This is the holiest day of all Buddhist days marking the birth, enlightenment and nirvana of the Lord Buddha. It is celebrated on many different dates, and in many different ways all over the world.
In many east Asian countries Buddha’s Birth is celebrated on the 8th day of the 4th month in the Chinese lunar calendar (in Japan since 1873 on April 8 of the Gregorian calendar), and the day is an official holiday in Hong Kong, Macau, and South Korea. The date falls from the end of April to the end of May in the Gregorian calendar.
In Nepal, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on the full moon day of May. In 2017, the holiday occurs on May 10. The festival is known by various names, Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima, Vaishakh Purnima and Vesak. Purnima means full moon day in Sanskrit. Among the Newars of Nepal, the festival is known as Swanya Punhi, the full moon day of flowers. The day marks not just the birth of Shakyamuni Gautam Buddha but also the day of his Enlightenment and Mahaparinirvana. But as a gentle effect of the West, the event of the birth is given paramount importance.
The event is celebrated by gentle and serene fervor, keeping in mind the very nature of Buddhism. People, especially women, go to common Viharas to observe a rather longer-than-usual, full-length Buddhist sutra, as something like a service. The usual dress is pure white. Kheer, a sweet rice porridge is commonly served to recall the story of Sujata, a maiden who, in Gautama Buddha’s life, offered the Buddha a bowl of milk porridge after he had given up the path of asceticism following six years of extreme austerity. This event was one major link in his enlightenment.
It is said that the Buddha originally followed the way of asceticism to attain enlightenment sooner, as was thought by many at that time. He sat for a prolonged time with inadequate food and water, which caused his body to shrivel so as to be indistinguishable from the bark of the tree that he was sitting under. Seeing the weak Siddhartha Gautama, a girl named Sujata placed a bowl of milk in front of him as an offering. Realising that without food one can do nothing, the Buddha refrained from harming his own body.
The birth of Buddha or Tathagata is celebrated in India, especially in Sikkim, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bodh Gaya, various parts of North Bengal such as Kalimpong, Darjeeling, and Kurseong, and Maharashtra (where 6% of total population are Buddhists) and other parts of India as per Indian calendar. The day is celebrated much the same way as in Nepal.
Visakha Puja, the year’s greatest religious holiday, which commemorates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, comes during seeding and plowing. This is the holiest day of all Buddhist days marking the birth, enlightenment and nirvana of the Lord Buddha.
Buddhists will make merits and attend sermons at the temples (Wat). In the evening, Buddhist monks lead the laity in a magnificent candle-light triple circumambulation of Buddhist chapels throughout the country.Village elders attend temple celebrations and sermons during the day.
Those who have been working all day in the fields return at dusk to join the lovely candle or torchlit procession that circumambulates the temple chapel three times. Enacted in every village, town and city Wat (temple), each person carries flowers, three glowing incense sticks and a lighted candle in silent homage to the Buddha, his teaching and his disciples.
In Japan, Buddha’s birth is also celebrated according to the Buddhist calendar but is not a national holiday. On this day, all temples hold Kanbutsu-e or Hana-matsuri, meaning ‘Flower Festival’. The first event was held at Asuka-dera in 606.
Japanese people pour ama-cha (a beverage prepared from a variety of hydrangea) on small Buddha statues decorated with flowers, as if bathing a newborn baby.
Lotus Lantern Festival celebrating Buddha’s Birthday, is celebrated in South Korea according to the Lunisolar calendar. This day is called Seokga tansinil, meaning “Buddha’s birthday” or Bucheonim osin nal meaning “the day when the Buddha came.”.
Lotus lanterns cover the entire temple throughout the month which are often flooded down the street. On the day of Buddha’s birth, many temples provide free meals and tea to all visitors. The breakfast and lunch provided are often sanchae bibimbap.
In Sri Lanka:
This is one of the major festivals in Sri Lanka. It is celebrated on the first full moon day of the month of May. People engage in religious observances and decorate houses and streets with candles and specially made paper lanterns. some stores give out free meals for people.
In specific places, there are buildings made out of light bulbs but from a distance it represents pictures from the Buddha’s life. They are called vesak thorun (Pandals). People sing songs called “bhakthi geetha”.
Among the many practicing Buddhists in the United States, Buddha’s Birthday (Hana-Matsuri) is widely celebrated on April 8 of the standard Gregorian calendar.
In 1968 on April 8 in the California Bay Area, the first circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday was conducted. The director of the Esalen at Stanford program designed a leaflet and had it distributed to all universities in the Bay Area. Some brought sleeping bags and slept overnight in Muir Woods to enable an early start up the Dipsea Trail.
For the several hundred people involved, it was an unforgettable day clear, sunny, calm, and somewhat warm. Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen were there. Taught by Gary and Allen, we chanted a different mantra at every station of the clockwise circumambulation. We all stopped for lunch on a sunny hillside. Allen brought miso for lunch, and he passed it around for others to enjoy.
