Today, Buddhists around the world will be celebrating the occasion of Buddha’s birthday. This day is also known as Buddha Purnima, Buddha Jayanti or Vesak and it is the most important and auspicious day for Buddhists.
In this post, we find out why Vesak Day is celebrated, its significance to Buddhists and how different countries around the world celebrate the occasion.
What is Vesak Day?
Vesak day or Buddha Day marks the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha. It is an annual event observed by Buddhists of all denominations around the world. However, festivities and celebrations are mostly seen across Asia, notably in the East, South and Southeast Asia. The day is celebrated on a full moon in either April or May. The dates, however, differ from country to country as they may follow their own calendars to mark the event.
Though it marks the birth of the Buddha, the festivities also mark his enlightenment and passing away. Coincidentally, all three of these events occurred on the same day, at different time periods− on the day of the full moon in the Vaishak month of the Hindu/Buddhist calendar. That is why the full moon of April and May is so important to Buddhists. Furthermore, the word Vesak comes from the word Vaishak.
On this auspicious day, devotees visit temples, chant hymns, listen to sermons, make their offerings to the Buddha and the Buddhist monks, make charitable donations, ask for blessings, and most importantly, use the time to reflect on the teachings of the Buddha. It is also used to pay respect and show gratitude towards a great leader.
Since 1999, even the United Nations (UN) has recognized the day as the international day of Vesak and observe the event in the UN headquarters as well as some of the UN offices. They acknowledge one of the world’s oldest religions and value the Buddha’s message of peace, spirituality and non-violence.
About the Buddha and Buddhism
Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in 623 BC to King Suddhodana and Queen Maya Devi in a place called Lumbini, presently located in southern Nepal. Being born into royalty, he led a luxurious and privileged life, a life without suffering and pain. Then, as a young adult, he once managed to sneak out of his palace and journeyed through the streets. During this journey, he witnessed an old man, a sick man, a dead man and an ascetic. Now aware of the suffering in the world, he left his palace and family at age 29, renouncing his life as a royal. To better understand the concept of pain and suffering he adopted the lifestyle of an ascetic, fasting and living in poverty. Realizing that the lifestyle wasn’t fulfilling or would do no good, he decided to lead a more balanced life or a life between the extremes of luxury and poverty. This is called the Middle Way.
He was still searching for the meaning of life, so, he travelled the country and researched for six years before attaining enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, in India. It was after his enlightenment that he was called the Buddha. And, his teachings are the foundations of Buddhism. He then spent the rest of his days sharing what he found and preaching the Truth. He died in 483 BC at the age of 80.
Vesak Day Celebrations around the World
In Nepal, Buddha Day is known as Buddha Jayanti, or the birthday of the Buddha. Like in other countries, this day doesn’t only celebrate the birth of the spiritual leader but also his enlightenment and passing away. This year it is being celebrated today, May 26th.
It is an important day in Nepal where both Hindus and Buddhists celebrate this occasion. After all, this was where the Buddha was born.
In Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, people make a pilgrimage to the UNESCO World Heritage Site to pay their respects and ask for blessings. They visit the Maya Devi temple, where various cultural events take place throughout the day. At night, the temple is decorated with little oil lamps.
In Kathmandu, the capital of the country, devotees gather at the Boudhanath Stupa, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, for the Buddha Jayanti celebrations. Here, the Head of the stupa delivers a speech, emphasizing Budhha’s message of peace and harmony. He also welcomes the devotees who make trips to Nepal from all over the world.
Then, a figurine of the Buddha is taken out of the stupa to be placed in a chariot heavily adorned with flowers, flags and banners. The devotees gather with their offerings of flowers, sweets and incense sticks and the procession begins. During the walk, the crowd chant hymns together and volunteers play drums and gongs while some of the monks play a traditional woodwind instrument.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the last two years have seen a limited number of devotees in public due to the health and safety measures put in place by the government. Those who do visit temples must maintain social distancing and wear face masks.
