I BECAME ACQUAINTED with the custom of gathering at the full moon when I lived in Taiwan and trekked with friends to a mountaintop outside Taipei for a moonlight picnic to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Chinese all over the world celebrate the October festival, buying moon-shaped pastries stamped with special designs and going outdoors after dark to bask in the brightest, roundest moon of the year and think of loved ones who are deceased or far away.
Such celebrations are not restricted to China: The power of the full moon has been part of the world's spiritual and cultural traditions for centuries. Along with natural phenomena such as the stars and the sun, the moon manifests the power of nature, with its influence on the tides being the most palpable example. The moon's waning and waxing is tied to the waning and waxing of spiritual energy, and it is believed that magical or supernatural powers increase as the moon gets fuller and decrease as it shrinks.
Astrophysicist Harold Williams, planetarium coordinator at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, says the moon's role in cosmology stands to reason. "Ancient peoples kept a calendar," he says. "The sun was the most important natural element in their lives, and they invented days. The second most important was the moon, so they invented months. Many of the ancient calendars -- for example, Islamic, Chinese, Persian and, largely, Jewish -- are lunar. The sun and the moon were fundamental in their lives so they organized their lives around days and months."
Autumn moons, such as Tuesday's harvest moon, are thought to have special significance. (The harvest moon is the full moon that falls closest to the autumnal equinox: It is so named because the brightness of the moon for several nights in a row allowed farmers to stay in the fields later than usual.) In the Washington area, shamanists, Buddhists, Wiccans, pagans, peace activists, alternative medicine practitioners, New Agers and just plain folks routinely gather to draw spiritual sustenance from the full moon.
The Washington Circle of Master Healers gathers monthly for guided meditation sessions at St. Alban's Episcopal Church or on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral. "The purpose is threefold," says organizer Susan Magee. "To share with each other our healing gifts, experiences and wisdom; to heal ourselves, our city and our world; and to build community." The gatherings usually draw 20 to 25 people; some come every month, others only once or twice a year. "All are on a spiritual journey and are interested in exploring different levels and dimensions of consciousness," Magee says. Some attendees have healing practices -- Magee is a certified hypnotherapist, energy healer and meditation teacher -- but everyone is welcome at the events, which include men and women from diverse spiritual traditions.
Dee Gold, owner of the Inner Reaches yoga studio in Gaithersburg, hosts invitation-only full-moon gatherings for about a dozen clients and friends. "There is a Norse festival called the Disirblot that occurs on the full moon which marks the beginning of the Norse winter and honors Freyja, the goddess of ancestors," Gold says. Because Disirblot coincides with Halloween and Mexico's Day of the Dead, Gold chose ancestry as the theme for October's ceremony. "Everyone who attends brings something with them symbolic of a special connection they feel with an ancestor," she says. "When it's time to share our offerings, we come together in a circle, take a few moments to acknowledge the great mystery of life and the power of the moon's special energetic presence, for us as biological creatures, and we take turns telling our stories."
Buddhists celebrate the full moon because it was on three full-moon days that the Buddha was born, obtained enlightenment and died. The Washington Buddhist Vihara in Northwest Washington has a monthly Uposatha Poya (Full-Moon) Day Observance. Monk Vidura Katugastota says that in his home country, Sri Lanka, there is a public holiday on every full moon: Worshipers dressed in white clothing gather in temples from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. with offerings of flowers, food and oil lamps.
Buddhist monks go on an annual three-month retreat that begins at the full moon in July and ends with the full moon in October. The retreat is spiritual rather than physical: Monks do not leave their temple area overnight and instead focus on study and meditation. Soon thereafter, the Washington Buddhist Vihara and other temples will have a ceremony called Kathina, during which several hundred people gather to offer robes and other necessary items to the monks and to worship and feast with them.
Feminine energy is a frequent element in full-moon observances. The lore of many ancient cultures -- from Roman and Greek to Native American -- holds that the moon represents the female, a counterpart to the sun, which represents the male. Helen Popenoe, a unitarian transcendentalist, has belonged to a women's full-moon circle in Montgomery County for 13 years. The group of about six women, now in their fifties and sixties, had its origin in a goddess history course at Bethesda's River Road Unitarian Church. Group meditation, poetry, art, dancing and singing figure into most of the gatherings, which take place around an altar created by that month's hostess. "Being in this group has heightened my awareness of the seasons and the phases of the moon, dovetails with my concern for the well-being of earth, and has brought a deeper understanding of the history and culture of early earth-based religions," says fellow member Marney Bruce. Both women consider the gatherings a source of strength.
"We feel great trust in the outcome of whatever we create together." Popenoe says. "It never fails to bring powerful, uplifting inspiration."
