Buddhism celebrates many holidays and festivals, most of which commemorate important events in the life of the Buddha or various Bodhisattvas. The date of the holidays are based on the lunar calendar and often differ by country and tradition.
Buddhist holidays are joyful occasions. A festival day normally begins with a visit to the local temple, where one offers food or other items to the monks and listens to a Dharma talk. The afternoon might consist of distributing food to the poor to earn merit, circumambulating (walking around) the temple three times in honor of the Three Jewels, chanting and meditation.
Some of the most important Buddhist holidays and festivals are briefly outlined below.
Buddhism’s Sacred Days
Buddhist New Year
The Buddhist New Year is celebrated on different days throughout the world. In Theravadin countries (Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos), the new year is celebrated for three days from the first full moon day in April. In Mahayana countries, the new year usually starts on the first full moon day in January, and Tibetan Buddhists generally celebrate it in March.
Vesak (Buddha Day)
Vesak is the birthday of the Buddha and the most important festival in Buddhism. On the first full moon day in May, Buddhists all over the world celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha in a single day. The name “Vesak” comes from the Indian month of that name in which it is held.
Sangha Day (Magha Puja Day or Fourfold Assembly Day)
Sangha Day commemorates the Buddha’s visit to Veruvana Monastery in the city of Rajagaha, when 1,250 arhats are said to have spontaneously returned from their wanderings to pay their respects to the Buddha. Sangha Day is celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month (March).
Dhamma Day (Asalha Puja Day)
Dhamma Day is observed on the full moon day of the eighth lunar month (July). It commemorates the “turning of the wheel of the Dharma” – the Buddha’s first sermon – at the Sarnath Deer Park.
Observance Day (Uposatha)
Observance Day refers to each of the four traditional monthly holy days that continue to be observed in Theravada countries – the new moon, full moon, and quarter moon days. It is known in Sri Lanka as Poya Day.
Kathina Ceremony (Robe Offering Ceremony)
The Kathina Ceremony is held on any convenient date within one month of the conclusion of the three month rains retreat season (Vassa). On this day, the laity (non-monastics) offer new robes and other necessities to the monks and nuns.
Festival of Floating Bowls (Loy Krathong)
At the end of the Kathin Festival season, when the rivers and canals are full of water, the Loy Krathong Festival takes place in all parts of Thailand on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month. People bring bowls made of leaves (which contain flowers), candles and incense sticks, and float them in the water. As they go, all bad luck is supposed to disappear. The traditional practice of Loy Krathong was originally meant to pay homage to the holy footprint of the Buddha on the beach of the Namada River in India.
The Buddha used the example of a wild elephant that is harnessed to a tame one to train to teach that a person new to Buddhism should be helped by an older Buddhist. To mark this saying, Thai Buddhists hold an Elephant Festival on the third Saturday in November.
The Festival of the Tooth
On a small hill in Sri Lanka is a great temple that was built to house a relic of the Buddha – his tooth. The tooth can never be seen, as it is kept deep inside many caskets. But once a year in August, on the night of the full moon, there is a special procession for it.
Ancestor Day (Ulambana)
In Mahayana countries, it is believed that the gates of hell are opened on the first day of the eighth lunar month and ghosts may visit the world for 15 days. Food offerings are made during this time to relieve the sufferings of the ghosts. On the fifteenth day, Ulambana or Ancestor Day, people visit cemeteries to make offerings to the departed ancestors. Many Theravadins from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand also observe this festival.
A related holiday is the Japanese Buddhist festival known as Obon, beginning on the thirteenth of July and lasting for three days, which celebrates the reunion of family ancestors with the living.
- – “Festivals and Special Days.” BuddhaNet Buddhist Studies. 2004. <http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/festival1.htm>
- John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford UP, 2000).
- Buddhist Holidays for 2008 – About.com