Starting in 1969 on April 8 (and into the 1970s) at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Hana-Matsuri was celebrated each spring. Dressed in formal black robes, the roughly 70 monks and students formed a formal procession to the Horse Pasture with the leader periodically ringing a small, clear bell.
A temporary stone altar was built under a huge oak tree in a gorgeous field of green grass and abundant wildflowers; a small statue of a baby Buddha was placed upon it in a metal basin. Then each person would in turn approach the altar, ladle one thin-lipped bamboo dipperful of sweet green tea over the statue, bow, and walk to one side. How haunting and mysterious – the juxtaposition of formality, ritual and wild Nature.
Some places have a public holiday one week later, on the fifteenth day of the fourth month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, to coincide with the full moon. The names for this festival vary with each country, for instance Visakha Puja in Thailand or Lễ Phật đản in Vietnam. In some countries it is a public holiday, in others it is not.
The Cold Food Festival or Hanshi Festival is a traditional Chinese holiday celebrated for three consecutive days starting the day before the Qingming Festival in the Chinese Calendar, which falls on the 105th day after dongzhi (April 5 by the Gregorian calendar, except in leap years). It is celebrated in China as well as the nearby nations of Korea and Vietnam. At this time of year, the sky becomes clearer and buds sprout in the field. Farmers sow various seeds and supply water to their rice paddies.
The Cold Food Festival started from the ancient tradition of setting fire by rubbing wood pieces together and the tradition of lighting new fires. Due to the change of seasons and the change in the type of wood available, the ancient practice was to change the type of fire-starter-wood used from season to season. Fire is lighted anew upon the start of each season. Before the new fire is officially started no one is allowed to light a fire. This was an important event during that time.
The traditionally practiced activities during the Cold Food Festival includes the visitation of ancestral tombs, cock-fighting, playing on swings, beating out blankets (to freshen them), tug-of-war, etc. The practice of visiting ancestral tombs is especially ancient.
In China ancestral worship used to be practiced during the time of the Cold Food Festival. It was later moved to coincide with the Qingming Festival. However in Korea, where the festival is called Hansik , the tradition of ancestral worship during the Cold Food Festival still remains.
In the modern version of Hansik, people welcome the warm weather thawing the frozen lands. On this day, rites to worship ancestors are observed early in the morning, and the family visits their ancestors’ tombs to tidy up.
Falling on the 105th day after the winter solstice (April 5 by the Gregorian calendar, except in leap years). At this time of year, the sky becomes clearer and buds sprout in the field. Farmers sow various seeds and supply water to their rice paddies. The custom of eating cold food on this day is believed to originate from a Chinese legend (see Tomb Sweeping Day), but recently this custom has disappeared.
Since this day coincides with Arbor Day, public cemeteries are crowded with visitors planting trees around the tombs of their ancestors.
In Vietnam, where it is called Tết Hàn Thực, the Cold Food Festival is celebrated by Vietnamese people in the northern part of the country on the third day of the third lunar month, but only marginally. People cook glutinous rice balls (see recipe and more info) called bánh trôi on that day but the holiday’s origins are largely forgotten, and the fire taboo is also largely ignored.
Daeboreum (literally “Great Full Moon”) is a Korean holiday that celebrates the first full moon of the new year of the lunar Korean calendar which is the Korean version of the First Full Moon Festival. This holiday is accompanied by many traditions. The 2017 date is February 11
Many customs and games are traditional on this day, which is also sometimes called the Great Fifteenth. The Fifteenth, or Full Moon Day, marks the end of the New Year season in Korea and is regarded as the final opportunity to ensure good luck for the coming year.
It is considered lucky on this day for people to routinely repeat their actions nine times—particularly children, who compete with each other to see how many “lucky nines” they can achieve before the day is over.
It is common to celebrate the Great Fifteenth with kite flying and kite fighting, which is done by covering the strings with glass dust and then crossing them so that they rub together as they fly. The string held by the more skillfully manipulated kite eventually cuts through the string of the less successful kite, sending it crashing to the ground.
Another popular sport on this day is the tug-of-war. In some areas, an entire town or county is divided into two opposing teams. It is widely believed that the winners will bring in a plentiful crop and will be protected from disease in the coming year.
One familiar custom is to crack nuts with one’s teeth. It is believed that this practice will help keep one’s teeth healthy for the year.
In the countryside, people climb mountains, braving cold weather, trying to catch the first rise of the moon. It is said that the first person to see the moon rise will have good luck all year or a wish will be granted.
People play the traditional game named Jwibulnori (쥐불놀이) the night before Daeboreum. They burn the dry grass on ridges between rice fields while children whirl around cans full of holes, through which charcoal fire blaze. These cans fertilize the fields and get rid of harmful worms that destroy the new crops.
For breakfast, a five-“grain” rice consisting of rice, millet, Indian millet, beans, and red beans is served (gok includes grains and beans). This is eaten with various dried herbs. One of the special foods of Daeboreum is Yaksik (약식 / 藥食). This treat is made of glutinous rice, chestnuts, pinenuts, honey, sauce, and sesame oil.
