Do you know why the statues we call Buddha sometimes show a skinny, stoic man and sometimes a chubby, smiling man? If not, read on! Today, Richard Nakamura, SEND missionary and former Buddhist, continues our Intro to Buddhism series by describing a few Buddhist holidays and symbols. If you missed it, here’s Part 1: The basics.

What are some Buddhist holidays and how are they celebrated?

Various countries celebrate Buddhist holidays in different ways, often dependent on their type of Buddhism. Here are a few:

Buddha’s Birthday — Many consider this celebration the most important festival in Buddhism. On the first full moon day in May, Buddhists all over the world celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha in a single day.

Buddhist New Year — In Theravada Buddhist countries (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 usually starts on the first full moon day in January. Tibetan Buddhists generally celebrate the New Year in February or March. (Find out how the unreached Buryat community in Russia celebrates the New Year.) 

Ancestor Day — In Mahayana countries, it is believed that the ancestor spirits visit the world for 15 days starting on the first day of the eighth lunar month. Food offerings, and in some places, dances are made during this time. People visit cemeteries to leave offerings to the departed ancestors and often clean and care for the graves.

What are those beautiful prayer flags all about? How do Buddhists use them? 

Different Buddhist sects have different customs and traditions. In Japanese Mahayana Buddhism, we never used flags. In Tibetan Buddhism, prayer flags promote protection and blessings. The flags themselves are not thought to carry the prayers to gods; rather the wind blows the goodwill they represent all around. The different colors (blue, white, red, green and yellow) represent the Five Wisdoms, and also are associated with the five natural elements (sky, air, fire, water and earth). These flags are hung on a high place of the house, on poles, or even stretching from mountaintop to mountaintop.

You’ve told us about the meaning behind the lotus flower. Can you explain the dharma wheel? 

The dharma wheel is an ancient Buddhist symbol. Some describe the round shape as the perfection of Buddha’s teachings. Or, the circle can represent the endless life cycles (rebirths) that Buddhists believe they can escape only through enlightenment. The wheel often has eight spokes, representing the Eightfold Path, which, if followed, allows the person to break out of the cycle and head toward enlightenment. Some dharma wheels have only four spokes, which represent the Four Noble Truths. The rim holds the teachings together through meditation. The center may have 3 swirls, representing the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (community).

Why does the Buddha look different in different statues? 

Buddha is a title for someone who has achieved enlightenment, so not all of those statues that are called Buddha are of the same person.

Many of the Buddhas depict Siddhartha Gautama, a priest whose teachings on enlightenment form the core of Buddhist belief. When you explore the various temples around the world, you will find different ways in which this Buddha is portrayed. We see him standing, reclining, or sitting. Statues that depict Siddhartha Gautama tend to show him as gaunt due to asceticism, or of a healthy build.

Laughing Buddha

This image is modeled after a monk known for his generosity.

You might be familiar with the so-called “Fat Buddha” or “Laughing Buddha,” which is a depiction of a Buddhist monk and used as a reminder to be generous.

Other statues depict Boddhisattvas, which are those who have achieved enlightenment, but have chosen to stay in this earthly realm to help others. The Amida Buddha is one of them, who vowed not to enter Nirvana until all sentient being are saved by calling on his name (NamuAmidaButsu).

Many of the Buddhas have distinctive hand gestures that have different meanings (protection, meditation, enlightenment). Each location will have an explanation as to why their Buddha is portrayed in a certain way.

Some businesses set up Buddhist shrines. What can you tell us about those?

In a store, you might see a Buddha set up to bring blessing to the business. This in fact goes contrary to one of the Precepts (No. 10, Do not touch money), and also contradicts the teachings about desire. But many Buddhists were taught to go to Buddha for help at a young age, which then translates to various areas of life. These store owners are simply expressing their desire for success and blessings.

Is ancestor worship part of Buddhist belief? 

Growing up in a Japanese Buddhist home, I thought ancestor worship was part of the original Buddhist teaching. It was only later that I discovered that ancestor worship came to Buddhism later through the influence of Confucianism (felial piety, the virtue of respect for your ancestors). Buddhism incorporated ancestor worship, which helped Buddhism expand.

How do Buddhists tend to approach social issues?

There are moral codes that they might follow within the Eightfold Path and the Precepts. They often will go the route of non-conflict or peace. Many Buddhists have strong feelings against discrimination. Compassion toward the weak is encouraged.

Path to Peace: Lighting the Way for Buddhists


Banner photo by Apiary Studio. Laughing Buddha by Bethan Abra.