suffering. In China it became the custom that offerings made at the Ullambana All Soul's Feast held during the seventh lunar month were believed to rescue ancestors for seven preceding generations. In Japan the Obon festival takes place over three days, July 1315. Activities will include special services at the home altar, visits to temple graveyards in order to welcome the ancestral spirits back to their home, and special vegetarian feasts. On the last day of the celebration the spirits will be sent off in miniature boats (shōryōbune ) filled with food and lighted lanterns.

Concluding Remark

The Buddhist religious year sanctifies the life of the individual and the community in all of its aspects. Through annual ritual ceremonials and festivals mundane life is transfigured and the seemingly chaotic nature of existence finds meaning in an ordered sequence of paradigmatic events. While the life of the founder and the events of the early Buddhist community provide the central focus of the Buddhist religious year, its comprehensive scope incorporates all aspects of life from the beginning (the New Year festival) to the end (the All Souls' Feast).

See Also

Avalokiteśvara; Kingship, article on Kingship in East Asia; Stupa Worship; Worship and Devotional Life, articles on Buddhist Devotional Life in East Asia, Buddhist Devotional Life in Southeast Asia, Buddhist Devotional Life in Tibet.


Information on the Buddhist religious year or on Buddhist calendric rituals and festivals can be found in numerous books treating Buddhism in particular cultural contexts. Material on this subject in Theravāda Buddhist cultures is somewhat more recent than that for Central and East Asia. For Sri Lanka, Lynn de Silva's Buddhism, Beliefs and Practices in Sri Lanka, 2d rev. ed. (Colombo, 1980), provides an extensive, concise description of major calendric festivals. H. L. Seneviratne's "The Äsala Perahära in Kandy," Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies 6 (1963): 169180, is a detailed treatment of the major annual Buddhist festival in Sri Lanka. James G. Scott (Shway Yoe) discusses various calendric festivals (e.g., pagoda, harvest, and end of the rains retreat) in The Burman, His Life and Notions, 3d ed. (London, 1910). Melford E. Spiro has a brief section on annual ceremonies in Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 2d ed. (Berkeley, 1982). Many studies of Thai Buddhism touch on the ceremonies of the Buddhist religious year. Stanley J. Tambiah's Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, U.K., 1970) is a gold mine of information, as is Kenneth E. Wells's earlier study, Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities (Bangkok, 1939). More specialized contributions include my Wat Haripuñjaya: A Study of the Royal Temple of the Buddha's Relic, Lamphun, Thailand (Missoula, Mont., 1976), which has a chapter on calendric ceremonies, and Charles F. Keyes's "Buddhist Pilgrimage Centers and the Twelve Year Cycle: Northern Thai Moral Orders in Space and Time," History of Religions 15 (1975): 7189. For Laos, Henri Deydier's Introduction à la connaissance du Laos (Saigon, 1952) provides a concise introductory survey to the Laotian calendar and religious festivals. A more focused and interpretative work is Frank E. Reynolds's "Ritual and Social Hierarchy: An Aspect of Traditional Religion in Buddhist Laos," History of Religions 9 (August 1969): 7889. For Cambodia, Adhémard Leclère's Le bouddhisme au Cambodge (Paris, 1899) contains a section that concisely surveys the annual festivals in Cambodia.

For China, Joseph Edkins's Chinese Buddhism, 2d rev. ed. (London, 1893), provides a brief sketch of the Buddhist calendar. Kenneth Chʿen's Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton, 1964) is also a useful introduction to annual festivals. Wolfram Eberhard's Chinese Festivals (New York, 1952) does little more than list the festivals of the Buddhist calendar. Other important studies include C. K. Yang's Religion in Chinese Society (Berkeley, 1961) and Emily Ahern's The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village (Stanford, Calif., 1973). All Souls' festivals are treated in J. J. L. Duyvendak's "The Buddhistic Festival of All-Souls in China and Japan," Acta Orientalia 5 (1926): 3948; J. J. M. de Groot's "Buddhist Masses for the Dead in Amoy," in Actes du Sixième Congrès International des Orientalistes (Leiden, 1885), sec. 4, pp. 1120; and Karl Ludvig Reichelt's Truth and Tradition in Chinese Buddhism, 4th ed. (Shanghai, 1934), pp. 77126. See also Marinus Willem de Visser's Ancient Buddhism in Japan, 2 vols. (Leiden, 19281935), which treats a variety of Japanese Buddhist festivals, including Obon. For Korea, see Roger L. Janelli and Dawnhee Yim Janelli's Ancestor Worship and Korean Society (Stanford, Calif., 1982).

For Central Asia, three classic studies on Tibet provide brief descriptions of the religious calendar and annual festivals: L. Austine Waddell's The Buddhism of Tibet, 2d ed. (Cambridge, U.K., 1934); Giuseppe Tucci's The Religions of Tibet, translated by Geoffrey Samuel (Berkeley, 1980); and Rolf A. Stein's Tibetan Civilization, translated by J. E. Stapleton Driver (Stanford, Calif., 1972). Mary M. Anderson's The Festivals of Nepal (London, 1971) treats thirty-six annual festivals. For Mongolia, see Walther Heissig's The Religions of Mongolia, translated by Geoffrey Samuel (Berkeley, 1970).

New Sources

Cohen, E. The Chinese Vegetarian Festival in Phuket: Religion, Ethnicity, and Tourism on a Southern Thai Island. Bangkok, 2001.

Holzman, D. Immortals, Festivals, and Poetry in Medieval China: Studies in Social and Intellectual History. Brookfield, Vt., 1998.

Kohn, R. J. Lord of the Dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal. Albany, N.Y., 2001.

Qi, X. Folk Customs at Traditional Chinese Festivities. Beijing, 1988.

Ramble, C., and M. Brauen. Proceedings of the International Seminar on the Anthropology of Tibet and the Himalaya: September 2128 1990 at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich. Zürich, 1993.

Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations. Chinese Customs and Festivals in Singapore. Singapore, 1989.

Teiser, S. F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, 1988.

Vogel, Claus. "On the Date of the Posadha Ceremony as Taught by the Mulasarvastivadins." Bauddhavidyasudhakarah (1997): 673688.

Donald K. Swearer (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Buddhist Religious Year

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