VESAK: Give and live by the Dharma on Buddha’s birthday

Buddhist monks gather before golden Buddha statue while on red carpet

Vesak Day in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, MAY 25: The word Dharma resounds around the world this week, as Buddhists, monks, non-Buddhists and international UN offices pause to observe Vesak. A Buddhist observance, Vesak recalls a trio of events: the birth, enlightenment and death of Guatama Buddha. Per the request of Buddha himself, devotees focus especially on carrying out the Buddha’s teachings by living kindly, giving generously and abiding by the Dharma (or Dhamma, spellings vary). In India—the birthplace of Buddhism—Vesak is observed today, as it is in Nepal and Indonesia; some countries commemorated Vesak yesterday, and still others will observe Vesak Week through Monday. Specific dates are determined by various lunar calendars.

Despite varying dates, Vesak celebrations across the globe begin the same way: with adherents gathered at their local temple, before sunrise, to watch the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag. Hymns of praise rise through the air, as attendees line up to offer flowers, candles and food. (Wikipedia has details.) A shared vegetarian meal with follow, but it’s in the flowers and candles that devotees understand the truth of Vesak: that life, as with all things, will wither away and decay. All that is eternal is the Dharma truth.

The World Fellowship of Buddhists tried to formalize the celebration of Vesak as Buddha’s birthday in 1950, although festivals of a similar fashion had been custom for centuries. Aside from parallel morning ceremonies, Vesak festivities vary around the world: In Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for Vesak and liquor shops, slaughter houses and casinos are closed; in Japan, a sweet Hydrangea tea is poured over statues. Nepalis can claim Lumbini as the birthplace of Buddha, and their holy temple—Swayambhu—is opened only one day per year, on Vesak. Since Vesak is a public holiday in Nepal, even non-Buddhists get into the spirit by donating and volunteering on this special day. Processions line the streets in many countries during daylight hours, while colorful lanterns light the skies at night. In 1999, the United Nations resolved to internationally observe Vesak at its headquarters and offices.

The government of Sri Lanka has selected “Live by the Dharma” as the theme for Vesak 2013.