Buddhist Holidays 2017

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 Buddha's Birthday dates.

This list of major Buddhist holidays for 2017 is ordered by date instead of by holiday, so that 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 to another. What follows are the most important holidays, but there are many others.

January 5, 2017: Bodhi Day or Rohatsu

Tsukubai at Ryoanji, Kyoto, Japan. datigz / flickr.com, Creative Commons License

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." Zen monasteries usually schedule a week-long sesshin . It is traditional to meditate all through the night on the last night of Rohatsu Sesshin.

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

January 27, 2017 Chunga Choepa (Butter Lamp Festival, Tibetan)

Yak Butter Buddha
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, 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 bath 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.

January 28, 2017: Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year Fireworks
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.​

 2017 is the year of the rooster

February 15, 2017: 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 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 27, 2017: Losar (Tibetan New Year)

Tibetan Monks Observe Losar
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.

March 12, 2017: Magha Puja or Sangha Day (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos)

Magha Puja in Thailand
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, and one of these 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 partiular, 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.

April 8, 2016: Hanamatsuri, Buddha's Birthday in Japan

Cherry Blossoms
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 14-16, 2017: Water Festivals (Bun Pi Mai, Songkran; Southeast Asia)

Songkran, Water Festival in Thailand
Brightly decorated elephants and celebrants soak each other during the Water Festival in Ayutthaya, Thailand. Paula Bronstein/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 3, 2017: Buddha's Birthday in South Korea and Taiwan

Washing Baby Buddha
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 week-long 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 10, 2017: 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 spelled "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.

June 9, 2017: Saga Dawa or Saka Dawa (Tibetan)

Saka Dawa pilgrims, Lhasa
Pilgrims pray at the Thousand Buddhas Hill near Lhasa, Tibet, during Saka Dawa. China Photos/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 (below). 

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

July 6, 2017: Birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

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

July 15, 2017: Asalha Puja; Beginning of Vassa (Theravada)

Buddhist monks, Laos
Buddhist monks in Laos pray in thanks for the alms they receive to begin Vassa, called Khao Phansa in Laotian. David Greedy/Getty Images

Sometimes called "Dharma Day," Asalha Puja commemorates the first sermon of the Buddha. This is the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta , meaning the sutra (sermon of the Buddha) "setting the wheel of dhamma [dharma] in motion." In this sermon, the Buddha explained his doctrine of the Four Noble Truths.

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 luxuries during Vassa, which is why Vassa is sometimes called the "Buddhist Lent."

July 27, 2017: Chokhor Duchen (Tibetan)

Tibetan pilgrims
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.​​

August 13, 14, 15, 2017: Obon (Japan, regional)

Obon Dancers, Japan
Awa Odori dancing is part of the Obon, or Bon, festival, held to welcome one's ancestors back to the world. © Willy Setiadi | Dreamstime.com

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!"

September 5, 2017: Zhongyuan (Hungry Ghost Festival, China)

Ghost Candles, 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 7th 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, also paper and burned as offerings. Floating candles pay respect to deceased ancestors.

The entire 7th lunar month is "ghost month." The end of "ghost month" is observed as the birthday of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.​

October 5, 2017: 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 secluded together.

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

November 10, 2017: Lhabab Duchen (Tibetan)

Shakyamuni Buddha
Shakyamuni Buddha. MarenYumi / flickr.com, Creative Commons License

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.