Friday, November 19, 2010

Buddhists and Holidays (Reader Question)

Haven't had a reader question in a while. These are quite welcome.

A reader asks:

With the Christmas and Hanukah season coming up, I wonder about Buddhists celebrating holidays. And I realized, I know of none. Do Buddhists have holidays they celebrate? Do they celebrate other holidays of other religions? (I would think they'd have no problem with that).

My favorite professor in college was a contrary Frenchman who wore bow ties and was well known for entertaining digressions. I remember him snorting in disdain for holidays in general. He viewed them as social control. "They are just somebody's way of coercing us all into doing the same stupid thing at the same time."

So here's my own disclosure: I'm not very good with holidays. They stress me out and I'd just as soon disappear to a dharma room or a library. Take the following with a grain of salt.

Buddhism has sprawled across so many countries, and so there are lots of different days celebrated from Sri Lanka to the Tibetan diaspora to Japan, etc. What they have in common is celebrating major events in the life of the Buddha: his birth and his enlightenment are the big ones. Thailand celebrates the date of his first dharma speech (asalha puja, in the summer). Japan observes his death during rohatsu in December, and in Japanese Zen there is a traditional intensive meditation retreat at that time. My own teacher leads a rohatsu retreat every year.

In addition to those, each country will have its own traditional festivals for the new year and other occasions. There is a summer festival in Sri Lanka where they parade around with one of the Buddha's teeth (esala perahera). Tibet has its own historical holidays, and Japan has ceremonies to honor the dead, drive out evil spirits, and so forth. Japanese Zen brought full moon ceremonies over to American Zen Centers, and these are still practiced. Some of these countries have old shamanic traditions whose customs have survived in some form in these religious observances.

Also, different schools of Buddhism have their own holidays to celebrate important people in their tradition, like important lamas or Zen Masters. Jodo Shin Buddhists celebrate the birth of Shinran Shonin and his death. My own school has a sort of Thanksgiving every year around the birthday of Seung Sahn Dae Soen Sa.

The exact date of these holidays is very confusing. Traditional Buddhist holidays are on the lunar calendar, and thus fall on different days on our Roman calendar from year to year. There are also variations I don't understand. In December, some temples are honoring Buddha's death, and yet that is when the Kwan Um School observes Buddha's Enlightenment Day. The Japanese celebrate his enlightenment (nehan) in February. Buddha's birthday usually lands in April or May.

All this confusion may explain why western Buddhists have made moves toward combining these holidays into one festival, usually in late spring.

Okay, so what about Christmas and all that?

From what I've observed, Buddhists like occasions where they can eat and talk at the same time. (Since our retreats are usually silent.) Also, Zen Centers are warm, friendly places for people who are hungry for food or company. So Thanksgiving is often celebrated with a community dinner at the very least, and some teachers will make a little ceremony.

In the U.S., you have a very high percentage of converted Buddhists who grew up with Christmas or Chanukkah. In my days at Providence Zen Center, there was a Christmas tree in the lounge, and the residents would exchange gifts and drink hot chocolate or coffee.

We converts find our own way through the traditional U.S. holidays, doing whatever makes sense. Here on Nickel Street, we have a Christian-Buddhist household. We'll have people over for Thanksgiving, and do our Christmas thing, and these will include Christian prayers. There are also certain chanting services that I'll do, since I am so far away from Providence Zen Center, but my wife doesn't join me for those.

Maybe I had better say happy holidays in advance right now, because I am apt to forget or be too busy.

[Photo: Festival of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka]


Kelly said...

Very interesting, Algernon. Thanks for educating us!

..and 'happy holidays' to you, too.

Pam said...

Happy Holidays to you, too, Alg!!

My Buddhist neighbors already have thier holiday lights up. They do this every year and I always feel behind the curve since our tradition is to put up the Christmas lights and decorations up starting Thanksgiving afternoon!

Now that I'm working most every day it's also about the only time I have enough time to get them up. I'll have to admit that the upcoming holidays are my favorite time of the year.

Sure, there is quite a bit of stress, but there is also lots of laughter and joy and general good will, from my own experience.