Buddha’s Enlightenment Day celebrates the result of Siddhartha Gautama’s search to understand himself. In Buddhist tradition, it is the most important day of the year. It is celebrated on December 8th each year.
During the week preceding the celebration, Zen Monasteries around the world hold their most strenuous retreat of the year. In some cases, they do not even stop to sleep for the whole 7 days.
The significance of Bodhi Day lies with the Buddha and his universal peace message to humanity. As we recall the Buddha and his Awakening, we are immediately reminded of the unique and most profound knowledge and insight which arose in him on the night of his Enlightenment. This coincided with three important events which took place, corresponding to the three watches or periods of the night.
During the first watch of the night, when his mind was calm, clear and purified, light arose in him, knowledge and insight arose. He saw his previous lives, at first one, then two, three up to five, then multiples of them: ten, twenty, thirty to fifty. Then 100, 1000 and so on. During the second watch of the night, he saw how beings die and are reborn, depending on their Karma, how they disappear and reappear from one form to another, from one plane of existence to another.
During the final watch of the night, he saw the arising and cessation of all phenomena, mental and physical. He saw how things arose dependent on causes and conditions. This led him to perceive the arising and cessation of suffering and all forms of unsatisfactoriness, paving the way for the eradication of all taints of cravings. With the complete cessation of craving, his mind was completely liberated. He attained to Full Enlightenment.
This wisdom and light that flashed and radiated under the historic Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya in the district of Bihar in Northern India, more than 2500 years ago, is of great significance to human destiny. It illuminated the way by which humanity could cross from a world of superstition, hatred, and fear to a new world of light, true love, and happiness.
How to Celebrate Bodhi Day
The best way to honor Bodhi Day is by simply increasing your meditation period on or near December 8th. You may want to read a Dharma book or chant a text instead, or in addition to your meditation. You may also want to do some volunteer work or make a charitable donation around this time.
But there are also ways to make the day more festive.
You can bring your own bodhi tree (a ficus tree of the genus ficus religiousa) into your home and decorate it. Multi-colored lights symbolize the interconnectionednesss of all things. Three shiny ornaments represent the Triple Jewel of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
You may wish to have a meal of rice milk, which is what Sujata offered the Buddha to nurse him back to health prior to his enlightenment.
Children are particularly welcome at Bodhi Day ceremonies, as they are given an opportunity to offer flowers to the Buddha. You can celebrate with your kids at home by making cookies in the shapes of trees or leaves. Since the bodhi tree’s leaves are heart-shaped, you may already have suitable cookie cutters on hand.
Happy Bodhi Day!