The Ins and Outs of Buddhist Holidays and Festivals

While most in the United States get ready for Thanksgiving in November and Christmas in December, there are many different holidays associated with the Buddhist religion. Each year, throughout the world, various celebrations and festivals are held, often using the lunar calendar for exact dates. It is not uncommon to find differing dates and traditions in regards to different countries.


Most of the holidays pertaining to the Buddhist culture often pay homage to the life of the Buddha, as well as various Bodhisattvas. For those of you who don’t know, a Bodhisattva is a future Buddha, who has put off their attainment of nirvana (no more suffering) on hold so that they may assist others in freeing themselves from a life full of distress. It is the goal of those following Mahayana Buddhism to become a bodhisattva. In Sanskrit, the term stands for “one whose essence is wisdom.”


A typical day of celebration usually starts with paying a visit to the local temple. This is when food offerings are made, as well as other items, which are given to the monks. Then, followers will often listen and engage in a series of teachings, truths or religious conversation. Afternoon celebrations include a variety of actions, such as giving food to the poor. This is done in hopes of earning merit during this time of respect and observance. Some followers will walk about the temple three times, which is significant in honoring the Three Jewels (or Gem). The Three Jewels are: the Buddha, who symbolizes attainable goals; the Dharma, which are the teachings that lead followers closer to their goals; and the Sangha, which represents monks and nuns.


Chanting and meditation is also common during times of celebration. Popular among monks and other followers, the Pali chant associated with the Triple Jewels, called the Vandana Ti-sarana, may be recited:


“Buddham Sharanam Gacchami” (I go for refuge in the Buddha)

“Dhammam Sharanam Gacchami” (I go for refuge in the Dharma)

“Sangham Sharanam Gacchami” (I go for refuge in the Sangha)


Important Buddhist holidays, ceremonies and festivals include:


Buddhist New Year: The Buddhist New Year is observed on various days, depending on specific Buddhist sects, as well as where in the world you are located. For example, if you are in Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka or Thailand, the new year is celebrated three days following the first full moon within the month of April. These countries follow the Theravadin Buddhist belief system, which represents the oldest surviving Buddhist philosophy. Tibetan Buddhists usually celebrate the new year in March, whereas Mahayana Buddhists observe the new year on the day of the first full moon in January.


Vesak (Buddha Day): Serving as one of the most important festivals in Buddhist culture, Vesak is observed on the day of the first full moon in May. This is when all Buddhists pay their respects to the birth, enlightenment, as well as death of the Buddha.


Dhamma Day (also known as Asalha Puja Day): On the day of the full moon in July, Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s first sermon, which is often referred to as the “turning of the wheel of the Dharma.”