In India, the day is called Buddha Purnima, referring to the full moon that appears at night. Like in Nepal, it is being celebrated by Indian Buddhists today, May 26th.
Celebrations start from midnight with a series of chants and hymns. During the day, people wear white clothes and visit the Buddhist temples to pray, listen to sermons, meditate, offer flowers and sweets. In the temples, a statue of the Buddha is decorated with flowers over a basin. The devotees pour water over the statue as a symbol of new beginnings, washing away sins and achieving purity. It also acts as a symbol of the blessings that the Gods gave him at birth.
Some even bathe in the holy river Ganga, believing the water will wash away their sins. This year, however, people have been advised not to do so as it is a health risk. They have also been advised not to gather in public places and to celebrate the occasion from their homes.
People from all over the world make a pilgrimage to the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. This is the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Today it is enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had meditated, is decorated with lights and flowers. In, Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, the place where the Buddha had first taught his disciples, fairs are organized for the devotees.
On this day, Buddhists eat vegetarian food and avoid drinking alcohol. One food that is prepared without fail is kheer. Kheer is a sweet rice pudding made of rice, milk, sugar and spices. It symbolizes the porridge that was offered to the Buddha by a woman before he was enlightened.
They also follow the Buddha’s teachings and try to do good deeds like making charitable donations and liberating animals from captivity.
In Sri Lanka, Buddha Day is known as Vesak or Wesak day. It is a public holiday in the island nation, one that lasts for two days. Like in India and Nepal, Sri Lanka also celebrates Vesak Day today.
Nearer to the day of Vesak, homes and shops are decorated with handmade paper lanterns known as Vesak lanterns. And the streets are lit up with decorative and colourful lights, lanterns, oil lamps and pandols, which are makeshift gateways that are highly decorated. The gateways symbolize enlightenment.
During the day, people wear white clothing and visit temples to offer flowers, incense sticks and oil lamps. White is an auspicious colour in Buddhism, symbolizing purity, knowledge, liberation and redemption.
The devotees also perform a Bodhi puja, which is when people gather in front of a Bodhi tree either on the street or at a temple, to make their prayers and ask for blessings. They also offer flowers, fruits, money and kheer to the tree and light oil lamps around it.
They also visit old-age homes, orphanages, hospitals and other venues established for those in need of help to make donations, to offer them food or to simply spend time with them.
In the evenings, people crowd the Sri Lankan streets to admire the decorations, eat and for merrymaking. At this time, many even take the initiative to open up dansalas on the streets, which are free buffets offering food to monks and the needy.
During the week of Vesak, the sales of alcohol and meat are prohibited by law. This corresponds with the Buddhist principle of not drinking alcohol and not bringing harm to living beings. So, they only follow a vegetarian diet during this time.
The streets are usually crowded. However, this year the government guidelines put in place as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus will leave the streets empty. People have been advised to celebrate at home instead.
In South Korea, the day is known as Seokga Tansinil and it is a national holiday. Unlike the aforementioned countries, the day is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month in the lunar calendar. Hence, they celebrated the occasion on May 19th of this year.
Buddhism is one of the two most important religions in the country. Therefore, making it an important day for many Koreans. On this day, people visit temples to pray and make their offerings to the monks and the Buddha. Temples on this day offer free vegetarian meals consisting of rice, vegetables and tea so, the devotees have lunch there.
In the evenings, the streets of South Korea and, particularly, the capital of Seoul, celebrate the occasion with a lotus lantern festival also known as the Yeondeunghoe lantern festival. The lantern festival is actually a three-day festival held to celebrate the birth of the Buddha. In preparation for the festival, lotus-shaped lanterns are lit throughout the month, at homes, shops and other public spaces. Lighting the lanterns symbolizes getting rid of ignorance through the teachings and wisdom of the Buddha.
If you’re wondering why the lanterns are lotus-shaped, it is because the lotus is an important flower associated with Buddhism. According to legend, moments after the birth of the Buddha, the boy took his first steps and lotus flowers appeared where the Buddha walked.
