Buddhist Holidays, 2018–2019

An Illustrated Calendar

Many Buddhist holidays are determined by moon phase rather than date, so the dates change every year. Further, the same holidays are observed at different times in different parts of Asia, resulting in, for example, numerous dates for Buddha's birthday.

This list of major Buddhist holidays for 2018–19 is ordered by date instead of ​by holiday, so you can follow along through the year. And if you miss one Buddha's birthday, just wait a few days and catch the next one.

Buddhist holidays often are a mix of secular and religious practices, and the way they are observed can vary considerably from one tradition and culture to another. What follows are the most important holidays, but there are many others.

October 24, 2018: Pavarana and End of Vassa (Theravada)

Buddhist Monks With Lanterns
Thai monks prepare to release paper lanterns at the Lanna Dhutanka Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to mark the end of Vassa.

Taylor Weidman / Getty Images

This day marks the end of the Vassa retreat. Vassa, or "Rain Retreat"—sometimes called the Buddhist "Lent"—is a three-month period of intensive meditation and practice. The retreat is a tradition that began with the first Buddhist monks, who would spend the Indian monsoon season together in seclusion.

The end of Vassa also marks the time for Kathina, the robe-offering ceremony.

October 31, 2018: Lhabab Duchen (Tibetan)

Shakyamuni Buddha

MarenYumi/flickr.com/CC BY 2.0

Lhabab Duchen is a Tibetan festival commemorating a story told of the historical Buddha, who is called "Shakyamuni Buddha" by Mahayana Buddhists. In this story, the Buddha had been teaching celestial beings, including his mother, in one of the god realms. A disciple begged him to return to the human world, and so Shakyamuni descended from the god realm on three ladders made of gold and gems.

December 8, 2018 or January 13, 2019: Bodhi Day or Rohatsu

Sandstone Buddha Head Entwined In Roots Of Bodhi Tree
Keratiphol Olarnsathien / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Japanese word rohatsu means "eighth day of the twelfth month." In Japan, it is the annual observance of the enlightenment of the Buddha, or "Bodhi Day," and is celebrated on December 8 every year. Zen monasteries usually schedule a week-long sesshin, or period of intensive meditation. It is traditional to meditate all through the night on the last night of Rohatsu Sesshin.

Bodhi Day is celebrated in other Buddhist sects according to the lunar calendar and in 2019 falls on January 13.

The photograph shows the water basin (tsukubai) of Ryoanji, a Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan.

February 5, 2019: Chinese New Year

Fireworks celebrating Chinese New Year at Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang, Malaysia

Andrew Taylor / robertharding / Getty Images

Chinese New Year is not, strictly speaking, a Buddhist holiday. However, Chinese Buddhists begin the New Year by going to a temple to offer incense and prayers.

In the Chinese calendar, 2019 is a year of the pig.

February 5–7, 2019: Losar (Tibetan New Year)

Tibetan Buddhist monks sound long horns to begin Losar observance at Bodhnath Stupa, Nepal.

Richard L'Anson / Getty Images

In Tibetan monasteries, observance of Losar begins during the last days of the old year. Monks perform special rituals evoking protective deities and clean and decorate the monasteries. The first day of Losar is a day of elaborate ceremonies, including dances and recitations of Buddhist teachings. The remaining two days are for a more secular festival. On the third day, old prayer flags are replaced with new ones.

February 8 or 15, 2019: Parinirvana, or Nirvana Day (Mahayana)

Reclining Buddha of Gal Vihara
The reclining Buddha of Gal Vihara, a 12th-century rock temple in Sri Lanka.

Steven Greaves / Getty Images

On this day some schools of Mahayana Buddhism observe the death of the Buddha and his entrance into Nirvana. Nirvana Day is a time for contemplation of the Buddha’s teachings. Some monasteries and temples hold meditation retreats. Others open their doors to laypeople, who bring gifts of money and household goods to support the monks and nuns.

In Buddhist art, a reclining Buddha usually represents Parinirvana. The reclining Buddha in the photograph is part of Gal Vihara, a venerated rock temple in Sri Lanka.

February 19, 2019: Magha Puja or Sangha Day (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos)

Thai Buddhist monks offer prayers celebrating Magha Puja day at Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple) in Bangkok.

Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images

For Theravada Buddhists, every new moon and full moon day is an Uposatha Observance Day. A few Uposatha Days are especially important, one of which is Magha Puja.

Magha Puja commemorates a day when 1,250 monks, all from different places and on their own initiative, spontaneously came to pay homage to the historical Buddha. In particular, this is a day for laypeople to show special appreciation for the monastic sangha. Buddhists in much of Southeast Asia gather at sunset in their local temples to participate in candlelight processions.

The date for this holiday varies and is celebrated on March 20–21, 2019, in some locations.

February 20, 2019 Chunga Choepa (Butter Lamp Festival, Tibetan)

A monk works on what will be a statue of the Buddha made of yak butter.

China Photos / Getty Images

The Butter Lamp Festival, Chunga Choepa in Tibetan Buddhism, celebrates a demonstration of miracles attributed to the historical Buddha, also called Shakyamuni Buddha. Colorful butter sculptures are displayed, and singing and dancing go on into the night.

Sculpting yak butter is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist art. Monks bathe and perform a special ritual before making the sculptures. So that the butter doesn't melt as they work with it, the monks keep their fingers cold by dipping their hands into cold water.

