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.)