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Buddhist Holidays

Buddhist holidays are special occasions to commemorate important events in the life of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), and to celebrate Buddhist teachings and practices.

Two young monks praying inside the temple in Bagan, Myanmar


What Are Buddhist Holidays?

Buddhist holidays and observations often revolve around the life of Siddhartha Gautama, a religious teacher living around 500 BCE, who later became known as the Buddha (“the enlightened one”). Here are some important Buddhist holidays:

  • Vesak (Buddha Purnima) marks the birth, enlightenment, and death (Nirvana) of Siddhartha Gautama. In many countries, Vesak is celebrated on the Full Moon day in the Buddhist month of Vaisakha—April or May in the Gregorian calendar.
  • Asalha Puja (Dhamma Day) commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon to his first five disciples. It is celebrated on the Full Moon day in the eighth Buddhist lunar month, usually in July in the Gregorian calendar.
  • Losar (New Year). While primarily a Tibetan New Year celebration, Losar is also celebrated in other countries, such as Bhutan. It involves Buddhist rituals, including visits to monasteries, prayer flag hoisting, and religious performances.

Buddhist holidays vary across traditions (Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana) and regions. Specific Buddhist communities may also celebrate additional holidays and customs.

Who Celebrates Buddhist Holidays?

Around 520 million people around the world follow Buddhist traditions. With roughly 7% of the world’s population, Buddhism is the fourth-largest religion on Earth.

Buddhism is the dominant religion in many countries in Southeast Asia and East Asia, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Vietnam.

Theravada and Mahayana Traditions

There are two main traditions within Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. Buddhists in Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, practice Theravada Buddhism, while those in East Asia, including China, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, follow the Mahayana tradition.

Holidays And Dates Vary

Some, like the Theravada and Tibetan traditions, follow a lunar calendar to determine the dates of festivals and holidays. The dates are therefore not fixed in the Gregorian calendar.

Others, such as the Mahayana tradition, mostly observed in East Asia, have aligned their holy dates with the Gregorian calendar.

There is variation within a tradition as well. Some holidays, such as Buddha’s Birthday or Vesak, are celebrated on different dates in different countries. In China and Hong Kong, the holiday falls on the eighth day of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. In Japan, where it is called Hanamatsuri, it falls on April 8 every year.

Many New Years

The differences in Buddhist traditions also mean that the Buddhist year starts on different days in different parts of the world.

Those who follow the Mahayana school of thought celebrate the start of their New Year on the first Full Moon in the Gregorian month of January. On the other hand, people who subscribe to the Theravada tradition start their year three days after the Full Moon in April.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the start of the lunisolar calendar is also known as Lhosar (or Losar). It falls in April or May in the Gregorian calendar. In Nepal, a similarly named festival is celebrated on different days by different communities: Tamu Lhosar falls in December or January, Sonam Lhosar in January or February, and Gyalpo Losar falls in February or March.

Japanese Buddhists celebrate the Gregorian New Year on January 1 by ringing the temple bells 108 times at the stroke of midnight. And in Thailand, the New Year is celebrated as the Songkran Festival from April 13 to April 15 every year.

Vesak: Buddha’s Birthday

Vesak, also known as Wesak, Buddha Jayanti, or Buddha Purnima, is an important Buddhist festival that celebrates the birth, life, and death of Gautama Buddha. In the Mahayana tradition, the three events are commemorated separately on three different dates, including Bodhi Day (the day of Buddha’s enlightenment) and Nirvana Day (the day of Buddha’s death). On the other hand, in the Theravada tradition, these three events are observed on the same day, which falls on the Full Moon day of the month of Vaisakha. This corresponds to April or May in the Gregorian calendar.

In Tibet, Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death are commemorated on the 15th day of the fourth month (Saga Dawa) of the Tibetan lunar calendar. This day usually falls in June in the Gregorian Calendar. In Taiwan, the day is celebrated on the second Sunday of May and coincides with International Mothers Day.

In 1999, the United Nations made Vesak Day an annual UN observation.