Bodhi Day, sometimes called Rohatsu in some traditions, is celebrated in the Japanese-Buddhist calendar every year on December 8th in accordance with the tradition that Shakyamuni (a.k.a. Siddhartha Gautama) attained full enlightenment on the morning of the 8th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar. In Japan, this is known formally as shaka jōdō-e (釈迦成道会) or just jōdō-e (成道会) for short. In other Asian-Buddhist cultures that still use the lunar calendar, this date will change. For 2021, it will be observed on January 20th.
I would argue in general Buddhism isn’t a very flashy religion1 and this goes double for Buddhist holidays. This makes it hard for kids like mine who grow up in the US raised in both American and Japanese traditions. Having a holiday like Bodhi Day overshadowed every year by Christmas is a bit demoralizing as a parent, but I still like to give the kids at least one or two Buddhist holidays of their own per year. They may not appreciate it now, but I hope they will later.
If you are celebrating Bodhi Day this year, you may be wondering what to do. Our little traditions at home are by no means the norm. It’s something I’ve gradually come up with for the kids, sometimes borrowing from Christmas traditions, which let’s be frank, borrowed a lot of things from earlier pagan Roman ones. In any case, take what I write below with a big grain of salt.
First, starting on December 1st, I make a special little altar with a statue of the Buddha sitting under a mini “Bodhi Tree”. We got a nice new, wooden tree this year from our local gardening nursery. In the past we had cheap-o plastic mini trees, so this felt like a much needed upgrade.
Around the altar, I try to keep the usual accoutrements: a small bell, an offering dish,2 and maybe a small incense holder.
Originally I tried doing a “Santa Claus”-like tradition, where the kids (just one at the time) would wake up with a new gift from the Buddha. Eventually I dropped the “Santa facade”, though. I never felt quite right about it. Nowadays, we just surprise the kids with a wrapped gift from mom and dad on Bodhi Day morning, usually restricted to books or something wholesome. However, last year I got my teenage daughter some girl Marvel graphic novels. Not very Buddhist, but she thought it was cool. 🥰
Finally, on Bodhi Day itself, we have a nice little celebration, including a special dinner for the wife and kids (this year doing delivery, obviously). Nothing fancy nor any dietary restrictions here. If I can share a little joy with the family, especially this year, I am usually content with that.
As for my personal practice, I’ve tried to observe different precepts on Bodhi Day. Some years, I’ve observed the Eight Precepts, other years the similar, though Mahayana-only Bodhisattava Precepts, but in more recent years I am less stringent with myself and instead just try to “live like a monk” for a day in that I avoid excess, speak kindly to loved ones, spend more time with the kids, and just strive to have wholesome, “blameless” conduct for a day. Undertaking any Buddhist ascetic training is pretty tough when you have kids, and so over time, I’ve learned to set more reasonable expectations on myself and try to live a sustainable life of good conduct. That doesn’t stop me from doing a little extra Buddhist chanting or meditation around this time though. 😌
That’s Bodhi Day in a nutshell over here. I’ll be posting more Buddhist-themed posts this week. Hope you enjoy and have a blessed Bodhi Day! 🖖
1 Buddhist altars, depending on the tradition, can be very ornate. This often surprises people who are new to Buddhism, and weren’t expecting gold-plated statues of the Buddha and such. Some of this comes down to particular traditions, but also as with all Buddhist art, there’s meaning behind everything.
2 Sadly, the offering dish pictured is just a like saké cup which is the perfect size and looks nice, but kind of rubs against the general Buddhist proscription against alcohol.