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Religion Library: Buddhism

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Julia Hardy

The rituals and ceremonies of Buddhism vary from country to country, and from area to area within a country. The Chinese monk Xuanzang, who visited India in the 7th century C.E., recounted that different Buddhist sects already had quite different ritual calendars, and even celebrated events in the Buddha's life, such as his birthday, on dates that were months apart.

In many Buddhist countries, the ritual calendar includes events that are celebrated in conjunction with other religions and/or national traditions. For example, the New Year is the biggest holiday of the year in many Asian countries, and activities last for a week or more. Traditions are followed, some specifically related to Buddhism, and others not, including a through housecleaning and settling of debts. Special foods are prepared, and some Buddhist temples will offer food to their constituents. In China it is customary for people to travel to visit their families for the holiday. On New Year's Eve in Japan, at midnight, Buddhist temples ring the temple bell 108 times; at the larger temples, huge crowds of people will attend this event.

The Buddha's birthday is the most widely observed Buddhist holiday, but it is celebrated on different days, with different rituals, in different countries. At some temples there will be a statue of the Buddha over which visiting devotees can pour water or a special tea. Some temples will offer a free vegetarian meal to all visitors. Buddhists may make charitable donations on this day, or they may purchase animals from slaughterhouses, release them, and provide for their welfare. In South Korea, Buddhist temples hang hundreds of paper lanterns, including some shaped like lotus flowers, throughout the temple grounds and connecting every building. Lay people make a small offering, in exchange for which the monks will write the names of the family on a merit certificate, which is then attached to a lantern. That evening, each family will seek out the lantern with their family's certificate attached, place a candle inside, and light it, and monks and lay people alike will stroll around enjoying the beauty of the brightly lit lanterns.

Some Buddhist countries celebrate the day of the Buddha's death and entry into nirvana, others celebrate the day of his enlightenment, and still others celebrate the day of his first sermon. Some Buddhist countries celebrate Sangha Day, which commemorates a day in the life of the historical Buddha when monks gathered to honor him. On this day, people bring food and gifts to the local temple. There may be days honoring other Buddhas or bodhisattvas, or significant Buddhists in the country's history; or there may be holidays commemorating special days in the history of Buddhism in a particular country, such as the Sri Lankan celebration of the coming of Ashoka's son Mahinda.