The Rituals and Festivals of the Buddhist Life
by Robert C. Lester
Daily and Periodic Rituals
Merit is made and shared through daily, periodic, and special rituals and yearly festivals. Morning and evening services of chanting or worship take place in every monastery, temple, and home. With the placing of flowers and the lighting of candles and incense before a Buddha-image or some other symbol of the presence of the Buddha, monks chant together and the lay family offers a prayer. The flowers, beautiful one moment and wilted the next, remind the offerers of the impermanence of life; the odor of the incense calls to their mind the sweet scent of moral virtue that emanates from those who are devout; the candle-flame symbolizes enlightenment.
The central daily rite of lay Buddhism is the offering of food. Theravada laity make this offering to the monks. Mahayana laity make it to the Buddha as part of the morning or evening worship. In both settings merit is shared.
The weekly Observance Day rituals at the Theravada monastery are opportunities for both laity and monks to quicken faith, discipline, and understanding, and make and share merit. On these days, twice each month, the monks change and reaffirm the code of discipline. On all of these days, they administer the Eight Precepts to the gathered laity, the laity repeating them after the monks and offer a sermon on the Dharma. The monks our water to transfer merit to the laity; the laity pour water to share this merit with their ancestors.
Zen monks twice each month gather in the Buddha-hall of their head temple and chant for the welfare of the Japanese people. Pure Land Buddhist congregate at the temple once each week to praise Amida.
Rites of Passage
There are special rituals to mark, protect, and bless the occasions of major life transitions. They publicly mark and protect times of passage from one status to another times of unusual vulnerability such as birth, birthdays, coming of age, marriage, the entering into a new house, and death. Monks preside over ordinations, funerals, and death commemoration rites. In the Theravada tradition, ordination is a puberty or coming-of-age rite. Theravada monks also preside over birthday and new-house blessing rites. Ex-monks elders in the lay community perform the rituals for childbirth and marriage.
In Japanese Pure Land, the lay priest presides over rituals of the first presentation of a child at the temple, confirmation of boys and girls at the age of puberty, and death. Japanese Buddhists undertake marriage at the Shinto shrine, presided over by Shinto priests.
Buddhists everywhere celebrate the New Year and the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. The beginning of a new year is, generally, a time for “taking stock” of one’s karma, cleansing, and well-wishing. In Theravada communities the New Year is celebrated in mid-April on the lunar calendar and lasts for two or three days. The laity ritually bathe the Buddha-images and sprinkle water on the monks and the elders, showing respect and offering good wishes. The monks chant blessings on the laity, and together they share the merit of the occasion with the dead. The New Year appropriately begins at the end of the dry season and the beginning of new life in nature. The pouring of water is not only an honoring of the Buddha, the monks, the elders, and the dead but also an offering for plentiful rain and prosperity in the days to come. In Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, the laity build sand mounds (stupas) at the monastery or on the bank of the river. Each grain of sand represents a demerit, and placing the grains in the monastery or letting them be washed away by the river symbolizes a cleansing from bad deeds. Bringing sand to the monastery also serves to renew the floor of the compound.
Zen and Pure Land Buddhists celebrate the New Year on the Western calendar. This is an occasion for Zen monks to publicly read large volumes of sacred sutras, thereby sending out cleansing and enlivening sound waves for the benefit of all beings. Pure Land Buddhist hold special services at the temple twice daily in praise of the Buddha Amida.
Theravada Buddhists celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha on the same day the full moon of May, called Vaisakha. In Sri Lanka, it is a festival of lights, and house, gardens, and streets are decorated with lanterns. It is not a major festival in other Theravada countries, but, occurring on an Observance Day, it is at least an occasion for special food offerings to the monks and more than the usual devotion to keeping the moral precepts.
Japanese Buddhist celebrate the Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment on different days of the year: the birth on April 8, the enlightenment on December 8, and the death on February 15. The birth celebration, Hanamatsuri, is a flower festival and time for ritually bathing images of the Buddha. Enlightenment Day (Bodhi) and Death Day (Nehan [Nirvana]), are simply occasions for social worship.
Theravada Buddhists mark the beginning and end of the rain-retreat, which generally coincide with the beginning and end of the rains. They conclude the year with a harvest festival. Theravada monks enter rain-retreat on the full moon of either June or July. The three- or four-month period is a time of relative austerity for both laity and monks.
The monks remain in the monastery, spending more than the usual time in study and meditation. No marriages or public entertainments occur in the lay community and the laity are more devout in their attendance of Observance Day ceremonies and in their daily food offerings. The Observance Day on which rain-retreat commences is generally occasion for the entire lay community to offer food and many more than usual undertake to spend the day at the monastery, keeping the monastic precepts.
The full-moon observance with which the rain-retreat ends is much like that with which it begins, with the exception that the monks gather privately and invite each other to point out infractions of the monastic code during the retreat period. The mood of this observance is a happy one the rains have ended (usually), the monks may again move about, and public celebrations are in order. The month that follows, mid-October to mid-November, is the time for Kathina, the offering of cloth from which the monks prepare new robes. Kathina offerings are typically a group effort of an entire village, a lay association for merit making, a government agency, or the employees of a prominent commercial establishment. Typically, the group approaches the monastery in joyful procession. Upon arrival, the presiding monk administers the Five Precepts to the laity, receives the cloth, and declares the great merit of such offerings. The monks jointly chant a blessing verse and the laity pour water, symbolically transferring apportion of the merit to the ancestors.
Theravada Buddhist honor and transfer merit to their ancestors on every occasion of merit making and sharing. Japanese Buddhist give special honor and merit to their ancestors three times each year: on the spring and autumn equinoxes in March and September and during the month July 15-August 15. The equinox festivals, called Higan, “Other Shore,” mark times of transition in nature and therefore are occasions to reflect on the passage of time and the progress of being toward enlightenment — the other shore.