Though not widely known, there is in fact a Buddhist calendar system. It is a lunar-based calander, that measures time from the paranibbana (paranirvana) of the Buddha (that is, his death). The system is not in use across the Buddhist world; it is used primarily in the Theravada nations of Southeast Asia, and there are even variations in the calendar from nation to nation, and between different regions and sects. Mahayana sects go by a different calendar, such as the Chinese calendar or other local time pieces. Holidays also occur on different dates in Mahayana countries. However, in the countries that employ it, and for scholarly purposes, the Buddhist calendar serves a few basic purposes:
  • Calculating dates relevant to the historical Buddha. Since the calendar begins with his death, his birth can be placed at -80 BE (Buddhist Era), and other events in his life can be located accordingly.
  • Dating other important events in Buddhist history. Ever since the time of the Buddha, it has been conventional to give the dates of important events as having occured a certain number of years after the Buddha. The Buddhist calendar system provides a simpler way, in these cases, of fixing the dates of events like the Buddhist Councils or the assembly of the Pali Canon.
  • Calculating dates for observance days (uposatha) and special holidays, such as Vesak or the start or end of vassa.

Dating the Buddhist Calendar
Finding dates in the Buddhist calendar basically depends on fixing a date for the death of Shakyamuni. Due to the historical confusion over when exactly this event took place, converting Buddhist dates to Gregorian calendar dates is somewhat problematic. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was born in 624 BC. More recent scholastic and archealogical work has cast doubt on this date, with 560 BC being the current top contender, though some put the date of his birth as late as 480 BC. This puts the final death of the Buddha at 544 BC by tradition, and 480 BC according to majority historical opinion. Since it was the traditionalists, and not modern historians who constructed the calendar, it is based around a death date of 544 BC. To convert Buddhist dates to Christian, simply subtract 544 from the Buddhist date. This will occasionally be off by one year- the Buddhist year begins in May, after Vesak, while the Christian calendar begins in January. The current year (2002 AD) is 2546 BE. As with the Christian calendar, there is no year 0.

Weeks, months, and Uposatha days
The Buddhist month is a lunar month, each month of 29 1/2 days. More properly, every two month is 59 days, one of 30 days and one of 29. Each month is divided into two fortnights, one for the waxing and one for the waning of the moon. Each half of the month is numbered from 1 to 14 (or 15) of the waning or waxing moon. In the Buddhist reckoning, each month begins with the waxing half-moon. Uposatha days are observed at the full moon, new moon, and on the eigth day of the waxing and waning moon (the quarter moons). These observance days are marked by recitation of monastic rules among the ordained community, and by heightened devotional efforts by the laity.

Holidays and Special Events
Holidays in Theravada Buddhism always fall on full moon uposatha days. The full moon of the first month (May) is Vesak, the most important holiday in the Theravada, as well as some Mahayana nations. The full moon of the third month (usually occuring mid-july) marks Asalha Puja, the comemoration of the Buddha's first discourse, and the start of vassa. Full moon of the sixth month is Pavaana Day, marking the end of the rains retreat (vassa). The following full moon is Anapanasati Day, which recalls the delivery of a famous discourse by the Buddha. Two months later, Magha Puja is observed, comemorating a great gathering of the Buddhist Sangha.

Important Dates According to the Buddhist Calendar:

-80 BE Birth of the Buddha

-51 BE Prince Siddhartha renounces household life

-45 BE Enlightenment of the Buddha
First Discourse of the Buddha

1 BE Parinibbana and Final Death of the Buddha
First Buddhist Council

100 BE Second Buddhist Council

294 BE Third Buddhist Council
Traditional date for completion of the Pali Canon

297 BE King Asoka sends first missionaries to Sri Lanka

444 BE Fourth Buddhist Council

644 BE Theravada first appears in Burma and Thailand

969 BE Collection and translation of commentaries by Buddhaghosa.
Buddhaghosa completes the Visuddhimagga

c. 1100 BE Decline of Indian Buddhism

1823 BE Theravada bhikkhuni linneage dissapears

2412 BE Fifth Buddhist Council

2443 BE First Western Theravada monk ordained

2498 BE Sixth Buddhist Council

2500 BE Buddha Jayanti Year, celebrating 2,500 years of Buddhism

Access to Insight provided the chronology, a calendar of uposatha days, and information about holidays. The book Lay Buddhist Practices by Bhikkhu Khantipalo, hosted on the same site, provided information about the structure of the calendar. Other information was derived from the Buddhist Councils node.

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