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Buddhist Holidays




Tis the season to celebrate the coming of light into our suffering world. American Buddhists too celebrate this season with reflection, rededication, gifts and family.


Where ever Buddhism goes, it picks up the customs and bits of the culture from the country it arrives in. So, perhaps we can integrate Buddhism with some of our winter holiday customs. Of course, the compassion of the season fits right in with Buddha Dharma.  And of course, Buddhism is not alone in incorporating celebrations. After all, the Christian celebration of Christmas is rooted in the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia and ancient Solstice customs. 






The BFF communities celebrate Bodhi Day Sunday, on December 23rd for the year 2012, which is the non-traditional date of this Buddhist holiday. December 8th is the traditional date for northern Buddhist tradition. This holiday honors the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama. Bodhi Day would be a good way to integrate the winter holidays with Buddhism. Here are eight suggestions for integrating our western customs with the Buddhist religion:

1. Celebrate with lights. String multicolored lights around your home and/or Bodhi tree. These lights represent enlightenment; the multicolor represents the many Buddhist paths, all of which are valid and part of the One Vehicle. Turn on the lights each evening starting on Bodhi Day Sunday till New Year’s Day.

2. Celebrate the Seven Days of Enlightenment.  Light a candle every night to symbolize enlightenment for seven days after Bodhi Day commemorating Shakyamuni’s abiding in nirvana for seven days after his enlightenment experience (vimutti sukha).  You may start on Bodhi Day Sunday or on on the Christian holiday of Christmas.

3. Practice dana by offering gifts. For each of the Seven Days of Enlightenment, exchange small gifts with your immediate family or give your children a gift. Preferably, for adults, these gifts can be of a non-material nature such as making breakfast or dinner, cleaning the house, washing the dishes, etc.  Also, take out your husband/wives for dinner or do community service and/or help the Sangha. Another idea is to exchange gifts on Bodhi Day Sunday or on December 25 in order to maintain family traditions. This is a good idea for religious mixed families.

4. Set up a Bodhi Tree. The Bodhi tree (ficus religiousa) is the tree under which the Buddha sat. Buy a potted live ficus tree for your home (a ficus benjamina or a traditional holiday tree will do if you can't find a ficus religiousa) decorate this tree with lights, strings of beads representing how all things are interconnected, and shiny bulbs representing the jewels of Pure Land. The star on top of the tree represents the rising of the morning star, marking Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. Don’t forget to put a small statue of the sitting Buddha under the tree. 

5. Have a rice and milk meal. Sujata offered the Shakyamuni milk and rice, which helped him to regain his strength so he could continue his religious quest, which marks the Middle Way. We suggest a breakfast of milk and rice (rice crispy’s, etc.) or have rice pudding for dessert would be a good way to remember this event and the Middle Way

6.  Prepare special treats. Make Bo tree cookies. Bo leaf or Buddha cookies - the leaves are heart shaped so you can use a heart-shaped cookie.           

7. Have a Bodhi Day dinner. Celebrate Bodhi Day with a special dinner, For us, it is a Shojin Observance day (vegetarian/vegan meal), so enjoy the holiday season with a nourishing vegan, vegetarian or raw meal and chant with family and friends the Juseige and nembutsu in front of your home altar. Also, with your family and friends, you can make this the occasion to begin the practice of the Seven Days of Enlightenment.


8. Observe Shusho-e.  On New Year’s Day, we observe Shusho-e, the Day of Renewal. In this special observance we reflect on our life, purpose and spiritual practice, and make a rededication to live a life of nembutsu, compassion and gratitude. We take time to read about Buddhism, meditate and chant with our family and/or friends, and have a Renewal Dinner which is vegetarian or vegan with prayer and reflection. Just before the dinner, with our family and/or friends, we reflect on and share of our faults, and declare to friends and family what we need to do to live a life of love, understanding and faith.




Converting Christmas

By Rev. Oswin Hollenbeck


Buddhist Holiday Decorations


Buddhist winter holiday decorations represent in visual form what the world and universe looked like when Shakyamuni Buddha realized enlightenment. These decorations also are derived from descriptions of various Pure Lands presided over by a celestial or transcendental Buddha such as Amitabha (Amida), which are again, from our tradition’s point of view, representations of Nirvana or enlightenment….


Jewel Trees


Jewel trees represent the Bodhi-tree, the beautiful Indian fig tree with shimmering heart-shaped leaves under which the Buddha realized enlightenment. Any sort of tree will do—Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in England uses an artificial tree resembling the original Bo tree. Pine trees in the East, and by extension other conifers, are considered to symbolize the Eternal, since they are ever-green, that is, not changing with the seasons.


