Theravada New Year
There are many different traditions and schools in Buddhism and nothing explains that fact better than the fact that not all Buddhists celebrate Theravada New Year. That’s because Buddhism is not a monolith and the two major schools in Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana.
Both of these different schools of thought believe in the basic tenets of Buddhism (dharma, karma, reincarnation, nirvana, the Eight-Fold Path, and the Four Noble Truths), but other details are different between these two schools. In essence, Theravada Buddhism tends to be more conservation than Mahayana Buddhism, and it is more focused on logic to reach nirvana than compassion.
The Differences Between Theraveda and Mahayana Buddhism
Let’s begin with Mahayana Buddhism. This type of Buddhism is commonly practiced in Northeast Asia, especially in Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Taiwan. This school of Buddhism believes that everyone can achieve enlightenment, regardless of whether they’re in a monastic tradtion or whether they’re just an ordinary person. Mahayana Buddhists also tend to believe that compassion is the way to enlightenment and are willing to forgo their own enlightenment to help others on the Noble Eight-Fold Path.
In Theravada Buddhism, Buddhists try to be perfected beings who gain true insight into the nature of reality in order to guide them towards nirvana. A perfected being in Buddhism is known as an arhat, and those who have achieved that position have followed the Noble Eight-Fold Path and have eliminated greed, ignorance, and hatred in themselves. This frees them from the cycle of rebirth and death known as samsara. In this tradition, it’s important to free yourself from this cycle and that’s the main goal.
It’s because of these two main differences that the two Buddhist schools follow different holidays, although there is an overlap between the two holidays. Theravada New Year falls in mid-to-late spring and Mahayana New Year tends to fall around the turn of the year. However, not all Buddhists follow one of these two new year celebrations. Some of them opt to celebrate the Chinese New Year instead.
Observing Theraveda New Year
For Buddhists in the Theraveda tradition, this is a 3-day celebration that begins around a full moon. Although most celebrations will vary from one location to another, many Buddhists will incorporate rituals that involve sand and water into the celebration. Some Buddhists may build sandhills that symbolize the home of the gods and the center of the universe, Mount Meru. People also pour water on statues of Buddha, and people often dump perfumed water on their neighbors.
It’s also common for some communities to build sand sculptures on river banks. Each individual grain of sand represents a wrongdoing, so when the river washes away the sand sculpture, it takes away the bad karma as well. In some South-East Asian countries, the holiday is observed by buying captured birds, fish, or animals, and then releasing them into the wild. This is to promote good karma and to show compassion. People participating in this holiday are also expected to meditate about the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha.