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.

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