These trees are described in the Scriptures as “bejeweled, heavy with blossoms and fruit,” strung with garlands and nets of flowers, jewels, and bells, all of which radiate and reflect light. Most of our traditional Christmas tree ornaments can be seen to have Buddhist meaning.


Bells and Drums


Jewel trees are sometimes described hung with bells which tinkle musically in the air. Devas (heavenly beings) and celestial musicians beat drums and make other “pleasing music”. Sometimes the trees themselves mysteriously produce music. All of these can represent the sound or voice of the Dharma.


Garlands and Nets


All of the ornaments above frequently hang from garlands and nets, which together with chains, tassels, and banners often drape the jewel trees.  With a bit of imagination, other traditional ornaments may be “converted” for use on a Buddhist jewel tree: angels become devas and celestial musicians; birds approximate dragons and garudas, or become another source for the beautiful music; snowflakes remind us of impermanence.


Other Buddhist Symbols


There are also many other Buddhist symbols which lend themselves to being fashioned into ornaments: the Wheel of the Dharma, a conch shell (representing the Voice of the Eternal), the knot of Eternity (representing the everlasting love of the Eternal), and other of the “eight auspicious symbols” used to venerate the Buddha. Stupas of various sorts and designs can represent different traditions and cultures. Animals with specific symbolism such as lions, elephants, and dragons may be used, as well as other animals from the Jataka tales with special significance for you and your training. Lastly, ornaments in which one places a photo work well for favorite Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arahants, your master or teacher, or members of your family or loved ones. Use what works best for you and your family and friends.


Scriptural references for “jewel trees” and adornments


From the opening of The Avatamsaka (Flower Garland) Sutra, one of the traditional Scriptures of the Serene Reflection Meditation (Sōtō Zen) tradition:


“Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was [residing] in the land of Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just realized true awareness. The ground was solid and firm, made of diamond, adorned with exquisite jewel discs and myriad precious flowers, with pure clear crystals…There were banners of precious stones, constantly emitting shining light and producing beautiful sounds. Nets of myriad gems and garlands of exquisitely scented flowers hung all around. The finest jewels appeared spontaneously, raining inexhaustible quantities of gems and beautiful flowers all over the earth. There were rows of jewel trees, their branches and foliage lustrous and luxuriant.


The tree of enlightenment was tall and outstanding. Its trunk was diamond, its main boughs were lapis lazuli, its branches and twigs were of various precious elements. The leaves, spreading in all directions, provided shade, like clouds. The precious blossoms were of various colors, the branching twigs spread out their shadows. Also the fruits were jewels containing a blazing radiance. They were together with the flowers in great arrays. The entire circumference of the tree emanated light; within the light there rained precious stones, and within each gem were enlightening beings [Bodhisattvas], in great hosts like clouds, simultaneously appearing….The tree of enlightenment constantly gave forth sublime sounds speaking various truths without end.” 3


From The Scripture on the Immeasurable Life of the Tathagata, a chapter of The Lotus Sutr,: “Tranquil will this realm [Pure Land] of Mine be, ever filled with devas and humans in parks and groves, amongst towers and palaces bedecked with gems of every kind. Under bejeweled trees, heavy with blossoms and fruit, may these beings take their delight and play, whilst devas beat their heavenly drums, ever making pleasing music, and showering down coral tree flowers upon the Buddha and His great assembly”.4


1 The Threefold Lotus Sutra, Kato/Underhill trans. (Tokyo: Kōsei Publishing, 1975), Glossary, “precious seven,” p. 379.

2 The eight symbols are fish, parasol, conch shell, lotus blossom, victory banner, sacred water vase, Dharma wheel, and knot of eternity. See The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, Fischer-Schreiber, etal, trans. by Michael Kohn (Boston: Shambhala, 1991), p. 62.

3 The Flower Ornament Scripture, Volume 1, trans. Thomas Cleary (Boulder: Shambhala, 1984), p. 55.

4 Buddhist Writings on Meditation and Daily Practice: The Serene Reflection Meditation Tradition, trans. Rev. Hubert Nearman, eds. Rev. Master P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett and Rev. Daizui MacPhillamy (Mount. Shasta, California: Shasta Abbey Press, 1994), p. 36.


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Have a Merry Bodhi Day and a Happy New Year!

From all the Friends of the BFF Communities


Our Beliefs, Practices and Experiences

Copyright 2006. G.R. Lewis, All Rights Reserved

The author grants permission to copy this document for personal uses only.