Making Bodhi Day Meaningful

Photo by Patrick Emerson on Flickr

“The greatest gift is to give people your enlightenment, to share it. It has to be the greatest.” ~ Buddha

For Buddhists there are a few holidays which represent significant times in the Buddha’s life.  On December 8th, we celebrate the day Buddha achieved enlightenment on his 35th birthday nearly 2,500 years ago (‘Bodhi’ means enlightenment, so ‘Buddha’ means enlightened one).

What Exactly Are We Celebrating?

The historical Buddha (Prince Siddhartha Gautama), from whom we have the majority of our teachings, had a long struggle to achieve enlightenment or ‘Nirvana’.  He was determined to sit under a pipal tree (now known as a ‘Bodhi Tree’) and meditate until he discovered the source of pain and suffering in the world.  He silently vowed:

“Even if my flesh and blood were to dry up, leaving only skin and bones, I will not leave this place until I find a way to end all sorrow.¹

The Buddha was able through this meditation to discover the cause of all suffering (the Four Noble Truths) and how to cure it (the Eightfold Path), which became the foundation of  Buddhism.  If you wish to learn more about the life of the Buddha, and his path towards Enlightenment, check out “Life of the Buddha” on Buddhanet.net.

How Can I Celebrate?

There are a few easy ways you can celebrate Bodhi day:

  • Tree & Lights:  In many Mahayana Buddhist countries, they decorate their homes or ficus tree with multi-colored lights to signify the many pathways to enlightenment².  Some even decorate their trees with shiny objects (typically three) to signify the three jewels³.  This is a fun activity for children and the whole family.  Be sure to start your multi-colored lights on 08 December, and keep them up for 30 days.
  • Buddha Statue:  If you have a Buddha statue, you might want to place it at the base of your tree.  This can help symbolize the Buddha as he sat under the tree and gained enlightenment.
  • Practice:  For some Buddhists, we take the day to focus our commitment to the path by practicing longer meditation, performing acts of loving kindness for others, reading the Dhammapada, or chanting sutras.
  • Precepts:  Many Buddhists will recite the five precepts on Bodhi day to help reaffirm their belief and conviction towards the path.
  • Food:  You can even partake in a meal of milk-rice (click here for cooking instructions) that the maiden Sujata offered to the future Buddha when he was weak from not eating.  This was a major turning point in helping him realize that the middle way is the only way.
  • Children:  A great way to get kids involved and explain about how the Buddha gained enlightenment (and what it means) is to have them bake cookies in the form of the leaves of the Bodhi tree (any ‘ficus’ style leaf shape will do just fine also).

The essential part of Bodhi day is to not only recreate some of the physical and symbolic things that helped the Buddha achieve enlightenment, but to plant and grow those seeds of enlightenment within yourself.

How Will You Celebrate Bodhi Day?
Let me know in the comments how you will be celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Will you practice loving kindness by helping people or animals?  Decorate?  I’d love to hear!

References

¹ http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/pbs2_unit03.htm 12/7/2011
² http://www.doityourself.com/stry/bodhi-day 12/7/2011
³ http://www.annarbor.com/passions-pursuits/is-christmas-any-less-christian-when-you-put-up-a-bodhi-day-tree/ 12/7/2011

Photo by Patrick Emerson on Flickr

Note:  This article was updated on 01 December 2012 to include a video and some additional information.


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This article was originally published on 08 Dec 2011, and last updated on 12 May 2017.


Copyright © 2011 by Alan Peto, all rights reserved.