Also there is wine drinking for Daeboreum. It called ‘Ear-quickening wine (귀밝이술)’. This alcohol means that if someone drank this alcohol, he or she would be quick to hear and hear good news for one year.
On this day, Koreans traditionally do not give any food to dogs since it is believed that dogs that eat on this day will contract gad flies and become ill during the coming summer.
Samjinnal is a Korean holiday that falls on March 3 of the lunar calendar. Three being a positive number in numerology, this date containing two threes was considered to be highly auspicious. This festive day announces the arrival of spring. By this time, spring is usually in full bloom – the weather is warm, the young grass is a lively green, and the first flowers are blooming.
Note: Because this holiday is based on the lunar calendar, on Gregorian Calendars the date will vary from year to year. In 2016, this holiday was celebrated on April 9th, in 2017, this holiday falls on March 30.
It is known as the day the swallows came back from Gangnam and the day the snake came out from its winter sleep. It is also the day birds and butterflies start to appear.
Koreans believed that swallows left for their southward journey on ninth day of the ninth lunar month and returned back on Samjinnal. They started to repair their old nests under the eaves or built the new ones to hatch their young.
Many seasonal activities associated with spring took place on this day. Villagers headed out on a blossom tour of the nearby mountains as the gardens were increasingly frequented by butterflies, fresh-green buds became visible on tree branches and the hills and prairies put on their colorful spring dresses.
Popular picnic foods included flower petal pancakes and other seasonal delights. Banquets were also held around this time of year to treat senior members of the community to special meals. For the noblemen across the country, Samjinnal was a day of archery contests.
Flower petal pancakes for the blossom picnic were made with glutinous rice batter, formed in circles, fried in a pan with sesame oil and topped with azalea petals. A special dessert known as hwamyeon was prepared by putting slices of mung-bean dough cakes into omija (favor flavor berries)-scented water, and flavoring it with honey and pine nuts. When preparing the mung bean dough for this dessert, housewives sometimes added azalea petals to it. If they made the dough with honey and dyed it red, the dish would be called sumyeon.
Sumyeon was considered a ritualistic dish as it was frequently used for memorial services.One of the beliefs associated with Samjinnal is that seeing a white butterfly on that day was an ominous sign since white signifies mourning. The sighting of a white butterfly could result in a family member dying during the course of the year.
Tiger or yellow butterflies on the other hand were considered an excellent sign, and portended a lucky year. Women made sure they washed their hair on Samjinnal as they believed it would make their hair vigorous and beautiful throughout the year. Snakes that came out of their hibernation around that time were avoided at all costs since seeing these slithering creatures was regarded as unlucky.
Other names for this holiday:
It was called samjil (삼질) in oldKorean language and referred to as sangsa (상사, 上巳), wonsa (원사, 元巳), sungsam(중삼, 重三), sangje (상제, 上除) or dapcheongjeol (답청절, 踏靑節) in hanja. Samjinnal implies the overlapping of Sam (three). According to Choi Namseon, samjil was derived from the consonants of Samil, and Sangsa is defined as the first snake day of the 3rd lunar month.
A popular snack all over China, glutinous rice balls (tang yuan) are filled with red bean, sesame, peanut, and other sweet fillings that ooze out from mochi-like dumplings skins. The dumpling skins owe their pleasantly gummy texture to glutinous rice flour, which produces a chewier dough.
You’ll find packets of frozen tang yuan at most Chinese supermarkets, and these days the fillings not only come in the standard assortment, but have branched out into fancy-sounding ones like “sweet osmanthanus” and “chestnut and sesame seed.”
The dough for tang yuan is a simple combination of glutinous rice flour, regular rice flour, and water. Once you get the hang of enclosing the dough around nuggets of sweet filling, you’ll find that making your own tang yuan takes no more than half an hour.
The best part about making your own is that you can experiment with all kinds of nuts and pastes. The filling is a simple combination of sugar, lard, and a filling of nuts and/or beans. Instead of ground peanut or sesame, you can use almonds, cashews, and pecans. (To prepare the nuts: roast them, chop them up, and grind them in a mortar and pestle before mixing with lard and sugar.)
Or, if you’ve always found the red bean filling in supermarket tang yuan to be bland, you can make your own from dried adzuki beans. Coconut flakes are a great addition to fillings of any kind.
You can even vary the fat, substituting coconut oil for the traditional lard. I like to use the lard that I confit with for a filling that’s extra meaty and mildly savory. You could also play around with smoky bacon fat.
Really, you can’t go wrong with the filling. Who would turn down chewy rice balls that release a lava-like concoction that’s sweet, nutty, and porky? Even the water in which tang yuan simmers is surprisingly soothing and tasty to sip between rice ball bites. Make the balls in large batches and freeze them for a quick breakfast or dessert.