Today is Bodhi Day in Japan. This commemorates the enlightenment of Siddhārtha Gautama after forty-nine days of meditation under a Bodhi tree, and was traditionally celebrated on the eighth day of the twelfth month of the Chinese calendar, now transferred in some traditions to the eighth day of the twelfth month of our current calendar.
According to the legend Siddhārtha, raised in great wealth and luxury, was so horrified on discovering disease and misery that he spent many years searching for the answer to the ultimate question, the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. (42, anyone?) After studying under several teachers, taking fasting to ridiculous lengths, and endless meditation sessions, he finally vowed to sit under a tree until he found true enlightenment. After seven weeks of solid meditation enlightenment came to him, and the Noble Eightfold Path was born. Bodhi Day commemorates this event.
Now as it happens I’ve never met anybody who celebrated Bodhi Day—or, at any rate, I’ve never been around when they did. I don’t know how seriously Buddhists take this holiday, but I read that some decorate a ficus with multi-colored lights which are turned on for the thirty days following the 8th, and that tree-shaped cookies are baked for the kids. Doing nice things for the other beings that share our planet is another feature of the season.
Offhand this sounds to me like a Buddhist take on our common Yuletide traditions, much as Christmas is a Christian take on them. I base this, however, only on the most casual of reading; not on anything resembling research. My impression is that Buddhism generally prefers to blend in with local culture, and for all I know some of these features may be explicitly taken from the Christian celebration—though again, as Christians took them from earlier “faiths”, this would be simply another passing on of the torch.
Torches can be passed in many ways, and the story of Siddhārtha Gautama is a fascinating one. It circulated in many forms. In one of them he became an Indian prince who converted to Christianity (brought to India by St. Thomas) and under its influence lived an ascetic life of great holiness. In this tradition he is called St. Josaphat (though he was never officially canonized by the Roman Catholic church) and his feast day is celebrated 27 November. Which just goes to show, I guess, that the study of theology is full of surprises.
Words To Live By? - Observed at the Hirshhorn Museum, D.C.:
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