Happy Bodhi Day 2009!

Bodhi Day

It seems like every major religion in the world has a holiday in December, and Buddhism is no exception. Buddhist holidays are not universally known however, like they are in contemporary religions like Christianity or Islam for a few reasons, I believe:

  • Buddhism, by and large, just doesn’t have a lot of holidays.
  • Most holidays in Buddhism are pretty local, centered around one culture and tradition.
  • More universal holidays also have inconsistent dates, depending on which culture and calendar system you’re referring to.

Three holidays that are generally universal in Buddhism however are the Buddha’s birthday in spring, the Buddha’s Memorial (Nirvana Day) and the Buddha’s Enlightenment. The last one, Enlightenment Day or Bodhi Day is traditionally celebrated on the 8th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar, but in the case of Japan, this was fixed to the 8th day of the 12 month of the solar calendar during the Meiji Period. So, for Japanese Buddhism at least, Bodhi Day falls on December 8th, and the tradition has spread to some temples in the West including my own. In Japanese, the holiday is called Jōdō-e (成道会) by the way.

So, we Buddhists get to enjoy our own December holiday. ;)

Just kidding. Anyway, Bodhi Day commemorates the day the Buddha, sitting under a Pipul Tree (later renamed the Bodhi Tree), made a great vow by touching the earth, stating that he would not move from that spot until he had attained full awakening into the nature of existence, life, and so on. What we call Enlightenment. Supposedly this great vow was heard by the Earth Goddess in India, Dṛḍha, who became a witness for the Buddha. Following this dramatic story are various temptations by a demon named Māra who tried to tempt the Buddha, frighten the Buddha, then tried to instill self-doubt into the Buddha. The Buddha of course succeeds (otherwise Buddhism probably wouldn’t exist). This moment of awakening is reflected in a famous quotation attributed to the Buddha found in the Dhammapada:

Through the round of many births I roamed
without reward,
without rest,
seeking the house-builder.
Painful is birth
again and again.

House-builder, you’re seen!
You will not build a house again.
All your rafters broken,
the ridge pole destroyed,
gone to the Unformed, the mind
has come to the end of craving.

— Verse: 153-4

And thus we have Bodhi Day. Bodhi Day means a lot of things to a lot of people, but the meaning behind Bodhi Day is more important than whether the actual happened as it is. For example, in Pure Land Buddhism, which I follow, one of the most important texts is the Immeasurable Life Sutra, which begins with a dramatic story of how every Bodhisattva goes through the same process to becoming a fully-awakened Buddha:

a deva [heavenly being] takes the form of a youth and, perceiving a favorable sign, respectfully presents him [the bodhisattva] with the auspicious grass [for sitting]. The Bodhisattva compassionately accepts it, spreads it under the Bodhi-tree and sits upon it with his legs crossed. He emits a great flood of light to inform Mara of this. Mara and his army come to attack and tempt him, but he brings them under control with the power of wisdom and makes them all surrender. Then he attains the supreme Dharma and realizes the highest, perfect Enlightenment…

The Sutra goes on like this for many paragraphs reflecting the life of the historical Buddha in the lives of each Bodhisattva who attains Enlightenment. This beginning section seems at out of place with the rest of the text, but I think it’s very important in showing how Enlightenment isn’t just for the Buddha, but that all beings who strive on the path, given enough time and effort, will become Buddhas as well. It’s not that they follow the same actions and storyline, but that after a certain point has been reached, the experience of Enlightenment is the same for all beings.

Even the story of Amitabha Buddha, the main figure in the Sutra, reflects in many ways the staunch desire that awakes in people to strive for the path no matter how long it takes, and to rescue all beings no matter how great the multitude.

So Bodhi Day is not so much an historic holiday, but a reminder that even the worst of us can one day “sit under the Bodhi Tree” and realize supreme awakening. Tomorrow, Buddhists around the world will praise the Buddha just as they did in the Amitabha Sutra:

“Shariputra, just as I now praise the inconceivable virtue of other Buddhas, they also praise my inconceivable virtue, saying, ‘Shakyamuni Buddha, you have accomplished an extremely difficult and unprecedented task. In this Saha world, during the evil period of the five defilements — those of time, views, passions, sentient beings, and life-span — you have attained the highest, perfect Enlightenment and, for the sake of sentient beings, have delivered this teaching, which is the most difficult in the world to accept in faith.’

…and renew their own determination.

Happy Bodhi Day!

P.S. Photo above was taken by me a few days ago (just uploaded now). I set this up in my little girl’s bedroom using a statue I had of Shakyamuni touching the earth and a mini fake Christmas tree (e.g. the Bodhi Tree). I haven’t put tinsel up yet, but she’s already lost the tree. :-p

P.P.S. For the curious, Bodhi Day 2008, which said much of the same. I sound like a broken record, methinks.

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8 Comments on “Happy Bodhi Day 2009!”

  1. Stephen says:

    Happy Jodo-e!
    Jim Morrison’s birthday BTW
    Probably greater remembered by many as John Lennon’s memorial day.
    Also US, Britain and Australia declared war on Japan in 1941, and in 1987 Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan signed the first ever treaty to reduce USSR and USA ground-based intermediate-range missiles.
    A lot has happened on one and each day,
    May we all find the way to peace,

  2. Jaime McLeod says:

    Happy Bodhi Day to you, too, Doug!

    “Being one with the Buddha, with all sentient beings,
    Raise the Bodhi mind! Let the supreme way be realized.”

  3. Senshin says:

    Happy Rohatsu day to you too!


  4. Doug says:

    Hi guys, sorry for the late reply:

    Stephen: ha ha ha, good trivia to konw. Yeah, on any given day, there’s a lot to commemorate, or in India at least, there’s at least one Hindu-related holiday somewhere. Or so I was told. :)

    Jamie McLeod: Where’d you find that nice quotation?

    Senshin: Mange tak! Happy Rohatsu til dig også. (Google translate, hope that made sense)

  5. Jaime McLeod says:

    Hey Doug,
    The quote comes from the Ryaku Fusatsu (precept renewal) liturgy we recite each month at my Zen center. I don’t know how common it is at other Zen centers, but some variation of it seems to be used in the Mountains and Rivers Order (Daido Loori’s people), as well, so it’s possible that it’s fairly widespread at least in centers run by dharma heirs of Taizan Maezumi Roshi.

    Be well and gassho!

  6. Doug says:

    Yeah, that’s a new one to me. Good to konw, thanks! :)

  7. Senshin says:

    It made sense. Du er dygtig til dansk ;)

  8. Doug says:

    Oh good. I wasn’t sure if I said “Happy Bodhi — your hair’s on fire” or something. ;)

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