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Rohatsu: The Zen Buddhist Celebration of Enlightenment

Rohatsu (Bodhi Day) is a significant and revered holiday in Zen Buddhism. It commemorates the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, who would later be known as the Buddha. Although the celebration of Rohatsu is usually quite intense, there are several ways you can honor this holiday and bring some mindfulness into your life. To help you better understand its origins and significance, here’s everything you need to know about Rohatsu.

What is Rohatsu?

Rohatsu is a Zen Buddhist holiday that celebrates the moment when Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Because of this, Mahayana Buddhists refer to the holiday as “Bodhi Day.” It marks the culmination of Siddhartha's six years of rigorous spiritual practice and meditation, which ultimately led him to understand the nature of suffering and the path to liberation from it. Rohatsu also means “awakened” in Sanskrit. However, in English, we usually substitute the term “enlightened” instead. After Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment, he would become known to millions around the world as the Buddha.

Why is Rohatsu Celebrated?

Rohatsu (Bodhi Day) holds a lot of significance for those who practice Zen Buddhism. It’s a day that commemorates the Buddha's enlightenment, which acts as a source of inspiration for all practitioners on their own spiritual journeys. Essentially, the holiday and celebrations surrounding it highlight the potential for anyone to attain enlightenment through dedicated practice and meditation, regardless of their background or circumstances.

When is Rohatsu Celebrated?

Rohatsu means "eighth day of the twelfth month" in Japanese, which is why it’s traditionally celebrated on December 8th. However, in the past, this holiday was held on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, which meant that it was often in January. When the Japanese adopted the Gregorian calendar—along with most of the world—Rohatsu became solidified as a holiday on December 8th and has been celebrated as such ever since.

The History of Rohatsu

Rohatsu originated from the story of Buddha’s journey to enlightenment. Although he spent several years searching for inner peace, Siddhartha Gautama grew increasingly determined and decided that he would sit beneath a Bodhi tree to meditate, as the Bodhi tree is considered sacred. Although he faced numerous temptations by the demon Mara, Siddhartha didn’t move. He was tempted by beauty and seduction, demons and fear, and even still, he remained unmoved.

Finally, Mara challenged Siddhartha. Mara was discussing his spiritual accomplishments throughout his life, to which his demon army spoke and said they bore witness to such events. When Mara asked Siddhartha about his witnesses, Siddhartha calmly took his right hand and touched the earth. The earth responded, saying, “I bear witness.” After this occurrence, it’s said that the morning star appeared in the sky, and Siddhartha reached enlightenment. At that moment, he became known as the Buddha.

How to Celebrate Rohatsu

Technically, Rohatsu is held on the final day of an intensive meditation experience called a “Rohatsu sesshin.” It takes place over the course of a full week and often includes people participating in extremely intense, non-stop meditation sessions. During the start of the week, the individual meditations may be shorter. However, the goal is to make each meditation period longer than the last. Individuals who have the stamina to do so often end the final night with meditation that lasts through the entire night.

Even when the individuals aren’t inside the active meditation hall, participants are encouraged to try and maintain a meditative focus throughout their actions. Silence is also an integral part of the celebrations and experience for most participants, and very little food is usually consumed. The experience and timetable are so intense that there are only a few hours of opportunity to sleep throughout the week.

As a whole, there are a few distinct ways Rohatsu is celebrated. They include:

  • Zazen (Meditation): On Rohatsu, Zen Buddhists typically engage in intensive meditation, often participating in all-day and all-night meditation sessions called "sesshins." These extended periods of zazen help practitioners deepen their mindfulness and concentration.
  • Reading Sutras: Many Zen temples and practitioners read or recite Buddhist scriptures and teachings, including the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, on Rohatsu. This practice is a way to reflect on the teachings and insights of the Buddha.
  • Offerings: Devotees often make offerings of incense, candles, and flowers at Buddhist altars or temples to honor the Buddha's enlightenment. This symbolic gesture represents one's dedication to the path of enlightenment.
  • Acts of Compassion: Practitioners are encouraged to engage in acts of compassion and kindness on Rohatsu. This may involve volunteering, helping those in need, or simply being more mindful of one's actions and their impact on others.

The Significance of Rohatsu Today

In contemporary society, Rohatsu acts as a reminder of the importance of inner transformation and spiritual awakening. It serves as an annual opportunity for individuals to recommit themselves to their spiritual practices, deepen their understanding of Zen Buddhism, and reflect on the timeless teachings of the Buddha.

While you don’t need to go to Japan and participate in the intense meditation Rohatsu sesshins for a week straight, there are still ways you can celebrate. For one, you can join in the night-time prayers and practice meditation throughout the day. You don’t need to remain in a constant meditative state but try to practice mindfulness continually and take a few extra minutes from your busy schedule to meditate. You can also spread the word of enlightenment and the story of Buddha to help grow awareness of Rohatsu. Additionally, make it a habit to practice compassion and equality and be a face for positive change.

Rohatsu is a cherished holiday in Zen Buddhism that transcends time and culture. Its historical significance and contemporary relevance make it a day of deep introspection, meditation, and acts of compassion. If you’re interested in learning more about Rohatsu or other culturally significant events around the world, sign up for Tandem today. Tandem is a unique language-learning platform that allows you to connect with native speakers around the world. It’s a great opportunity to improve your fluency while learning more about cultural values and holidays. All you need to do is sign up, match with a native speaker of your target language, and start communicating. To join our community and work on your fluency, sign up for Tandem today.

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