It is a symbol of purity and enlightenment as it emerges as a beautiful flower even though it grows in muddy waters. Just like that, one can be enlightened despite the suffering in the world by following the eightfold path and the middle way.
Events and workshops for making lanterns are organized in primary schools to foster values of patience and teamwork among them. Members in community centres gather before the festival to work together and create beautiful and intricately designed lanterns. The patterns on the lanterns have traditional designs and Buddhist symbols to wish prosperity and luck to everyone.
Making the lanterns and the parade itself is a part of Korean culture and history. The festival was first held 1300 years ago. The event has even been recognized as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.
On the night of Seokga Tansinil, a parade with people carrying floats and lanterns march down the streets, singing and dancing. They come together, exchange wishes with each other and celebrate the spirit of togetherness. After all, that is the main objective of the festival, to draw people together.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival was cancelled to avoid risking the spread of the virus and this year, small-scale parades in certain streets in Seoul are being held with safety measures in place.
Furthermore, Buddhist temples held small scale events and streamed the rituals and festivities online for devotees to celebrate remotely.
In Thailand, Vesak or Visakha Bucha Day has been celebrated since the Sukhothai era (13th century). It is speculated to have been introduced by the Sri Lankans. Today, almost 90% of the Thai population is Buddhist. The day will be observed today.
The Visakha Bucha celebrations last for three days and three nights. It marks the milestones in the Buddha’s life, honours his teachings and the Buddhist monkhood. The day has been declared a public holiday during which people visit temples and perform numerous rituals.
Firstly, a week prior to the event, people decorate their homes and public spaces with yellow flags.
On the day, devotees wear white clothes and visit the temples and monasteries to listen to sermons by monks, chant hymns, offer flowers, food, candles and incense sticks to the Buddha.
They start in the temple with prayers, meditations and chants. Then, the devotees and monks walk around holding lotus flowers, candles and incense sticks. The rest of the day is spent doing good deeds, like making donations to monks and releasing animals from captivity.
The use of incense sticks, candles and flowers are all symbolic. All of these either burn, melt or wilt, reminding us that all things decay. Hence, it serves as a reminder of the suffering that exists in the world.
In the evening, another procession takes place where people hold candles and circle the temples three times in a clockwise direction. This is done in hopes of being blessed and to bring them luck.
The rest of the evening is spent celebrating with friends and family either at home or in public spaces. The streets are usually lively but pubs and clubs are closed and vegetarian meals are eaten on this day. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrations will mostly take place at home.
In Myanmar, the day is known as Kason Ia Pyae. It is celebrated in the month of Kason, the second month in the Myanmar calendar. Hence, it is celebrated today as well.
Myanmar is officially a Theravada Buddhist country, making Vesak day an important day for rituals, celebrations and festivities. Like many Buddhists around the globe, they too, celebrate the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha.
Devotees go to pagodas in procession, make donations, follow the five precepts of Buddhism and meditate in the temples. They also celebrate the Kasone Festival. This is an important festival for Buddhists. Here, people gather around the Bo (or Bodhi) Tree to pour water on its roots.
The time of Kason, which usually falls between April and May, experiences high temperatures and longer days. The water bodies, such as lakes and ponds, evaporate and trees die from the scorching heat. To ensure that the Maha Bodhi trees survive, devotees pour water at the foot. These trees are usually located at various pagodas and monasteries. Watering the tree not only saves it but also acts as a symbol of respect to the Buddha, who was enlightened under the same tree.
After pouring water, the day is followed by music, dance and food. Rice pudding, similar to kheer, is specially made for celebrations.
Which celebration did you like the most?
Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below and click here for more articles like this.
Juewei, S., 2015. National Recognition of a Religious Festival: Comparing Buddha’s Birthday Celebration Organized in Taipei to the Northern Wei Buddha’s Birthday Parade. Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies, 63(3), pp. 204-211.
Than Hsiang Buddhist Research Centre, 2019. eJournal of Buddhist Research Studies, Penang: Than Hsiang Buddhist Research Centre.