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Buddhist Holidays May 5, 2008

Posted by Philip Ryan in Events, General.

I came across a gathering (the Lotus Lantern Parade) in celebration of the Buddha’s birthday yesterday in New York’s Union Square (quite the Buddhist hotspot lately) and it made me think how scattered holidays are in western Buddhism. Maybe westerners don’t want them, having secularized the holidays of their cradle religions. But it seems to play into the worries Clark Strand expressed over the future of the dharma in America. Pardon the crummy cellphone picture.



1. Clark Strand - May 5, 2008

Since you alluded to my article, Phil, I thought I’d comment.
I don’t think holidays are necessarily an issue that most American Buddhists want to force. In fact, I think a many Buddhist converts, raised as nominal Christians or Jews, are probably warry of anything approaching the model of “holiday religion.” They tend to favor the daily practice model instead. Nevertheless, people who make a daily practice of their religion eventually find that they want to celebrate that practice and that religion from time to time in special ways, and so holidays are born.

I was struck by the fact that the Manhattan Shinshu priest T.K. Nakagaki has celebrated O-Bon (the Japanese festival for the dead usually observed in August) on Sept. 11 for the past few years. Not that I want Buddhist ceremonies to be coopted for political or patriotic purposes (not that this is what Nakagaki has in mind), but something like this does highlight the way in which religious holidays/observances naturally tend to “drift” with time until, finally, they overlap with one another, effectively layering the feelings of people in a certain culture. This has happened many times over the development of the Jewish and Christian liturgical calendars, so that now few people remember that such celebrations as Pesach (Passover) and Easter originated with earlier traditions.

Anyway, all of this takes time and will sort itself out in due course. I do think, however, that my earlier point still stands: The relative absence of holidays, weddings, and other family-oriented religious celebrations makes it harder to pass Buddhism down in families…which it terms limits its growth and its influence on society.

2. Marcus - May 6, 2008

The Lotus Lantern Parade here in Seoul was as lively and uplifting as ever – really, the very best event all year long in Korea and something I’d recommend to anyone to come and see, Buddhist or not.

I had no idea there was one in New York too. Wonderful!

Is there perhaps a link to a website for it or anything?

All the best,


3. Philip Ryan - May 6, 2008

Thanks, Clark. Interesting about Nakagaki!

I agree — I think clearer Buddhist holidays would help make Buddhism more intelligible to westerners across the board. Do different parts of Asia celebrate, for example, the Buddha’s birthday on different days because it correlates with pre-Buddhist celebrations?

Many western Buddhists probably don’t want holidays, or think they’re crass or something. But watching people celebrating in Union Square was such a welcome change from the solemnity of the recent gatherings I’ve seen, where all the talk was political.

Marcus: I did a quick Googling and found lots of great stuff from the Seoul event, but very little on New York and elsewhere. There were events in Los Angeles and a few other places I think, but I can’t find the link that told me that now. Let me know if you find anything!

4. Gerald Ford - May 6, 2008

Adding my $.02 here, I am not sure about Nakagaki Sensei in NY, but for the rest of us Jodo Shinshu folks, holidays tend to be pretty straightforward:

Hanamatsuri – April 8th (lots of tradition there)
Obon – Summer time, usually in July-August, this includes the wonderful Bonodori dance we celebrate each year, as well as thanking our ancestors, which is a practice even mentioned in the Pali canon
Nirvana Day – February, we commemeroate the Buddha’s passing into Parinirvana
Gotan-E – Shinran’s birthday in May (some Japanese calendars reflect a different time)
Hoon-ko – Shinran’s memorial in November I think.

To name a few. It’s not that the holidays aren’t there, even here in the West, but I think Western Buddhists ignore them, or don’t do their homework. Most of the holidays above (except for those centered around Shinran) are celebrated by all Japanese Buddhist sects, but how many American Zen centers observe them? Probably not a lot, because most Zen centers haven’t spent the time cultivating a sense of tradition. The focus is still on self-help, not the greater Buddhist tradition. No tradition, nothing to carry on to the younger generation. :p

For Hanamatsuri for the example, my wife and baby girl dressed up in their Sunday best, and we enjoyed a vegetarian meal that day. That does not include the children’s activities at the temple, nor the traditional pouring of sweet tea over a statue of the Buddha. More can be found on my blog, the Level 8 Buddhist by the way.

Anyways, that’s my take on it. 🙂

5. marcus - May 6, 2008

Thank you Philip,

and (my two penny’s worth) I agree with Gerald that in fact the holidays are there – but just tied to the specific Asian traditions, which is probably exactly how it should be!

All the best,


6. Clark Strand - May 7, 2008

Hi, Marcus…Philip…Gerald…

Rev. Nakagaki recently showed me some beautiful photos of the Manhattan lantern festival (which was an interreligious event). I suggested at the time that he might want to offer them to Tricycle for publication in the magazine, but I don’t know if he ever did. In any case, I just sent him the link for this thread, so maybe he’ll be willing to post one or two of them here.


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