Festivals and Calendrical Rituals

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Buddhists have divided up time according to various calendrical systems. In Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, for example, the most lasting and fundamental system has been the ancient Indian lunar calendar, whose twelve months and forty-eight six- to nine-day weeks commence with sabbaths determined by the four phases of the lunar cycle: new moon, waxing moon, waning moon, and, most importantly, the full-moon day (Pāli, upoatha; Sanskrit, upoṢadha or poṢadha). Larger expanses of time have been calculated as numbers of years since the final passing away (Pāli, parinibbana; Sanskrit, parnirvana) of the Buddha (Buddha Varsa, abbreviated b.e. or b.v. and commencing in 543 b.c.e.); since the dawn of the imperial Śaka Era (Śakasaṃvat, abbreviated s.s. and commencing in 78 c.e.); and since the emergence of various dynasties in different regions. More recently, as a result of colonialism and international practice, time has been calculated as the number of years before and since the start of the common era. These various eras in turn are but fleeting moments in saṃsāra's vast expanse of ages (yuga) and eons (kappa; kalpa).

Within that expanse, it is considered a rare achievement to be reborn during a Buddha VarṢa: a time when a Buddha, his teachings, his corporeal relics, and his community of monks and nuns still exist. According to the late canonical Pāli text the Buddhavaṃsa (Chronicle of Buddhas, ca. second century b.c.e.), there have been only twenty-four such Buddha eras in "one hundred thousand plus four incalculable numbers of eons." During such rare periods, including the present one, it is possible to advance along the path to nir-vĀṆa by learning and practicing the Buddha's teachings. Because such directed progress on the path is not possible in the hiatuses between Buddha eras, every moment in this or any other Buddha era is soteriologically charged. While the ideal is certainly to cultivate Buddhist virtues constantly, from an early date Buddhists throughout the region have considered it especially efficacious to perform such activities on the above-mentioned lunar sabbaths.

Long before the time of the Buddha, South Asians already were focusing their religious activities (such as performing sacrifices and other rituals, and preaching their different messages) on these lunar sabbaths. According to the second book of the Mahāvagga (Great Section) of the Pāli Vinaya (monastic code), early in his career the Buddha was approached by King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha, who requested that the Buddha allow his monks to assemble on these days because non-Buddhists used them for public preaching and thereby gained the hearts and adherence of listeners. The Buddha permitted this, and after people complained that the assembled monks just sat in silence, he further permitted them to preach the dharma to laypeople on lunar sabbaths. Moreover, he established for them the ritual of recitation of the Buddhist monastic disciplinary rules embodied in the Pātimokkha (Sanskrit, PrĀtimokṣa). Down to the present day, this recitation of the Patimokkha on each full-moon day by all ordained (upasampadā) Buddhist clergy residing inside a particular monastic boundary (sīma), complete with ceremonies and judicial practices and penalties, has constituted the primary monastic ritual by which Buddhist monks and nuns have maintained their collective purity and sense of communitas. Even today it proceeds very much as outlined in the ancient vinaya texts, with a leading monk or nun thrice professing his or her purity as regards each of the major categories of the Pātimokkha rules. Those assembled either profess, through silence, their own purity regarding the rules, or they confess transgressions that have occurred, for which punishments and restorative acts are prescribed in the vinaya texts.

The yearly cycle constituted by these monthly monastic rituals is punctuated by the three-month "rains-retreat" (Pāli, vassa; Sanskrit, varśa). The retreat is said in the Mahāvagga to have been established by the Buddha in response to criticisms that his monks and nuns harmed microscopic creatures by traveling during the rainy season. This period of heightened practice and restrictions on travel away from the monastery begins on the full-moon day that corresponds to July/August (or, in the case of "late vassa," August/September) and ends on the full-moon day that corresponds to October/November (or November/December). Though this period does not exactly correspond with the actual monsoons in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, the retreat continues to be observed according to the ancient reckoning. Special ceremonies attend the full-moon days that mark the beginning and end of the vassa season, whether according to the "early" or the "late" calculation. Gathering for vassa, the monks or nuns in a particular monastic boundary recite the Pātimokkha with special intention and additional vows appropriate to the occasion. The full-moon day that marks the end of vassa is singled out as especially significant, for here the usual Pātimokkha recitation is replaced with Pavāraṇā (Invitation), in which the assembled monks and nuns are invited to point out the transgressions of others observed during the vassa coresidence.

