Bodhi Day is a Buddhist holiday that celebrates the historical Buddha (also known as Siddhārtha Gautama or Buddha Shakyamuni). Bodhi Day is the celebration of the day the Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. While many people believe the day is called Bodhi Day because of the tree, this is false. The actual tree was a large and sacred peepal tree (a species of Banyan fig) located in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India. It eventually became known as the Bodhi Tree because that was the place where Siddhārtha Gautama reached enlightenment and became the Buddha (“The Awakened One”). In Pali and Sanskrit the word bodhi directly translates to “awakening” however it is frequently translated to “enlightenment” as well.
The story of Bodhi Day began six years before the Buddha’s awakening. Growing up Siddhārtha Gautama was a rich prince in Nepal who lived a life of luxury. He knew nothing of suffering. However, upon discovering the pain and suffering of those less fortunate than himself, he abandoned his life of comfort and left to become a monk, relying only upon the kindness of others. He was just 29 years old. Gautama studied under six different teachers, and forced his body to survive under desperate conditions, but he was resolute in his goal of understanding the universe in which we live and the roles we all play. At one point he only allowed himself to eat one grain of rice per day. Eventually, Gautama realized that he had gone from one end of the spectrum to the opposite; beginning with a life of extreme luxury and ending in one of extreme pain and hunger. He recognized that his current state of being was unsustainable and that he would not reach enlightenment if his body perished. It was then that he chose the middle ground. He sat himself down underneath a great fig tree and resolved to meditate until he understood the great truths of our universe. For 49 days he meditated.
From here there are many different accounts of what happened. Some believe that the demon king Mara came to distract Gautama and take him off the path towards enlightenment. Some believe that Mara is the personification of negative thoughts that distract us from what really matters in this life. In the Pāli Canon, the standard collection of scriptures observed in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the Buddha describes his enlightenment in three stages:
- During the first watch, the Buddha discovered all of his past lives and realized he had been born and reborn innumerable times before.
- During the second watch, the Buddha unearthed the Law of Karma and the importance of living by the Eightfold Path.
- During the third watch, the Buddha found the Four Noble Truths, thus finally reaching Enlightenment and becoming “The Awakened One.”
While it is impossible for us to know exactly what occurred from day 1-49 in his own words the Buddha describes the experience as such: “My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.” And thus he became The Buddha.
Bodhi Day is primarily celebrated by Mahayana Buddhists and Zen Buddhists. Theravada Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment on Vesak Day. Bodhi Day is celebrated on the eight day of the 12th month each year. Similar to other Buddhist holidays, Bodhi day is meant to be a day of thoughtful reflection and acts of loving kindness. Many Buddhist households will have Ficus Trees in their homes to decorate with multicolored lights strung together with beads. This is meant to symbolize how we are all interconnected. Three ornaments are, also, hung in order to represent the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Similarly many families will hang multicolored lights throughout their homes as this is meant to show us the many different paths one can take to reach enlightenment. The lights are turned on in the evening of Bodhi Day, and again each evening for the 30 days following the sacred day. Many Buddhists will start their day with the traditional meal of milk and rice, as this is what the Buddha ate after reaching enlightenment. Furthermore, some like to bake cookies in the shape of the leaves from the Bodhi tree in celebration and others celebrate through reading religious texts and chanting sutras.