MONTGOMERY COLLEGE PLANETARIUM -- 7600 Takoma Ave. (planetarium entrance on Fenton Street), Takoma Park. 301-650-1463. www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/planet.
Oct. 27 at 7 -- "The Real Occult: Lunar and Solar Eclipses and Asteroid and Stellar Disappearances Sometimes Involving the Moon," lecture and planetarium show with Harold Williams. (A lunar eclipse will be visible after 8 if the sky is clear.) Free.
WASHINGTON CIRCLE OF MASTER HEALERS -- Meetings at St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Guild Hall, 3001 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Contact organizer Susan Magee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-667-5318. Free.
Tuesday from 7 to 9 -- "Healing Circle: Multidimensional Connecting," meditation led by Shawn Supers.
WASHINGTON BUDDHIST VIHARA -- 5017 16th St. NW. 202-723-0773. www.buddhistvihara.com.
Oct. 24 from 10 to 1 -- Kathina ceremony. Event includes a sermon by American Buddhist monk Yogawachara Rahula and a Sri Lankan meal. Free.
CALVERT HOMESTEAD FULL MOON DRUMMING CIRCLE -- 410-535-5393. E-mail Barbara Burnett at email@example.com. The farm hosts a monthly drumming circle led by volunteers. Gatherings scheduled for Tuesday and Oct. 30 at 7:30. Call or e-mail to confirm before going. Free.
CANTERBURY COTTAGE ON PENDRAGONDALE -- www.pendragondale.com/minstrels_news.htm. Join the e-mail list at FriendsofPendragonDale@yahoogroups.comfor dates, times and directions. The medieval farm hosts monthly coed and women-only gatherings in the Sacred Circle in the Woods; events include a bonfire, a potluck meal, readings, skits, singing, dancing, meditation, guided imagery and creative projects in keeping with the season. Free.
CLAN MOTHERS -- Contact convener De Fano at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-481-1624. The five-year-old group of healers and others, drawing from Native American, Celtic and other spiritual traditions, hosts monthly moon gatherings at members' homes in the metro area. Meetings include meditation, music, readings, discussion, art around the seasons. Free.
COORDINATION COUNCIL OF CHINESE-AMERICAN ASSOCIATIONS -- 571-239-9958. www.ccf2004.org. E-mail organizer Rita Shan at email@example.com.
Sunday from 5:30 to 9 -- The organization hosts a Mid-Autumn Cruise, in conjunction with the 2004 Chinese Culture Festival. Cruise includes drinks, dinner, DJs, dancing, karaoke, moon viewing and moon cakes aboard the ship Lady Baltimore, departing from Baltimore's Inner Harbor. $40, children 11 and younger $20.
ECUMENICON FELLOWSHIP AND OPEN HEARTH FOUNDATION -- 240-506-4577. E-mail the group at firstname.lastname@example.org. www.openhearth.org/samhaindrum.
Oct. 30 from 8 p.m. to midnight -- The pagan group hosts a Samhain drumming circle, a pagan celebration of the turning of the year; participants should bring drums or other noisemakers, a blanket and something to sit on. Donations of canned food for the homeless appreciated. Visit Web site to confirm before going. Free.
NOMADIC CHANTRY OF THE GRAMARYE -- Contact convener Rosemary Kooiman at 301-390-3555.
Tuesday at 7:30 -- The Wiccan-based, neo-pagan group hosts Harvest Moon on the Mall, a full-moon gathering "open to all friends of the goddess," at the Jefferson Memorial. Free.
PAINT BRANCH NATURE SPIRITUALITY CIRCLE -- Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church, 3215 Powder Mill Rd., Adelphi. 301- 937-3666. E-mail the church at email@example.com dates and times. The pagan group hosts periodic full-moon gatherings. Free.
TEMPLE OF THE SACRED ARTS -- www.correllianwiccasacredarts.com. Contact the group through its Web site for dates, times and directions. The Correllian Nativist Tradition of Wicca, a pagan group, hosts monthly full-moon rituals. Free.
WAT YARNNA RANGSEE BUDDHIST MONASTERY -- 22147 Cedar Green Rd., Sterling. 703-406-8290. E-mail the monastery at firstname.lastname@example.org. www.watyarn.com.
Oct. 24. from 10 to 2 -- Thai Buddhist Lent-Ending Day. Attendees come to meditate and bring edible offerings to the monks. Free.
WISE WOMEN FOUNDATION -- 202-518-7737. www.wisewomenweb.net.
Oct. 29-31 -- Goddess retreat, Center of Consciousness, 294 Ross Lane, Bluemont, Va. The Wise Woman Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting women in the mind-body-spirit healing community, introduces participants to different aspects of feminine energy; three-day retreat includes a discussion of the phases of the moon and the corresponding feminine energy. Members $199, nonmembers $239.