Bodhi Day is the Buddhist holiday that commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Shakyamuni), experienced enlightenment, also known as bodhi in Sanskrit and Pali. According to tradition, Siddhartha had recently forsaken years of extreme ascetic practices and resolved to sit under a peepal tree and simply meditate until he found the root of suffering, and how to liberate oneself from it.
Traditions vary on what happened. Some say Siddhartha made a great vow to Nirvana and Earth to find the root of suffering, or die trying. In other traditions, while meditating he was harassed and tempted by the god Mara (literally, “Destroyer” in Sanskrit), the demon of illusion. Other traditions simply state that he entered deeper and deeper states of meditation, confronting the nature of the self.
In the Pali Canon, there are several discourses said to be by Buddha himself, relating to this story. In The Longer Discourse to Saccaka (MN 36), the Buddha describes his Enlightenment in three stages:
During the first watch of the night, the Buddha discovered all of his past lives in the cycle of rebirth, realizing that he had been born and reborn countless times before.
During the second watch, the Buddha discovered the Law of Karma, and the importance of living by the Eightfold Path.
During the third watch, the Buddha discovered the Four Noble Truths, finally reaching Nirvana.
In his words:
“ My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’”
All traditions agree that as the morning star rose in the sky in the early morning, the third watch of the night, Siddhartha finally found the answers he sought and became Enlightened, and experienced Nirvana. Having done so, Siddhartha now became a Buddha or “Awakened One”.
Bodhi Day is observed in many mainstream Mahayana traditions including the traditional Zen and Pureland Buddhist schools of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. In Japanese Zen, it is also known as Rohatsu. In Tendai and other Japanese sects, it is called either Shaka-Jōdō-e (釈迦成道会?) or simply Jōdō-e (成道会?).
Services and traditions vary amongst Buddhist sects, but all such services commemorate the Buddha’s achievement of Nirvana, and what this means for Buddhism today. Individuals may choose to commemorate the event through additional meditation, the study of the Dharma, chanting of Buddhist texts (sutras) or performing kind acts towards other beings. Some Buddhists celebrate with a traditional meal of tea, cake, and readings.
The word Rōhatsu (臘八) is Japanese and literally, means 8th Day of the 12th Month. It is typical for Zen monks and layman followers to stay up the entire night before Rohatsu practicing meditation, and the holiday is often preceded by an intensive sesshin. It is observed on the Gregorian date of December 8 as a result of the Westernization of Japan during the Meiji Restoration (1862–1869).