From Common Tables:
Nirvana Day, also known as Parinirvana, is observed primarily by Mahayana Buddhists. The largest concentration of celebration is in East Asia; however, many Western Buddhist groups also celebrate Nirvana Day. The occasion commemorates the death of the Buddha and his entry into Nirvana.
The Sanskrit word nirvana (“neer-VAH-nah”) means “a blowing out” as in the “blowing out” of a candle, or the extinction of worldly illusions and passions. Nirvana is the state of being non-sentient. The Buddha taught that Nirvana was beyond human imagination and speculation about what Nirvana is like is foolish.
The Buddha died at the age of 80 and in the company of his monks. The Paranibbana Sutta describes the Buddha’s last days. What is recorded there tells us that the Buddha knew his life was at an end and that he urged his monks to maintain the teachings.
Finally he said, “All conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive for your liberation with diligence.” Those were the Buddha’s last words.
Nirvana Day is most commonly observed on February 15th; however, some Buddhists will celebrate on February 8th.
While there is general agreement that Nirvana Day is a time to contemplate the Buddha’s teachings, specific customs are widely varied.
For many the day is seen as an opportunity to reflect on the fact of their own future deaths, and as a time to honor friends and relatives who have recently passed away. Central to Buddhist teaching is the understanding that all things are transient – loss and impermanence are to be accepted rather than to be causes for grief.
Celebrations include meditation, going to Buddhist temples or monasteries, reading passages from the Paranibbana Sutta, and the preparation of special meals.
Some monasteries and temples hold meditation retreats. Others view Nirvana Day as a social occasion and open their doors to laypeople, who bring offering gifts of money, clothing and household items to support the monks and nuns.
There is no traditional greeting that is specific to Nirvana Day. As a more general observation, be aware that instead of shaking hands many traditional Buddhists place their palms together in front of their chest (in the anjali position) and bow slightly when greeting each other.
Estimates of the number of Buddhists globally range from 230 to 500 million with the number 350 million being the most commonly cited. Mahayana is the largest branch of Buddhism with around 185 million adherents.
The Buddha spent 40 years teaching after his Enlightenment.