Buddhists around the world celebrate Gautama’s attainment of Enlightenment in 596 BCE on this day while sitting under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, in Northern India. Many consider this to be the most sacred of holy places as it was the birth place of their tradition. Bodhi Day is celebrated in many mainstream Mahayan traditions, including Zen, and in Pure Land Buddhist schools in China, Japan and Korea. Buddhist commemorate the day by meditating, studying the Dharma (teaching), chanting sutras (Buddhist texts) and performing kind acts toward other beings. Some celebrate by a traditional meal of tea, cakes and readings.
Siddhartha Gautama, who would later become the Buddha, was a prince in Nepal who had lived a comfortable and sheltered life under the care of his family. When he grew up he travelled about, witnessing the misery of old age, sickness, and suffering. These profoundly affected him, and at the age of 29, he chose to leave his comfortable surroundings and seek meaning in life.
After spending six years living the life of an aesthetic and serving under six teachers, he was still unsatisfied. He tried many different disciplines, even going so far as to survive by eating only one grain of rice per day, but he soon realized that this was not the way to achieve what he sought. Unable to find answers to his questions, he vowed that he would sit under the Bodhi tree (sometimes called the Pipal tree or Bo tree in certain texts) until his way was clear.
Siddhartha fasted and meditated under this tree for a week, and on the morning of the eighth day came to several realizations which were to become the principles of modern Buddhism. It was here, as Siddhartha meditated and gazed upon Venus rising, that the basis of The Noble Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths were born.
From this point forward he was referred to as the Buddha – The Enlightened One. He was also known as Shakyamuni (the sage of the Shakya clan) Buddha.
Bodhi Day (or Rohatsu), the day of enlightenment, can be celebrated in many ways. To the Buddhist monk it is a day of remembrance and meditation. To the lay people a good way of recognizing this important event in Buddhism is to dwell on its meaning and to place in the home reminders of this event. Often, coloured lights are strung about the home to recognize the day of enlightenment. They are multi-coloured to symbolize the many pathways to enlightenment. The lights are turned on each evening beginning on December 8th and for 30 days thereafter. A candle is also lit for these thirty days to symbolize enlightenment.
In Buddhist homes, a fiscus tree of the genus ficus religiosa is often displayed. Beginning on Bodhi Day, these trees are decorated with multi-coloured lights, strung with beads to symbolize the way all things are united, and they are hung with three shiny ornaments to represent the Three Jewels – The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Sujata offered The Buddha milk and rice which helped him to regain his strength on his pathway to enlightenment. A breakfast of milk and rice would be an appropriate way to start Bodhi day with mindfulness.