by Dr. Venugopal Menon


Buddhism is the fourth popular faith in the world behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, with about 490 million (7%) followers. It was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (“the Buddha”) more than 2,500 years ago in India. Gautama was born as a prince in the present day Nepal (which was a part of India at the Buddha’s time; he was raised and lived his entire life in North-eastern India, mostly in the present-day Bihar state), but was moved by the suffering around and walked away from the lavish life, and attained Enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree. His spiritual teachings gathered a large following and thus the religion of Buddhism was born. Its practice has historically been most prominent in East and Southeast Asia, like China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet, but its influence is growing in the West.

Many Buddhist ideas and philosophies overlap with those of other faiths. The Buddha ignored the concept of God, afterlife, and creation theories, embracing instead, its main tenets based on dukkha (suffering), its truth, its causes, its elimination, and the path leading to its elimination. Buddha’s teachings of the virtues of wisdom, kindness, patience, generosity, and compassion are collectively known as ‘Dharma’.

There are three forms based on different interpretations of Buddha: Theravada Buddhism, in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, Mahayana Buddhism in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam, and Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan, and northern India.

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, is a simple Buddhist monk, the spiritual leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lamas are believed to be incarnations of the previous ones, realized beings inspired to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of humanity. But after China invaded Tibet, and following the brutal suppression of Tibet by communist China, His Holiness was forced into exile, and India welcomed him and settled him in Dharmasala of Northern India.

Buddhist practice considers many festivals and celebrations as part of their culture. There are variations of religious and social events developed from different countries that follow Buddhism and are also based on their observance of Mahayana (M), Theravada (Th), or Tibetan (T)versions of Buddhism.

Buddhist New Year

(First full moon day in April or January. Please check below for details)

In countries following Theravada Buddhism, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos, the new year is celebrated for three days from the first full moon day in April. In Mahayana countries, the new year starts on the first full moon day in January. However, the Buddhist New Year depends on the country of origin or ethnic background of the people. As, for example, the Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese celebrate in late January or early February according to the lunar calendar, whilst the Tibetans usually celebrate about one month later.



(First full moon day in May)

Otherwise known as Visakha Puja the "Buddha Day", traditionally, is Buddha's Birthday. Vesak is the major Buddhist festival of the year as it celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha on the one day, the first full moon day in May, except in a leap year when the festival is held in June. This celebration is called Vesak being the name of the month in the Indian calendar.


Magha Puja Day

(Full moon day of March)

Magha Puja Day, or the Fourfold Assembly or "Sangha Day" takes place on the full moon day of the third lunar month (March). This holy day is observed to commemorate an important event in the life of the Buddha. The event occurred early in the Buddha's teaching life. After the first Rains Retreat (Vassa) at the Deer Park at Sarnath, the Buddha went to Rajagraha city where 1250 Arahats, (enlightened saints) were the Buddha's disciples, had returned from their wanderings to pay respect to the Buddha. The assembly is called the Fourfold Assembly because it consisted of four factors: (1) All 1250 were Arahats; (2) All of them were ordained by the Buddha himself; (3) They assembled by themselves without any prior call; (4) It was the full moon day of Magha month (March).


Asalha Puja Day

(Full moon day of July)

Asalha Puja ("Dhamma Day") is to pay homage to the Buddha on the full moon day of the 8th lunar month (July). It commemorates the Buddha's first teaching: the turning of the wheel of the Dhamma, or Dharma, the ‘cosmic law and order’, to the five ascetics at the Deer Park (Sarnath) near Varanasi city, India. Kondanna, the senior ascetic attained the first level of enlightenment here.



(Thailand, middle of April)

This Thai Buddhist festival goes on for several days during the middle of April. People clean their houses and wash their clothes and enjoy sprinkling perfumed water on the monks, novices and, other people for at least two or three days. They gather around the riverbank, carrying fish in jars to put into the water, that the ponds dry out and the fish would die if not rescued. People go to the beach or river bank with jars or buckets of water and splash each other.



(First to the fifteenth day of July) Ulambana or the Ancestor Day is celebrated throughout the Mahayana tradition from the first to the fifteenth days of the eighth lunar month. It is believed that the gates of Hell are opened on the first day and the ghosts may visit the world for fifteen days. Food offerings are made during this time to relieve the sufferings of these ghosts. On the fifteenth day, Ulambana, people visit cemeteries to make offerings to the departed ancestors.

Many Theravadins from Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand also observe this festival. Ulambana is also a Japanese Buddhist festival known as Obon, beginning on the thirteenth of July and lasting for three days, which celebrates the reunion of family ancestors with the living.