Vesak Day may be known by different names around the world, but Buddhists around the world come together as they celebrate sacred events in Buddha’s life—birth, enlightenment and passing away. Vesak is the fourth month of the lunar calendar. Vesak Day is celebrated on different dates in spring around the world. Usually, it is celebrated following the first full moon in May.
Origin of Vesak day
Buddha was born as Siddhartha, the crown prince of the Sakya tribe in the garden of Lumbini, Nepal. He left his home to join his people when he was 29 and chose the life of an ascetic when he was faced with old age, sickness and death. After practising for six years, he realised that awakening would come only by meditation. Using grass as a mat, he sat under the Peepal tree in Bodh Gaya, located in India’s present-day state of Bihar, facing east direction. He vowed not to rise until he attained enlightenment. He sat for forty-nine days, and became the Buddha or the enlightened one at the age of thirty-five. A Peepal tree still stands at the same spot behind the main temple. It was planted in the nineteenth century and is believed to be a direct descendant of the original tree. Believers tie prayer flags to its branches and meditate under it. A sense of peace and serenity fills the air, as Buddhist monks sit around the tree to meditate and chant. Vesak is observed by devotees to pay homage to Buddha. They take time to realize Buddha’s wise and compassionate guidance and honour him with respect and joy.
Celebrate freedom from greed, hatred and ignorance on Vesak
Each Buddhist culture follows its own traditions for the day.
On Vesak Day, houses and streets are adorned with thousands of candles and colourful buntings. Huge temporary temples, made of bamboo and cloth are set up with elaborate electric light displays that depict different stories from the Buddha’s life. Celebrations are subdued, focused on prayers and chanting of scriptures. People wear white clothes. Sweets are distributed and people refrain from eating meat or fish. Prayer songs called bhakti geetha are sung. Colourful Vesak lanterns in various shapes called Vesak koodu light up homes.
Singapore and Malaysia
Vesak is a day filled with goodwill and good deeds. Devotees perform ceremonial bathing by pouring fragrant water over the statue of the baby Prince Siddhartha which is usually placed in a vessel of perfumed water and strewn with flowers. This symbolizes a fresh start in life by cleansing one’s bad deeds and replacing them with good ones. In Singapore, devotees buy caged birds and set them free on the Buddha’s birthday.
“Buddha Jayanti” has special meaning in the birthplace of Buddha. Thousands of people come to Lumbini, where prayer flags are replaced, stupas freshly painted and every temple thoroughly cleaned. Buddhists gather for morning prayers at Swayanbhunath temple, also known as “Monkey temple.” They then move to Boudhanath in the afternoon to watch a Buddha image paraded on an elephant. Crowds of devotees chant joyfully. Boudhanath stupa is lit with fairy lights and thousands of wax candles surrounding it—creating a peaceful sight in the golden glowing light.
India and Bangladesh
Vaisakha Puja or Buddha Purnima as it is called in these countries is a time for Buddhist devotees to pay special attention to Buddha’s teachings. Most devotees wear white and visit temples and listen to monks give talks. Money, food and other useful items are donated to organisations that care for the poor, sick and elderly. Pilgrims flock to Bodh Gaya and light thousands of oil lamps at Mahabodhi temple.
The Thai people call the festival Visakha Bucha. The main ceremonies take place at Sanaam Luang, the public square in front of the King’s Grand Place in Bangkok. A grand statue of the Buddha is displayed here on the day. Buddhist monks from far off places visit the capital to pay their respects and the capital is bathed in the bright colours of their orange robes. Tents and stalls are set up around the capital at different points surrounding statues of the Buddha with food being distributed freely.
Hari Waisak celebrations congregate at the Borobodur temple in Java. The main attraction is the releasing of a multitude of colourful lighted lanterns into the air. The sight of these lanterns rising into the night sky against the full moon is nothing short of ethereal.
Vietnam and Cambodia
It is known as Vesak or Phat Dan in Vietnam and the pagodas in Hanoi are decorated with colourful flags and streamers on this occasion. In Cambodia, where it is called Vesak Bochea, the streets are transformed by processions of Buddhist monks carrying colourful flags and lotus flowers. In the evening, it is a stunning sight to behold as the monks pass through the streets holding candles and incense sticks.
Around the world
The festival is celebrated in Tibet as Saga Dawa, in Laos as Visakha Bouxa, in Myanmar as Ka-sone and in Japan it is known by many names including Hanamatsuri, Kanbutsu-e, Goutan-e, Busshou-e, Yokubutsu-e, Ryugu-e and Hana-eshiki. Other places where it is celebrated include Korea and China.