While regular Pātimokkha recitations and the special rituals associated with the rains-retreat are

intended primarily to assist monks and nuns in their discipline, they have important implications for the laity as well. In a general sense, these rituals produce certainty about the purity of the monks and nuns to whom one offers alms (dāna) and from whom one hears sermons or receives precepts, thereby guaranteeing the efficacy of such activities in a layperson's presumably longer march toward nirvana. More specifically, over time lay calendrical rituals and festivals have emerged to correspond with the rituals in the monastery.

Thus, from a very early date, it has been considered appropriate for all Buddhists to make the lunar sabbaths, and especially the full-moon days, occasions for enhanced religious activity. At the very least, ordinary lay Buddhists will try to visit the local temple on such days in order to make offerings (pūjā) to a buddha image, bodhi tree, or stŪpa after reciting praises of the Buddha (namaskāra), the three refuges (tisarana), and the five precepts (pañcasīla). The more pious members of a given lay community adopt an especially rigorous disciplinary regimen for the day, taking on three extra precepts (not to sit on elevated or comfortable seats, not to eat after 12:00 noon, and not to adorn the body with perfumes and jewelry), in addition to the ordinary five; the third precept, chastity (kamesu micchācāra), is replaced with celibacy (brahmacariya). These "Eight Precept holders" wear special clothes (a white version of the traditional monastic robes) and are honored with special forms of address and provision usually reserved for monks and nuns. They spend the day in the temple listening to sermons, studying and reciting the dharma, performing pūjā, and meditating, returning to their homes only in the night or the following morning.

Corresponding to the centrality accorded the vassa season in the yearly monastic ritual calendar, lay Buddhists also perform special rites on full-moon days, which mark the beginning and end of the retreat. Employing an ancient Pāli formula, temple patrons inaugurate vassa by ceremonially inviting monks within a particular monastic boundary to come to their temple for the retreat, and they mark the end of the season with elaborate festivities, such as processions and almsgivings, that culminate in the presentation of monastic robes (kaṭhina puññakamma), either to the monks themselves or to an image of the Buddha or a stūpa.

Certain other full-moon days are also singled out for special festivals. Most important among them is the full-moon day corresponding to April/May (Vesākha), on which day the Buddha is believed to have been born, to have achieved enlightenment, and to have reached parinirvāṇa. On this day Buddhists throughout the region erect colorful billboard-like displays containing pictures of the life of the Buddha, of jĀtaka or historical stories, and of scenes in various heavens and hells, in addition to decorating their homes with banners, flags, and lanterns. Festive foods are eaten, and in more recent times Buddhists have begun to send cards and sing carols paralleling the Christian celebration of Christmas and Easter. Vesākha is also a popular occasion for pilgrimage to sites of religious significance. Similarly, though on a smaller scale, various events in the life of the Buddha and in Buddhist history that are believed to have occurred on particular full-moon days are remembered and celebrated on those days across the Buddhist world. In some countries certain of these days are considered especially significant. Thus, for example, modern Sri Lankan Buddhists place special emphasis on the full-moon day corresponding to June/July (Sinhala, Poson), when Mahinda is believed to have brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka for the first time; this season is marked by pilgrimages and processions to the mountain where he first encountered the Sri Lankan king, by the offering of food and drink to pilgrims, and by such modern entertainments as television dramas, concerts of devotional music, and "haunted houses."

Quite apart from these pan-Buddhist and large-scale rituals and festivals, individual Buddhist families often observe rites on a calendrical cycle, punctuated by the day each month or each year when they take alms (dāna) to the monks at a chosen temple, or yearly death anniversaries when they make special offerings of food, robes, and other requisites. Individual temples may also sponsor calendrical rites and festivals to celebrate their founding or the birthday or death anniversary of an incumbent monk, or to raise funds for temple improvement projects.

