An Introduction to Buddhist special services and dates:
Bon Service is observed by all Buddhist sects as a Buddhist Memorial Day for those who have departed, and is held on the 15th day either in July, according to solar calendar, or August, according to lunar calendar. The term “BON” derived from a Sanskrit term “Ullambana” (literally ‘to be hung upside down’). The Bon Dance originated from the story of MOKUREN, one of ten great disciples of Gautama Buddha. According to the Chinese translation of the Ullambana Sutra (its equivalent cannot be found in original Sanskrit at present), Mokuren danced with great joy when he found that his mother, who had been suffering in Hell by being hung upside down because a lot of food to the poverty-stricken people. This offering suggested to him by his master, the Buddha. After this story, Buddhists on this occasion offer various foods in front of the altar and dance the Bon Odori, usually outdoors on the open ground. Nowadays, this occasion has became one of the biggest and happiest traditional Buddhist festivals.
This is observed on April 8th by most of the Mahayana Buddhists to celebrate the birthday of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, who is believed to have been born on this day in 565 B.C., according to Mahayana tradition, in Lumbini Garden in present Nepal. After the Christian tradition, Buddhists in the United States usually have this festival on the nearest Sunday to this date, since it is not proclaimed as yet a holiday like Christmas. On this occasion, a small shrine covered by many flowers is placed in the worship hall of a Buddhist Church, and members of the congregation pour sweet tea on the small image of the Shakyamuni, Gautama Siddhartha, enshrined in it. This day is called Flower Festival after the legend that he was born in Lumbini Garden in the midst of flower blossoms. It is believed that sweet rain fell from heaven at the moment of his birth to celebrate the arrival of this great person who later became the founder of Buddhism. Buddhists, therefore, pour sweet tea on his image after this legendary story. Again, many Buddhist Churches have special programs on this day such as a children’s parade in colorful Japanese costume, entertainment, get-together party, etc., to express their joy and to celebrate the birth of the Lord Buddha. In Hawaii, April 8th was recently acknowledged by the State as one of the State’s Festival Days, although it was not granted as a holiday. It can be said that this Festival is the most happy occasion of all annual events for all Buddhists.
According to Theravada tradition, however, it is believed that Siddhartha was born on the Wesak (Vesak) Full Moon Day in 623 B.C. Wesak (Vaisakha in Sanskrit and Vesakha in Pali) is the full moon day in the month which corresponds to April-May of the present calendar. Theravada Buddhists celebrate this day of His Enlightenment and Nirvana.
On December 8th, most of the Mahayana Buddhists celebrate the Bodhi Day when Gautama Siddhartha attained the state of Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree at the age of 35, in 531 B.C. To attain the state of Enlightenment indicates that he became the Buddha, the Enlightened One. “Bodhi” means Enlightenment. The place where he became the Buddha is called Buddhagaya and is located in North-central India. Here, a big tower which commemorates his Enlightenment stands as well as a Bodhi tree believed to be a descendant of the original tree under which he attained the state of Enlightenment.
On February 15, 486 B.C., the Buddha passed away at Kushinagara, India, at the age of 80, according to Mahayana tradition. It is believed that He entered into perfect tranquility, or Nirvana, at that time. Therefore, on February 15th each year, Buddhists hold a Memorial Service for the memory of Gautama Buddha. In Japan, Ei-tai-kyo Service, or everlasting Memorial Service for the deceased members of the family, is also held on this day. After this tradition, Buddhist Churches in the United States usually have both Nirvana Service for the memory of Gautama Buddha and the Ei-tai-kyo (Sutra-chanting for the perpetual memory of the deceased) Service for the memory of those who have passed away.
Devotion Days (Higan Services)
This is held twice a year by all Japanese Buddhist, sects and their overseas branches, in the spring and in the autumn. Spring Higan is observed for one week, usually from March 18th to 24th, making the Spring Equinox Day as its middle day, while Autumn Higan is observed usually from September 20th to 26th, again making the Autumn Equinox Day as its middle day. During these weeks, it is expected that the Six Paramitas (Perfections): Giving, Morality, Patience, Vigor, Concentration, and Wisdom, which are the gates through which one enters and crosses to the Other Shore (HIGAN), or the Buddha Land, are practiced by Buddhists. On the middle days of these weeks, Japanese Buddhists usually go to the cemetery where graves of the family are located and pay homage and express their thankfulness to those who have passed away by offering flowers and foods. In the United States, the nearest Sundays to the middle days of these weeks are usually set for the HIGAN Services by the Buddhist Churches. Pretty flowers and various foods of the season such as fruits, vegetables and candies are offered to the Amida Buddha in order to express thankfulness for His Great Compassion. It is said that these services originated from the time of Prince Shotoku (574-622 A.D.). HIGAN literally means “Other Shore,” which indicates the Pure Land of the Amida Buddha. It is probable that these services derived from the “observation of the sun” explained in the KWAN MURYO JU KYO (Meditation Sutra), one of the three basic sutras in Pure Land Buddhism. Since the Heian Period (794-1192 A.D.), these services have been very popular in Japan.
Shinran Shonin’s Birthday and Memorial Day
The services which are observed by each Japanese sect are naturally different in accordance with the individual sect or school. Usually, the birthday and the day of the death of the founder of each sect or school are special days on which special services are held. In the case of the Nishi (West) Hongwanji sect of the Jodoshinshu, to which our churches belong, days and services are: (1) St. Shinran’s Birthday (SHU SO GO TAN YE); and (2) St. Shinran’s Memorial Day (HO ON KO).
Shinran Shonin’s Birthday (SHU SO GO TAN YE)
Special Service is held on May 21st to celebrate the birthday of Shinran Shonin, the founder of the Jodo-shin sect (Nishi Hongwanji to which Buddhist Churches of America belongs is one of ten schools of this sect), who was born on this day, 1173 A.D.
Shinran Shonin’s Memorial Day (HO ON KO)
This Service is the most important service in the Jodo-shin sect. It is observed on January 16th in the memory of the death of Shinran Shonin. The Higashi (East) Hongwanji school observes this service on November 16th according to the old calendar. HO ON KO literally means “Gathering to express our Thankfulness and Gratitudes (for Shinran Shonin who founded the sect).” Usually, after this service, special meal is served at the church to those who attended in Japan as well as in the United States.
Other Special Days and Services
Besides the above days and services, Buddhist Churches of America sets the following as their special days and services:
(1) January 1st — SHU SHO YE or New year’s Day Service
(2) September 1st — B.C.A. Founding Day
(3) December 31st — JO YA YE or New Year’s Eve Service
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