Zen is part of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, the "Great Vehicle" accessible to all and meant to carry all those who seek enlightenment to nirvana. Zen tradition is spare and simple, focused on meditation and contemplation of koans, which are mind puzzles designed as aids to enlightenment. But Zen communities mark major celebrations of Buddhism with observances and rituals that honor Buddha's life and teachings as well as local customs.
The San Francisco Zen Center marks Buddha's birthday with a parade from the Zen Center to a local park for a brief ceremony. The celebration follows morning meditation and a dharma talk and is designed to encourage family participation. The birthday of the Buddha is universally observed across various Buddhist schools and typically takes place on the full moon in May. Buddha's birthday holiday, known as Vesak, is named after the Indian month of May and the feast often includes acknowledgement of Buddha's enlightenment and his passing from this life into nirvana. Zen practitioners might create a ceremony of washing and adorning a Buddha statue, special offerings of food and flowers, a release of caged birds to signify the release of Buddhists from the confines of illusion or a days-long zazen -- meditation session -- with teachings by a Zen master.
Dhamma, or Dharma, Day honors the first public teachings of the Buddha in Deer Park, where he explained the Four Noble Truths about the reality, origins and cessation of human suffering. The day comes on the full moon in July and can be cause for a feast or simply a special program of readings from Buddhist scriptures and reflections on the Four Noble Truths. The first Dhamma Day, the talk in Deer Park, marked the sudden enlightenment of Kondanna, one of Buddha's earliest followers. Enlightenment through sudden understanding of Buddha's teachings is one of the goals of Zen Buddhism.
Buddhists take refuge in the sangha, the community of meditators who follow the teachings of the Buddha, and support each other in progressing toward enlightenment. Sangha Day, a major Buddhist holy day, happens on the full moon during the third lunar month, March, and is sometimes referred to as Maha Puja, or Great Worship Day. When Buddha left Deer Park, he traveled to another city where it is said that more than a thousand enlightened disciples spontaneously joined him to pay their respects. This is the model for a Buddhist sangha and the feast is marked by celebratory meals, exchanges of gifts, dharma talks about Buddhist teachings and other group rituals.
The New Year and Other Traditions
Most Mahayana Buddhists, including Zen communities, celebrate the New Year according to the lunar calendar, on the full moon in late January or early February. A Buddhist commemoration may be enlivened by local custom, including parades, fireworks to banish evil spirits and special foods and meals reflecting indigenous tradition. The Brooklyn Zen Center in New York City schedules an evening of temple cleaning followed by a communal meal of noodle soup before three zazen sessions that end around midnight on the eve of New York's annual New Year's partying -- December 31 into January 1. The Zen sangha rings 108 bells -- 108 is a sacred number in Buddhism -- to welcome the New Year in a reflective contrast to the wild revelry in Times Square. Zen Buddhism regards holy days as auspicious times to focus on purification and spiritual practice, and many full moon days throughout the year are dedicated to exemplary Buddhist figures like Guanyin, bodhisattva of compassion.
- Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images