Sunday, December 04, 2011


Hi Sangha and Friends

I have to chuckle at the attempt to squeeze the Japanese Buddhist “Bodhi Day” (December 8th) into the collection of equivalent December religious holidays, along with Eid, Hannukah and others. The hand-wringers, who want little Johnny to have the same size cookie as little Janie,  want to make sure we all get a religious holiday when Christmas comes along. This allows the use of Happy Holiday, instead of what they see as a self-interested Merry Christmas.

After 40 years of Buddhist practice,  even over my past  few years in a Japanese Buddhist tradition like Tendai,  I have to say that Bodhi Day hardly makes a ripple in the calendar of most Buddhists outside of some sects in Japan. Apparently Bodhi Day, or  Rohatsu, to those who actively celebrate it, refers to the day when Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha had his enlightenment experience. Even the date is variable, depending on whether you use the Chinese or Gregorian calendar. It is in no way a parallel to Christmas, since it does not mark Shakyamuni’s birth, but rather the culmination of his awakening journey. Its probably more related to Christ’s awareness that he was going to have to sacrifice himself, if one has to force a parallel. Oddly, it’s a date hardly celebrated even by Christians.

By far the more widely celebrated Buddhist holiday is Vesak, the birthdate of Shakyamuni. Even this is a variable one, since it is celebrated in most countries on the May full moon. The Japanese shift it closer to the culturally important cherry blossom festivals and celebrate it in April. Somehow that date gets lost in the flurry of Easter and Passover.

To me it seems a bit disingenuous to try to force a common container for these widely disparate celebrations which happen to arise in a very arbitrary page of the calendar. Nothing is really gained by doing so. As a Buddhist, I am quite comfortable to wish Merry Christmas and have no expectation that anyone knows when Bodhi Day or Vesak falls, or even means. If anything I am discomforted by the mega-holiday being constructed by the Happy Holidays people. It ultimately robs each of our traditions of their uniqueness. If others want to express their interest and awareness of our traditions, it might show more sensitivity to do so on the holidays that matter to us, rather than the ones which happen to fall near the ones that matter to them.

in the Dharma,
Innen, doshu

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