Sometimes spelled "Visakha Puja," Buddha's birthday will be observed by most Theravada Buddhists on May 24 in 2013. This day commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and passing into Nirvana of the historical Buddha. Tibetan Buddhists also observe this three events on the same day (Saga Dawa Duchen), but most Mahayana Buddhists split them up into three separate holidays.
The people in the accompanying photograph are engaged in a candlelight procession around a statue of the Buddha in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand.
May 25, 2013: Saga Dawa (Birth, Enlightenment, Death of Buddha, Tibetan)
Saga Dawa is the entire fourth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar. The seventh day of Saga Dawa is the day of the historical Buddha's birth for Tibetans. However, the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and entry into Nirvana at his death are observed together on the 15th day of Saga Dawa, which in 2013 is May 25.
Saga Dawa is the holiest time of the Tibetan year and a peak time for pilgrimages.
July 12, 2013: Chokhor Duchen (Tibetan)
Chokhor Duchen commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon and the teaching of the Four Noble Truths.
On this day, Tibetan Buddhists make pilgrimages to holy places, offering incense and hanging prayer flags.
The Obon, or Bon, festivals of Japan are held in mid-July in some parts of Japan and mid-August in other parts. The three-day festival honors departed loved ones and loosely correlates to Hungry Ghost festivals held in other parts of Asia.
Bon odori (folk dance) is the most common custom of Obon, and anyone can participate. Bon dances usually are performed in a circle. However, the people in the photograph are doing Awa odori, which is danced in procession. People dance through the streets to the music of flutes, drums and bells, singing "It's a fool who dances and a fool who watches; if both are fools, you might as well dance!"
Sometimes called "Dharma Day," Asalha Puja commemorates the first sermon of the Buddha. This is the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, meaning the sutra (sermon of the Buddha) "setting the wheel of dhamma [dharma] in motion." In this sermon, the Buddha explained his doctrine of the Four Noble Truths.
Vassa, the Rains Retreat, begins the day after Asalha Puja. During Vassa, monks remain in monasteries and intensify their meditation practice. Laypeople participate by bringing food, candles and other necessities to monks. They also sometimes give up eating meat, smoking, or luxuries during Vassa, which is why Vassa is sometimes called the "Buddhist Lent."
Hungry ghost festivals traditionally are held in China beginning on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. Hungry ghosts are insatiably hungry creatures born into a miserable existence because of their greed.
According to Chinese folklore, the unhappy dead walk among the living throughout the month and must be placated with food, incense, fake paper money, and even cars and homes, also paper and burned as offerings. This is also a traditional time to honor the memories of departed loved ones, unhappy or not.
The end of "ghost month," September 4 this year, is observed as the birthday of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.
The man in the photograph is placing a floating candle on Shichahai Lake in Beijing, China, to pay respects to deceased ancestors.
Obon, or Bon, is a three-day festival for honoring departed loved ones. According to folklore, the souls of the departed visit the living, unseen, for the three days. The celebration culminates with a lantern-floating ceremony in which lighted paper lanterns are set adrift on lakes and rivers to guide the ancestors' spirits.
The man in the accompanying photograph is a taiko drummer. Taiko is an art form that combines drumming and dance and is a common part of many Japanese festivals. If you've ever heard taiko drumming, you can appreciate that the drummers wake the dead.
October 19, 2013: Pavarana and End of Vassa (Theravada)
This day marks the end of the Vassa retreat. Vassa, or "Rain Retreat," sometimes called the Buddhist "Lent," is a three-month period of intensive meditation and practice. The retreat is a tradition that began with the first Buddhist monks, who would spend the Indian monsoon season secluded together.
The end of Vassa also marks the time for Kathina, the robe offering ceremony.
The accompanying photo shows a monk in Laos making a decoration for end-of-Vassa festivities.
November 17, 2013: Anapanasati Day (Theravada)Anapanasati is one of the five major full moon observance days for Theravada Buddhism. It commemorates the sermon of the Buddha on mindfulness of breathing, which is essential to bhavana, or mental cultivation.
November 24, 2013: Lhabab Duchen (Tibetan)
Lhabab Duchen is a Tibetan festival commemorating a story told of the historical Buddha, who is called "Shakyamuni Buddha" by Mahayana Buddhists. In this story, the Buddha had been teaching celestial beings, including his mother, in one of the god realms. A disciple begged him to return to the human world, and so Shakyamuni descended from the god realm on three ladders made of gold and gems.
The Japanese word rohatsu means "eighth day of the twelfth month." In Japan, December 8 is the annual observance of the enlightenment of the Buddha, or "Bodhi Day." Zen monasteries usually schedule a week-long sesshin that culminates on December 8. It is traditional to meditate all through the night on the last night of Rohatsu Sesshin.