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What is Bodhi Day and why do Buddhists celebrate it?

Monks and nuns pray together during Buddha's birthday celebrations at the Lin Chi Temple in Taipei, Taiwan, on May 9, 2021 (AP)
Monks and nuns pray together during Buddha's birthday celebrations at the Lin Chi Temple in Taipei, Taiwan, on May 9, 2021 (AP)

Bodhi Day is being observed by Buddhists worldwide.

The word "bodhi" originates from a verb that means "to awaken" or "awakened" in Pali and Sanskrit, two ancient Indian languages. It is commonly considered to indicate "enlightenment" in Buddhism.

But what exactly is Bodhi Day and why is it celebrated?

What is Bodhi Day?

Bodhi Day honours the moment 2,600 years ago when Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened, or awakened, to become the Buddha.

Bodhi Day is not observed by all Buddhists. It is especially prevalent among the Buddhist Mahayana traditions of East Asia, which are found in Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.

It is called "Rohatsu," which translates to "the eighth day of the twelfth month," in Japanese Zen Buddhist institutions. It is known as Jodo-e in certain other schools.

It is observed on Vesak Day in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and other nations with a large Buddhist population. Vesak Day is frequently observed in May to honour the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death.

Why is Bodhi Day celebrated?

Buddhists commemorate this important day as a reminder of the Buddha's tremendous spiritual awakening under the Bodhi tree.

The significance of the day lies in the inspiration it provides for followers to strive for their awakening and enlightenment.

Buddhists use this occasion to renew their commitment to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which are fundamental principles in Buddhism. It's a time for reflection, meditation, and deepening one's understanding of the nature of suffering and the path to liberation from it.

Different Buddhist traditions may have their specific rituals and customs associated with the celebration of Bodhi Day.

Is Bodhi Day the same every year?

Bodhi Day is on December 8 for Japanese Buddhists but on a different day every year for other cultures.

Scott Mitchell, dean of students at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California, said the holiday typically falls between the winter solstice and the lunar new year. However, it may vary in other parts of East Asia.

Buddha's enlightenment is celebrated in May and June by Southeast Asian and Tibetan Buddhists, respectively, according to Judith Simmer-Brown, an emeritus professor of contemplative and religious studies at Colorado's Naropa University.

What do Buddhists do on Bodhi Day?

Celebrants read scriptures (sutras) and offer prayers, although their observances vary. Some hold special family meals and decorate trees with candles or colourful lights to represent the enlightenment of Buddha.

Others perform deeds of compassion and giving (dana) to consider the Buddha's teachings and make their karma better.

Some people consume rice and milk, as they think these aided Buddha in his last efforts to achieve enlightenment.