Most people are familiar with the major holidays of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. Even non-followers have an idea what Christmas, Passover and Ramadan entail and perhaps they even know the meaning behind the celebration. But that's rarely true of the holidays of Buddhism, the fifth largest religious denomination in the world. (And based on those numbers, let's acknowledge but put aside the ongoing debate about whether it's a religion or a philosophy or both for a minute.)
Founded sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C.E., Buddhism has multiple days that honor its teachings. The holidays are based on a lunar month cycle so they switch dates from year to year on a Western calendar. Here are a few of the most popular with the dates noted for this calendar year.
1. Abhidhamma Day (Sept. 12, 2015)
This is a festival that celebrates the day when legend says the Buddha went to heaven to teach his deceased mother an important collection of Buddhism's main teachings. This holiday is principally celebrated in Burma, where roughly 90 percent of the population is Buddhist.
2. Asalha Puja (July 2, 2015)
A Buddhist monk lights candles near a shrine during Asalha Puja. (Photo: Dragonskydrive/Shutterstock)
This Buddhist holiday commemorates when the Buddha gave his first sermon to his followers at the Deer Park in Varanasi, India. It also marks the start of the spread of Buddhist primary teachings and the honoring of what Buddhists call the Triple Gems: the Buddha himself, his teachings and the body of his followers. It is celebrated on the day of the full moon in the eighth lunar month. The holiday is celebrated around the world by Buddhists of particular schools. Typically, the day consists of sermons and donations of offerings to temples and, in some places, processions around temples and other holy places. In Indonesia, for example, the festival draws large crowds to the famous Mendut Temple at Borobudur.
3. The Festival of the Tooth (Aug. 20-30, 2015)
Relics are an important feature of Buddhism in several countries. In Sri Lanka, for example, there's a day that honors a single tooth from the Buddha himself. As the tradition goes, after the Buddha's body was burned, several teeth and bones were found in the ashes. One of the teeth later wound up in Sri Lanka, which today is honored by a 10-day festival featuring a Mardi Gras-like celebration with street musicians, decorated elephants and carnival entertainers.
4. Vesak, also known as Buddha Day (June 1, 2015)
Now officially recognized by the United Nations, Vesak is arguably the most important holiday in the Buddhist year. The day honors the three main events in the Buddha’s life: his birth, his achieving enlightenment and his death.
A worldwide effort to establish this holiday was one of the main goals of the 1950 World Fellowship of Buddhists conference that met in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).
Massive Vesak celebrations are now featured around the world, and the festivals may include flying the traditional Buddhist flag, the singing of hymns, offerings of flowers and candles, cessation of any kind of killing (animals, too!) and a vegetarian diet for the day.
Thai children set lit bowls onto a lake during Loi Krathong. (Photo: John Shedrick/flickr)
Other Buddhist holidays also include:
Songkran, a Thai festival featuring boat races and the cleaning of houses. Songkran fell on April 13 this year.
The Kathina Ceremony, the distribution of new robes to monks on Oct. 27, 2015.
Loy Krathong, the spiritual removal of bad luck by floating sacred bowls on nearby bodies of water (pictured above), which falls on Nov. 8, 2015.
The number of Buddhists in the West is rising in part because of immigration and the need for Tibetan Buddhists to seek refuge. The Clear Vision Trust also attributes the spread of Buddhism in the Western world to the surge in Oriental studies in colleges and translations of Buddhist texts into English and other languages.
As Buddhism continues to grow around the world, so will a greater understanding of the holidays inherent to that religion.