Throughout the region there are also calendrical rites and festivals associated with indigenous as well as originally Hindu deities, which, though only quasi Buddhist, have been absorbed into the Buddhist milieu. In Sri Lanka, the month that culminates in the full-moon day corresponding to July/August (Sinhala, Äśala) is the primary period for annual festivals and processions honoring various such deities. The most famous of these is the Kandy Perahera, in which the guardian deities of the island, together with the tooth relic of the Buddha, are paraded through the streets of the last Sri Lankan Buddhist royal capital amidst rites that derive from both Buddhism (e.g., paritta-chanting, sermons, almsgiving) and Hinduism (e.g., pūjā to images of the deities, mantra-chanting). The celebration of the Lunar New Year, in mid-April, is another example of a calendrical festival that, though not specifically Buddhist, nevertheless entails various Buddhist rituals, such as the presentation of the first rice of the year to a temple and vows to Buddhist deities.

In modern times, Buddhist countries also use the Roman calendar, within which secularized calendrical festivals are observed. Thus, the Western New Year might be celebrated on the night of December 31, even by those who will celebrate the traditional New Year in April; though full-moon days are holidays, with attendant laws (such as prohibitions on the sale of alcohol) to keep them sacred, Saturdays and Sundays enjoy the same status. National festivals tend to be calculated according to the Roman calendar, such as Sri Lanka's National Day on February 4, the Thai King's Birthday on December 5, or May Day, which is celebrated by workers all over the region. These national festivals are often attended by colorful street displays that parallel the strictly Buddhist festivals described above, Buddhist rites such as almsgivings and processions, and the active participation of Buddhist clergy.

East Asian festivals

In East Asia, Buddhist celebrations have been incorporated into a greater festival year that includes observances that might be defined as primarily Confucian, Daoist, "folk," or Shintō, depending on the country. Of particular note are the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and parinirvāṇa, which are commemorated on separate days (unlike the situation in Theravāda countries, where they are all celebrated on the full-moon day of Vesākha, or April/May). The festival of the Buddha's birthday, in modern times, falls on April 8, and features the bathing of images of the infant Gautama, who is represented at the moment of his birth, standing with one hand pointed to the sky declaring his supremacy in the world. The rite has been traced back as early as the fourth century in China, and may have its roots in India. In Japan this event overlaps with the festival of flowers known as Hana matsuri. The Buddha's enlightenment day (Japanese, jōdō-e) is celebrated on December 8, and marks not only his attainment of bodhi (awakening), but the end of his period of severe austerities. In the Chan school, this day is sometimes preceded by a one-week period of intensive meditation, often involving never lying down to sleep. The commemoration of the Buddha's death and parinirvāṇa (Japanese, nehan-e) falls on February (or March) 15. This celebration has been traced as far back as the sixth century in China, and may also have its origins in India. In Japan, the celebration held in Buddhist temples involves exhibitions of large paintings of the Buddha reclining on his deathbed.

Of greater importance and more generally popular is the celebration of the Ghost Festival (Japanese, Obon), which falls on July (or August) 15. This is a time when family graves are cleaned and when the spirits of departed ancestors are received on household altars. Its Buddhist roots are found in the story of the Buddha's disciple MahĀmaudgalyĀyana, who, at the Buddha's recommendation, gave offerings to the monks in order to allay the sufferings of his mother who had been reborn in hell, an act that emphasized the ethic of filial piety.

Perhaps of lesser connection to Buddhism in East Asia is the celebration of the New Year, which is also understood to be a time for welcoming the dead, as well as an occasion for renewal and the reassertion of relationships. In Japan, it is especially a time to visit Shintō shrines, although on New Year's Eve people may go to temples to help ring the temple bell 108 times, signifying the elimination of the 108 defilements (Sanskrit, kleśa). In Tibet, on the other hand, the celebration of the New Year (Lo gsar) serves to reaffirm Buddhist supremacy over indigenous forces, and, since the time of Tsong kha pa (1357–1419), it has segued into the celebration of the Great Prayer Festival (Smon lam chen mo).


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Jonathan S. Walters