This video from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly shows a Buddhist family in the U.S. observing the rituals of Chinese New Year. The Chinese tradition of celebrating the New Year began more than 4,000 years ago, and has evolved into a holiday that includes a combination of rituals from Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. Also known as Spring Festival, it is celebrated by Chinese communities throughout the world at the end of winter.
Buddhism Glossary (Document)
The legend of Nian, a mythical beast, inspired many of the customs of the centuries-old celebration of Chinese New Year, which marks the start of spring. Nian was said to torment the people of China long ago on the eve before New Year. An old man, later believed to be a god, advised people to fend off the beast with the color red, loud noises and the light of fire. Today, noisy outbursts, firecrackers and liberal use of the color red in decorations and gifts are elemental parts of the Chinese New Year celebration.
Chinese New Year in the United States fuses both American and Chinese cultures. It includes many aspects of a traditional Chinese New Year, such as the spring cleaning of homes to sweep out bad luck, the gathering of families, the worship of ancestors, and the lantern festival that officially ends the festivities.
Yet American culture has imposed some constraints on the traditional New Year celebration, which in China is considered the most important holiday of the year. While many non-service businesses in China close for at least the first three days of the 15-day holiday, most Chinese-American businesses do not close. Nor do Chinese-Americans take a two-week break from work. As a result, the weeks-long New Year rituals common in China are limited to evenings and/or weekends in the U.S. Parades and the lantern festival, which may include American innovations such as floats and marching bands, are often held on weekends.
Followers of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, the three major Chinese faiths, all celebrate this folk holiday, but include their own particular customs and practices. Confucianism and Daoism describe philosophical and ethical codes of living, and are respectively based on the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BCE) and Lao Tzu (who some scholars believe may be mythical). Confucianism, rooted in the belief that man's fate depends purely upon his own moral efforts, emphasizes ethical values (including the Five Relationships), the worship of ancestors and social responsibility.
According to Han Dynasty documents, Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius, explained his teachings on the meaning of Dao, or "way," in the Daodejing (Tao-te ching), the “Classic of the Way and Virtue,” which is considered the core text of Daoist thought. The Dao encompasses everything, Lao Tzu taught, and is the origin of all creation. Central to Daoism is the belief that life can only flourish through natural and simple living.
KIM LAWTON: There are the parades, the foods, and, of course, lots of noise. But there's also the burning of incense, special prayers, and offerings to ancestors and gods. The celebrations of Chinese New Year are diverse, reflecting various ethnic customs and the combined influences of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and folk religions.
The symbols of the Chinese calendar stretch back to Buddha himself. According to one tradition, Buddha summoned all the animals to visit him before his final departure from this life. Only 12 appeared. In appreciation, Buddha named a year after each of them. This Year of the Dragon is considered the most auspicious.
Like western Christmas, contemporary Chinese New Year's celebrations include decorations, family gatherings, and big meals. And like Christmas, Chinese New Year has become a colorful fusion of cultural traditions ...
JOU FAMILY (In Unison): Happy New Year.
LAWTON: ... and spiritual observances, a mix carried on by many Chinese Americans.
Mrs. WENDY JOU: We clean and we decorate. We cook lots of food.
LAWTON: But Wendy and Ray Jou of Potomac, Maryland also make sure Buddhist religious traditions are part of their family's New Year's celebrations. They offer prayers for peace and good fortune in the coming year.
Mrs. JOU: After cooking, we also maybe will make a very simple but really respecting bow to Buddha. Usually we make three bows.
LAWTON: The Jous are part of the more than 2.5 million Buddhists in North America. They follow the Pure Land branch of Buddhism, the largest wing of Buddhism practiced around the world. The Jous call themselves disciples of Amitabha Buddha, the transcendent being of the Pure Land sect. Pure Land Buddhists believe that salvation, or rebirth into a realm of bliss, is reached not by individual effort or merit but through the grace of Amitabha Buddha. They emphasize living by moral precepts and reciting Amitabha Buddha's name over and over.
In New Year's celebrations at Pure Land temples, special mantras are chanted 108 times to bring spiritual well-being as well as good fortune.
Ms. JOU: We celebrate in the way that we chant different mantra. I don't know how to say it's beautiful or wonderful. It just somehow touches my heart so deep.
LAWTON: For the Jous' children, the celebrations are part of learning how to live out their Buddhist beliefs in a western context.
JESSE JOU: I think it's good to have something to believe in, so you can have something to look up to. Just like a kid looks up to his parents, it's the same thing. You can believe in the Buddha.
LAWTON: Jesse Jou and his family say that belief is the essence of a truly happy new year. I'm Kim Lawton reporting.
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