Vesak: Celebrating the Birth, Enlightenment, and Passing of Gautama Buddha

Vesak, also known as Buddha Jayanti or Buddha Purnima, is a revered holiday observed by Buddhists across South Asia, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. It is the most important Buddhist festival, commemorating the birth, enlightenment...

Vesak, also known as Buddha Jayanti or Buddha Purnima, is a revered holiday observed by Buddhists across South Asia, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. It is the most important Buddhist festival, commemorating the birth, enlightenment (Nibbāna), and passing (Parinirvāna) of Gautama Buddha in Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism, and Navayana.

The name "Vesak" is derived from the Pali term "vesākha" or Sanskrit "vaiśākha," which refers to the lunar month of Vaisakha, considered the month of Buddha's birth. In Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the holiday is known by its Sanskrit name Vaiśākha.

In South Asian tradition, Vesak is celebrated on the full moon day of the Vaisakha month, marking the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of the Buddha. The festival is a time for Buddhists to engage in meditation, observe the Eight Precepts, partake in vegetarian food, engage in acts of charity, and "bathe" the Buddha.

History of Vesak

Although Buddhist festivals have a centuries-old tradition, the formal celebration of Vesak as the Buddha's birthday was established at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950. The World Conference adopted a resolution requesting all governments with a significant Buddhist population to make the full-moon day of Vesak a public holiday in honor of the Buddha.

Today, Vesak is internationally observed at United Nations headquarters and offices. The celebration has gained recognition for the profound contributions that Lord Buddha and Buddhism have made for over two and a half millennia.

Celebration of Vesak

The exact date of Vesak varies based on the lunar calendar in different countries. Devout Buddhists and followers gather in temples before dawn for the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag and singing hymns in praise of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Flowers, candles, and joss-sticks are offered to remind devotees of the impermanence of life.

On Vesak, devotees are encouraged to refrain from killing and partake only in vegetarian food. In some countries, a two-day celebration is observed, and liquor shops and slaughterhouses are closed by government decree. Birds, insects, and animals are also released to grant freedom to those in captivity.

Devout Buddhists wear simple white clothing and practice the Eight Precepts to observe morality, simplicity, and humility. Monks recite verses uttered by the Buddha centuries ago to invoke peace and happiness for the government and the people. Buddhists are reminded to live in harmony with people of other faiths and respect their beliefs.

Bringing Happiness to Others

Vesak is also a time to bring happiness to the less fortunate. Buddhists distribute gifts, provide charity, and volunteer in various charitable homes. They engage in activities such as decorating and illuminating temples and creating exquisite scenes from the life of the Buddha for public dissemination. The celebration is a manifestation of joy and happiness through meaningful actions, rather than indulgence in personal desires.

Paying Homage to the Buddha

According to tradition, the Buddha instructed his followers on how to pay homage to him. He emphasized that true homage extended beyond offering flowers, incense, and lights. True homage is found in sincerely striving to follow his teachings and understanding the universal law of impermanence. Devotees are encouraged to let go of attachment to physical forms and focus on the enduring truth of the Dharma.

Vesak Celebrations Around the World

Vesak is celebrated in various ways across different countries. In Thailand, Buddhists make merits by going to temples, vowing to keep Buddhist precepts, and practicing meditation. In Indonesia, thousands of Buddhist monks join together for chanting, meditation, and the transportation of holy water and flames as symbols of humility and enlightenment. Malaysia observes Vesak with prayers, offerings, and a candle procession.

Countries like Myanmar, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka celebrate Vesak with traditional rituals, almsgiving, and cultural activities. South Korea holds a lantern-lighting festival known as Yeondeunghoe, while Japan performs ceremonies and pours sweet tea over Buddha statues. Canada and the United States also hold Vesak celebrations, reflecting the diversity of Buddhist communities in those countries.

Vesak at the United Nations

In 1999, the United Nations recognized Vesak by establishing the Day of Vesak as an international public holiday. The UN General Assembly acknowledged the significant contributions of Lord Buddha and Buddhism throughout history. Since then, Vesak has been commemorated annually at UN Headquarters in New York, UNESCO, and other UN offices worldwide.

Vesak is a special time for Buddhists to reflect on the teachings of the Buddha and practice mindfulness, compassion, and generosity. By observing Vesak, Buddhists honor the birth, enlightenment, and passing of Gautama Buddha, embracing his teachings as a path to inner peace and enlightenment.