Vesak: Buddhists observe Buddha Day with candles, charity and meditation

Looking down at crowd of Buddhist gathered, all with candles and wearing white clothing, at night

Buddhists gather for Vesak in Thailand. Photo by Captain Supachat, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MAY 4 and MONDAY, JUNE 1: On varying dates in May and June, Buddhists around the world mark Vesak (spellings vary), also known as Buddha Day or Buddha’s birthday. For many Buddhists, Vaisakhi marks the collective birth, enlightenment and passing away of the historical Buddha, and the occasion is met with deep meditation, shared vegetarian meals, donations to charity and the ceremonial bathing of Buddha statues. (Learn more from BuddhaNet.) The date of Vesak is based on Asian lunisolar calendars, and is noted in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and several other South East Asian countries—along with various locations across the globe.

Buddha’s birthday, celebrated as Vesakha, was officially determined at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, in 1950. On Vesak, devout Buddhists assemble at a local temple for pre-dawn ceremonies, including the hoisting of the Buddhist flag. Devotees may bring offerings, such as flowers or candles, in representation of the objects of this world that fade away. (Wikipedia has details.) Monks provide lectures, and laypersons wear white clothing. It is expected that Buddhists will try to bring some happiness to the unfortunate on this significant day, and review the Four Noble Truths.

RECLAIMING VESAK: A GLOBAL TASK

As holidays can lose focus amid commercialization and modern culture, however—as happened with the American Mother’s Day—so, too, Vesak has become, in some regions, an occasion for the sale of countless buckets, loads of lotus flower-shaped lanterns and an overabundance of candles. Distracting crowds form at some events. Focus is sometimes shifted from the simplicity of time in the temple.

Groups of Buddhists are urging devotees to reclaim the intent of Vesak, as is noted in The Nation. In the same way, the Asian Tribune recently published a story, with Vesak wishes, to its readers. In London, as celebrations begin for Vesak, a noted Buddhist figure was interviewed about the true reasons behind the holiday.

Since 1999, the United Nations has observed Vesak at its headquarters and offices.

Vesak: Buddhists recall birth, enlightenment and passing of Buddha

“If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.”
Albert Einstein

People in white robes sitting on ground, outdoors, with elevated platform in front, draped in orange flowers

Vesak ceremony in Jetavana, India. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, MAY 14: Buddhists the world over light millions of lanterns to collectively celebrate Vesak or Vesakha (English spellings vary)—also known as Buddha Day. Dates vary by region, most commonly falling on May 13, 14 or 15.

In commemoration of three major events—the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the historical Buddha—Vesak is recognized by all Buddhist sects. Though it is sometimes casually referred to as “Buddha’s birthday,” Vesak is about much more than Buddha’s birth: it acknowledges the peace that Buddha brought to the world. On Vesak, devoted Buddhists seize the opportunity to spread love and harmony to others, while keeping a humble spirit and developing their minds through meditation.

Events for Vesak begin before sunrise, as the faithful gather at their local temple for the ceremonial raising of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns. Homage is paid to the “triple gem”: the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (Buddha’s disciples). In some temples, statues of the Buddha are continuously washed, symbolizing the washing away of bad karma; lay persons often bring offerings of flowers and candles to the temple, for their teachers.

In particular, Vesak brings to the forefront the intention of a Buddhist life: to observe the Precepts, and to live simply and humbly. Throughout Vesak, monks recite verses and give talks; while not meditating or internalizing scripture, followers give to charity and visit the sick and elderly.

Did you know? In 1999, the United Nations committed to international observation of Vesak at its headquarters and offices.

Statue of Buddha sitting and meditating on lit lotus flower with lights in back

Photo by Gaurika Wijeratne, courtesy of Flickr

Buddhism has been practiced for millennia, but it wasn’t until 1950 that the official decision was made—at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists—to observe Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday. Today, Vesak is celebrated in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and across Southeast Asia. Most Buddhists use candles and small lamps to illuminate temples, streets and homes, representing the light of Buddha’s teachings. In Japan, legend has it that a dragon appeared in the sky on Buddha’s birthday and poured soma (a ritual drink) over him.

Did you know? The design of the Buddhist flag is based on the six colors of the aura believed to have surrounded Buddha after his enlightenment. It is used in almost 60 countries, especially during Vesak.

It is said that during the third watch of the night, during Enlightenment, Buddha realized the Four Noble Truths; the Four Noble Truths explain the way to the Eightfold Path.

IN THE NEWS:
VESAK WITH THE UNITED NATIONS

A United Nations observance of Vesak was held May 8-11 this year, at the Bai Dinh temple, in Vietnam. (Read more here.) Drawing 1,000 international delegates and 10,000 national delegates, those gathered focused on the theme: “Buddhist Contribution towards Achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.”

In Singapore, approximately 8,000 devotees occupied the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery earlier this month, for a candle-lit procession for an early Vesak celebration. A magnificent display of lights, which includes nine sets of lanterns and an enormous dragon lantern, will light up every weekend until May 25, as well as on Vesak eve and Vesak Day.

Ever wonder what Vesak looks like around the world? Check out this slideshow of photos, courtesy of the Huffington Post.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)