“This was the first knowledge I attained in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, & resolute.”
–Maha Sacchaca Sutta (MN 36)
In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, which is all Buddhism from Tibet to Japan, the Enlightenment of the Buddha is celebrated on the eighth day of the twelfth month.1 In Japan, they use the solar calendar for this, and so this is celebrated by Buddhists there on December 8th. All night, the prince Siddhartha Gautama sat under the tree ad meditated, and in the early morning he awakened. Because no one taught him the Dharma, and he figured it out on his own, he became a Buddha or “fully and self-awakened one”.
Because my wife and I are raising our daughter as Buddhist here in the US, we try to celebrate Buddhist holiday alongside American ones. That way, she has a family-friendly Japanese-Buddhist tradition in addition to her American one.
When some people think of December 8th, they might think of the Zen buddhist holiday of rohatsu, but that is traditionally a day of intense meditation for the monastic community. They’re effectively the same, but Bodhi Day is a more broad and less sectarian term. In Japanese, it is usually called in formal terms Shaka-Jōdō-e (釈迦成道会) or just Jōdō-e (成道会), though I am not sure all Japanese are aware of this.
So, I prefer to celebrate Bodhi Day. It’s something the whole family can do together. I mean, if we took part in Rohatsu, how are five year old kids supposed to enjoy that?
There’s no real established tradition for Bodhi Day as it is not a significant holiday in Japan, though individual temples may hold a special service. This makes it hard to celebrate in the US where no such tradition exists at all. So, I’ve been adapting Christmas traditions in a Buddhist context.2 This idea started years ago when I made up the Maha Santa Claus Sutra, but expanded into other things.
As a yearly tradition, we set up a small “Bodhi tree” every year which is just a small, fake tree we decorate, and put a statue of the Buddha under. He’s “sitting” under the Bodhi Tree, just like the traditional story goes. Here’s the decorations we did from 2010:
On the night before Bodhi Day, we leave an offering of cookies and satsuma oranges (mikan in Japanese). This reminds me of the story of the peasant girl offering food to the Buddha the day before his awakening.
Also, while my daughter is asleep, I leave a wrapped gift for her next to the Bodhi tree. I usually try to buy something wholesome like a book, a doll, etc. Rather than toys (she has enough), I hope to give her the gift of knowledge, or at least something wholesome.
That morning, as a family we’ll sit in front of our family Buddhist altar, do a simple home service, recite some sutras and have a nice breakfast together.
My daughter is now almost 6 years old, so she’s getting more aware of what Buddhism is, and who the Buddha is, but she’s still just a little girl. So, I want to make the holiday fun for her, family-friendly, and help explain the meaning in a way she can understand. Enlightenment is too difficult a concept for her to understand, so I explain that Bodhi Day is the day the prince3 became a great teacher, a Buddha.
Separately, I’ve noticed that there are (not surprisingly) any books at all in the children’s section about the life of the Buddha, or celebrating Buddhist holidays. You can find plenty of good books about Christmas, Hanukah and maybe even holiday books for Islam or Bahai, but nothing Buddhist. I know a lot of Asian-immigrant children grow up Buddhist and have nothing to rely on, and my wife and I don’t either unless we buy books from Japan. So, I’ve also been working on a side-project to write a children’s book about Bodhi Day. I’ve already completed a first-draft and wrote it simple enough a 5 year old could understand, but then it got neglected when I recently changed positions at my company (plus subsequent training, holiday workload, etc). So, I probably won’t be able to submit for publication this year, but I hope to early next year.
So, as a count-down to Bodhi Day, I’m focusing on Buddhist posts this week. Maybe some more “Buddhist” than others, but I hope to focus on wholesome or at least useful posts in the process.
Enjoy and happy Bodhi Day!
P.S. A nice post on mixing Buddhist and Christian traditions for Christmas.
1 I believe Theravada Buddhism combines this with the Buddha’s Birthday into Vesak, or Visakha Puja, but I am not 100% sure.
2 Since most of those traditions have pagan origins, I don’t feel too bad about appropriating them in a Buddhist context. Plus, I like to joke that Santa Claus is a Buddhist anyway.
3 Thanks to Disney, she knows all about princes and princesses. :p