TUESDAY, MAY 17: Across much of Asia, Buddhist communities are celebrating the 2600th birthday of Gautama Buddha—although no one actually is certain when he was born and some communities number this year’s celebration at less than 2600. The holiday is called Vesak (or Vesakha, spellings vary) and actually is a collective celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing away. (Wikipedia has an overview.)
In honor of this year’s significant birth anniversary, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaska is opening a Buddhist complex that claims to have the world’s largest collection of Buddhist literature. The 16-story building holds an auditorium, Buddhist psychoanalytic center, recording studio and Dhamma research center; the Tripitaka, or scriptures, will be taught there in three languages. In his opening ceremony speech, President Rajapaska credited Theravada Buddhism with being the source of hope for the nation. Read more at the News Portal of Sri Lanka.
Most Buddhists observe Vesakha in humbler fashion with meditation and charitable deeds. Where temples are present, Buddhists gather to hoist the Buddhist flag, sing hymns, listen to monks and offer gifts like flowers and candles. While remembering that life, like offerings, eventually decays and fades, devotees use this day to follow Buddha’s specific directions to practice his teachings.
In Sri Lanka, several days are reserved for Buddha’s birthday celebrations: Sri Lankans close liquor shops and slaughterhouses, hold enormous processions and festivals, illuminate temples, help the poor, partake in vegetarian feasts and release thousands of birds and insects in a symbolic “act of liberation.” (Buddhanet has more on the significance of Vesak.)
Specific dates of Vesakaha vary by region and sect, but the majority of Buddhists on the Indian subcontinent mark this festival around the full moon of May.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.