December 8th is the date generally agreed upon in Zen to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment or awakening. The Buddha lived on the lunar calendar, so the actual date on our solar-based calendar would move every year. (Think of Passover or Easter – they move because they’re based on the lunar calendar.) In Japanese, Bodhi Day is called “Rohatsu.” It literally means “eighth day of the twelfth lunar month.”
Traditionally, the way to celebrate or honor the day would be to sit in meditation from sunset the night before until sunrise on the 8th. This is what the Buddha did. Today, in Zen monasteries around the world, the monks and nuns sit for the entire week leading up to Bodhi Day.
As people with jobs and families, we may not have the time to sit for an entire week, or even overnight. Here are some ways to mark the occasion, going from the simple to the more elaborate.
Meditate more than you normally do. If you don’t sit at all during the work week, and December 8th falls on a workday for you, sit for five minutes. Go out in your car if you have to, but find some quiet and do it.
A Note About Posture
Sit however your normally sit: on the floor, in a chair, it doesn’t matter. Get comfortable. Do not allow any physical limitations to keep you from the task at hand.
Sit Under a Tree
The Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree, a Ficus religiosa or sacred fig. If you don’t have a fig tree, any old tree will do. If you have a Christmas or Yule tree set up, you can use that. The Buddha preferred to meditate outdoors (and I highly recommend that), but if the weather isn’t to your liking, you can stay indoors.
Review Your Precepts
If you’ve taken Buddhist precepts, this is a good day to read through them and check in with how you’re doing upholding them. Ideally, you are reciting your precepts every full moon and new moon. But who are we kidding? Householder life gets in the way. So if it’s been a while, do it now.
Read something the Buddha said. Or read something by an historical or modern Buddhist teacher that resonates with you. If you have time, contemplate what you read. To retain the information better, read it like you’re going to teach it within 24 hours, then corner a willing friend or family member, and tell them all about it. Or you can journal about your reactions to the reading.
A Note on Journaling
I strongly recommend handwriting a journal as opposed to typing one. The reason is that it’s slower. And recording our thoughts more slowly slows the brain down. The ideas become richer. Don’t take my word for it: try it for yourself.
The Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama, went on an arduous, six-year quest to find the answer to his burning question: why is there suffering in the world. I’m grateful that he did that. But he didn’t do it for me; he did it for himself. What I’m most grateful for are the next 45 years: the time he spent walking and teaching anyone who cared to listen. When I deeply ponder the effort he expended on behalf of all beings, I am moved nearly to tears.
Then I consider all the additional people who taught in a direct line from him to me (82 of them), and the tears come. So many selfless people! So many obstacles overcome to share the Dharma! I am overcome by thankfulness.
Go Deeper: Write it Down
It doesn’t matter if you ever go back and review what your write. The fact is that writing about something engages a different section of your brain than merely thinking about it. So now you’ve recorded the information in two different places in your brain, doubling your chances of it having a long-lasting effect. Plus, writing slows down your thoughts, allowing them to expand in unexpected directions.
Personally, I’ve kept a gratitude journal since 2010, even during my cancer journey. Every day, I answer these three questions from M.J. Ryan’s book Attitudes of Gratitude:
- What am I grateful for?
- What did I enjoy today?
- Where do I feel satisfied?
Or you could use this list from Seventeenth Century Dutch Rabbi Baruch Spinoza:
- Who or what inspired me today?
- What brought me happiness today?
- What brought me comfort and deep peace today?
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”Meister Eckhart, 13th Century German Catholic mystic
You can decorate your home for Bodhi Day. Adding lights to a tree is one traditional method, and with Christmas and Yule trees readily available, it’s easy enough to do. I have a number of Buddhist-themed holiday ornaments that I put on our tree each year and leave up until the tree comes down right after the new year.
You can also display images of the Buddha, especially statues.
Creating an Altar
There are many articles on the Internet about setting up an altar according to different Buddhist sects. Here’s a really simple one.
- Place a statue of the Buddha on a riser, like an upside down bowl. (Use the nicest bowl you have. Drape a doily or napkin over it if desired.) If you don’t have a statue, print out an image from the Internet and lean it against something so that it’s upright.
- Burn incense in front of the Buddha as an offering. Personally, I say “Thanks, Sid,” when I do so. (Yes, the Buddha and I are on a first name basis.)
- If you wish, add two candles, one on each side of the Buddha. White is good, or use your favorite color.
Take the Day Off
This one requires some advanced planning and isn’t available to everyone. But if you can, take a personal day or vacation day from work and spend time in the Dharma. When I was a college professor, I used to swap days with one of the Jewish professors: I’d cover their class on the first day of Hanukkah and they’d cover mine on Bodhi Day – with our supervisor’s consent, of course.
Summing It All Up
Chose what works for you. Buddhism, like life, isn’t “one size fits all.” Here’s the core of what I do on this day:
- Be grateful,
- Practice to honor those who came before and for the sake those who will come after.
Happy Bodhi Day! May all beings benefit.