April 8, 2019: Hanamatsuri, Buddha's Birthday in Japan

Hana Matsuri often coincides with the blooming of cherry blossoms. Hasedera temple in Nara Prefecture is nearly buried in blossoms.

AaronChenPs / Getty Images

In Japan, Buddha's birthday is observed every April 8 with Hanamatsuri, or “Flower Festival." On this day people bring fresh flowers to temples in remembrance of the Buddha's birth in a grove of blossoming trees.

A common ritual for Buddha's birthday is "washing" a figure of the baby Buddha with tea. The figure of baby Buddha is placed in a basin, and people fill ladles with tea and pour the tea over the figure. These and other traditions are explained in the story of the Buddha's birth.

April 13–16, 2019: Water Festivals (Bun Pi Mai, Songkran; Southeast Asia)

Cropped Trunk Of Elephant Spraying Water On Woman In River
Morgana Ruppenthal / EyeEm / Getty Images

This is a major festival in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Michael Aquino, the author of "Guide to Southeast Asian Travel," writes that for Bun Pi Mai, "Buddha images are washed, offerings made at the temples, and votive sand stupas are made in yards all over the country. Finally, Laotians spray water gleefully upon one another." As the photo suggests, elephants may be the ultimate water pistol.

May 12, 2019: Buddha's Birthday in South Korea and Taiwan

A young South Korean Buddhist pours water to wash the baby Buddha after a ceremony for the Buddha's birthday at the Chogye temple in Seoul, South Korea.

Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

Buddha's birthday in South Korea is celebrated with a weeklong festival that usually ends on the same day as Vesak in other parts of Asia. This is the biggest Buddhist holiday in Korea, observed with grand parades and parties as well as religious ceremonies.

The children in the photograph are attending a Buddha's birthday ceremony at the Chogye temple in Seoul, South Korea.

May 18, 2019: Saga Dawa or Saka Dawa (Tibetan)

Colorful Wesak lanterns
Dhammika Heenpella / Images of Sri Lanka / Getty Images

Saga Dawa is the entire fourth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar. The 15th day of Saga Dawa is Saga Dawa Duchen, which is the Tibetan equivalent of Vesak (see below). 

Saga Dawa is the holiest time of the Tibetan year and a peak time for pilgrimages.

May 19, 2019: Vesak (Buddha's Birth, Enlightenment, and Death, Theravada)

Monks release a lantern into the air at Borobudur temple, Indonesia, during Vesak celebrations.

Ulet Ifansasti / Stringer / Getty Images

Sometimes referred to as "Visakha Puja," this day commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and passing into Nirvana of the historical Buddha. Tibetan Buddhists also observe these three events on the same day (Saga Dawa Duchen), but most Mahayana Buddhists split them up into three separate holidays.

July 6, 2019: Birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama at UCLA
David McNew / Getty Images

The current and 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born on this day in 1935.

July 6, 2019: Chokhor Duchen (Tibetan)

A Tibetan pilgrim prays as a Chinese national flag flies in the background during her Kora, or pilgrim circuit, in front of the Potala Palace on August 3, 2005 in Lhasa of Tibet, China.
Guang Niu/Getty Images

Chokhor Duchen commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon and the teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha's first sermon is called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, meaning the sutra (sermon of the Buddha) "setting the wheel of dhamma [dharma] in motion."

On this day, Tibetan Buddhists make pilgrimages to holy places, offering incense and hanging prayer flags.​​

July 16, 2019: Asalha Puja; Beginning of Vassa (Theravada)

Buddhist Lent in Laos
David Greedy / Getty Images

Sometimes called "Dharma Day," Asalha Puja commemorates the first sermon of the Buddha, also known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

Vassa, the Rains Retreat, begins the day after Asalha Puja. During Vassa, monks remain in monasteries and intensify their meditation practice. Laypeople participate by bringing food, candles, and other necessities to monks. They also sometimes give up eating meat, smoking, or engaging in other luxuries during Vassa, which is why Vassa is sometimes called the "Buddhist Lent."

August 15, 2019: Zhongyuan (Hungry Ghost Festival, China)

Candles float on Shichahai Lake to pay respects to deceased ancestors during the Zhongyuan Festival, also known as the Ghost Festival, in Beijing.

China Photos / Getty Images

Hungry ghost festivals traditionally are held in China beginning on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Hungry ghosts are insatiably hungry creatures born into a miserable existence because of their greed.

According to Chinese folklore, the unhappy dead walk among the living throughout the month and must be placated with food, incense, fake paper money, and even cars and homes. Paper offerings are burned, and floating candles pay respect to deceased ancestors.

The entire seventh lunar month is "ghost month." The end of "ghost month" is observed as the birthday of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.

August 13, 14, 15, 2019: Obon (Japan, regional)

Bon Odori Festival In Malaysia
Mohd Samsul Mohd Said / Getty Images

The Obon, or Bon, festivals of Japan are held in mid-July in some parts of Japan and mid-August in other parts. The three-day festival honors departed loved ones and loosely correlates to Hungry Ghost festivals held in other parts of Asia.

Bon odori (folk dance) is the most common custom of Obon, and anyone can participate. Bon dances usually are performed in a circle. However, the people in the photograph are doing Awa odori, which is danced in procession. People dance through the streets to the music of flutes, drums, and bells, singing, "It's a fool who dances and a fool who watches; if both are fools, you might as well dance!"