Bodhi Day

Observance of the Buddha's Enlightenment

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Zen monks in meditation at Eiheiji monastery, Japan. In Zen, Bodhi Day or Rohatsu traditionally is observed with an intensive meditation retreat. Ursula Gahwiler/Robert Harding / Getty Images

The enlightenment of the Buddha is among the most significant events in Buddhist history, and it's an event commemorated annually by many Buddhists. English speakers often call the observance Bodhi Day. The word bodhi in Sanskrit and Pali means "awakening" but is often translated into English as "enlightenment."

According to early Buddhist scripture, the historical Buddha was a prince named Siddhartha Gautama who was disturbed by thoughts of sickness, old age and death.

He gave up his privileged life to become a homeless mendicant, seeking peace of mind. After six years of frustration, he sat under a fig tree (a variety known ever after as a "bodhi tree") and vowed to remain in meditation until he had fulfilled his quest. During this meditation, he realized enlightenment and became the Buddha, or "the one who is awake."

Read More: "The Enlightenment of the Buddha"
Read More: "What Is Enlightenment?"

When Is Bodhi Day?

As with many other Buddhist holidays, there is little agreement about what to call this observance and when to observe it. Theravada Buddhists have folded the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death into one holy day, called Vesak, which is observed according to a lunar calendar. So the precise date of Vesak changes from year to year, but it usually falls in May.

Tibetan Buddhism also observes the Buddha's birth, death and enlightenment all at once, but according to a different lunar calendar.

The Tibetan holy day equivalent to Vesak, Saga Dawa Duchen, usually falls a month after Vesak.

Mahayana Buddhists of east Asia -- primarily China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam -- split the three big events commemorated in Vesak into three different holy days. Going by the Chinese lunar calendar, the Buddha's birthday falls on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, which usually coincides with Vesak.

His passing into final nirvana is observed on the 15th day of the second lunar month, and his enlightenment is commemorated on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month. The precise dates vary from year to year.

However, when Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in the 19th century, many traditional Buddhist holy days were assigned fixed dates. In Japan, Buddha's birthday is always on April 8 -- the eighth day of the fourth month. Likewise, in Japan Bodhi Day always falls on December 8 -- the eighth day of the twelfth month. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the eighth day of the twelfth month often falls in January, so the December 8 date isn't that close. But at least it's consistent. And it appears that many Mahayana Buddhists outside of Asia, and who are not accustomed to lunar calendars, are adopting the December 8 date as well.

Observing Bodhi Day

Perhaps because of the austere nature of the Buddha's quest for enlightenment, Bodhi Day generally is observed quietly, without parades or fanfare. Meditation or chanting practices may be extended. More informal commemoration might involve bodhi tree decorations or simple tea and cookies.

In Japanese Zen, Bodhi Day is Rohatsu, which means "eighth day of the twelfth month." Rohatsu is the last day of a week-long session, or intensive meditation retreat.

 In a Rohatsu Sesshin, it is traditional for each evening's meditation period to be longer than the previous evening's. On the last night, those with enough stamina sit in meditation through the night.

Master Hakuin said to his monks at Rohatsu,

"You monks, all of you, without exception, have a father and a mother, brothers and sisters and countless relatives.  Suppose you were to count them all, life after life:  there would be thousands, ten thousands and even more of them.  All are transmigrating in the six worlds and suffering innumerable torments.  They await your enlightenment as keenly as they would await a small rain cloud on the distant horizon during a drought.  How can you sit so halfheartedly!  You must have a great vow to save them all!  Time passes like an arrow.  It waits for no one.  Exert yourself!  Exhaust yourself!"