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Buddha’s Birthday: VESAK Day And How It Is Celebrated Across Asia

An insight to the origins of Buddhism and the significance of Vesak Day.

Vesak Day marks the celebration of Buddha’s birth… And we’ve got a list of everything you need to know about the holiday celebrated by Buddhist communities all over the world.

Vesak Day is considered one of the holiest days in Buddhist culture. It is a time for Buddhists to give alms, seek blessings, and reflect upon the teachings of Buddha. Before the marking of this auspicious day, here are some interesting facts about the origins of Vesak Day, and how it is celebrated across Asia

Who Is Buddha?

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The Lord Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha Gautama in 623BC, to King Suddhodana, the leader of the Shakya people, and his wife, Queen Maya Devi. He was born in a sacred area located in the Terai plains of southern Nepal, about 300 kilometres away from southwest Kathmandu, called Lumbini. His birthplace is now a protected UNESCO world heritage site and is an important place for Buddhist pilgrimage.

The origins of Buddhism

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Born into royalty, Prince Siddhartha led a life of privilege and luxury. His father sheltered him from witnessing sufferings such as aging, sickness, and death. When he was 29, he convinced Channa, his chariot driver, to take him out of the palace grounds and into the city. This was the first time he saw mortal sufferings, in the form of an old man, a sick man, a corpse. He then saw a monk. Taken by the calmness, and serenity of the holy man, this led to him relinquish his princely life and become an ascetic, in hopes of ending suffering. His leaving the palace became known as The Great Renunciation and the sights he saw are known as The Four Sights in Buddhism.

To fully understand suffering, Prince Siddhartha attempted to inflict suffering on himself, by fasting for long periods of time, until he was near starvation. He then realised that his demise would help no one, leading him to move onto a more moderate path, one between luxury and poverty, called the Middle Way.

It is believed that Siddhartha became Buddha, or an enlightened being, while meditating under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, where he defeated temptation from the demon Mara, giving rise to Buddhism.

What are some of the traditions practiced during Vesak Day?

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Vesak day is celebrated by all sects of Buddhists, to commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. These events were said to have occurred on the same day throughout Buddha’s life. The word Vesak stems from the Sanskrit word Vaiskha, as Vesak day is celebrated on the full moon of the Vaishka month (April-May) of the Hindu and Buddhist Calendars. Though most countries will be celebrating Vesak Day on the 26th of May this year, the dates can vary depending on the country.

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On the morning of Vesak Day, devotees visit their respective temples bearing offerings of flowers (usually lotus flowers), candles, and incense sticks. Temples are decorated, the Buddhist Flag is raised, and monks lead devotees in prayers, chants, and hymns. The activities go on throughout the day and usually end in a candle lit procession at night. Lotus lamps, or butter lamps are an integral part of Vesak Day, it serves as a symbolic way of eliminating ignorance and darkness from the world and offering of prayers after lighting of the butter lamps is an integral part of Buddhist tradition.

Some temples display a small statue of Buddha in front of the altar, in a small basin filled with water and decorated with flowers, to represent the garden in Lumbini where Buddha was born. Devotees pour water over the statue in a ritual that is known as the bathing of the Buddha. This tradition of bathing a statue of a little Buddha to commemorate the day of his birth, came after the death of Buddha. The ritual is said to help devotees purge their sins and symbolises purification.

Buddhists also believe that the act of doing good deeds on Vesak Day brings them blessings that will be multiplied several times over. The day is a time to reflect on the teachings of Buddha and is often spent performing acts of kindness and compassion, known as Dana. These acts include giving alms or sharing meals with those less fortunate. Temples also provide free meals to devotees, and devotees abstain from consuming meat.

What’s a celebration without food?

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One of the 5 precepts of Buddhism is Refrain from taking life. In other words, not killing any living being. Buddhists believe that this extends to animals as well, so many Buddhists choose to be vegetarians. Vegetarianism is predominantly practiced during Vesak day (though it can differ between communities) and traditional foods such as Lo Han Jai (a vegetarian stew, sometimes referred to as Buddha’s delight) and Monk’s soup, that is prepared with pumpkins, beans, noodles, and sweet potato are served. Kheer, a sweet rice pudding, is also consumed during Vesak day.

Vesak Day celebrations around the world

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1. East Asia

In Japan, The Hana-Matsuri (flower festival) held on the 8th of April, coincides with the blooming of cherry blossoms, serves as the main event of Vesak day. Many Vesak day traditions revolve around the lotus flower, which, according to legend, appeared on the ground, when the infant Buddha took his first steps. At temples, devotees are invited to partake in a ritual called bathe the Buddha, where he is sprinkled with a type of sweet tea, made with hydrangea leaves, called ama-cha, and lotus blossoms are hung around his neck.

In South Korea, Vesak Day is a national holiday known as Seokga Tansinil and the Lunisolar calendar is used to determine the date. It usually takes place in late April, or early May, on the 8th day of the 4th month of the lunar calendar. This year, it falls on the 19th of May. The celebrations are marked with temples opening their doors offering visitors free meals of rice and vegetables as well as tea. Temples are covered with lanterns during the holy month, and people hang lotus lanterns in their homes.

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2. South Asia

The subcontinent of India is home to about nine million Buddhists. Vesak Day is known as Buddha Purnima. The word Purnima means full moon in Sanskrit. or Buddha Jayanti. Indian Buddhists will usually dress in white, and head to monasteries or temples to listen to sermons or sutras and observe a vegetarian-only diet featuring kheer, which is consumed to symbolise the offering of free porridge that was given to a young buddha while he was fasting.

In Nepal, the birthplace of Buddha, the holiday is celebrated with devotees visiting temples dressed in all white, light butter lamps, incense, and bringing offerings of flowers. There are religious processions where Buddhist monks chant prayers accompanied by Buddhist music. The day is celebrated by both the Buddhist, and Hindu religions in Nepal. In practicing Buddha’s teachings of kindness for all living beings, meat is not consumed, kheer is served to devotees at temples by volunteers, and donations are given to the poor.

In Sri Lanka, Vesak day is called Vesak Poya day, and Vesak Koodu, or Vesak lanterns are lit in most homes, as an offering to Buddha. Devotees visit temples and offer flowers, burn incense, and light lamps. Like India and Nepal, devotees wear white and participate in traditional ceremonies.

In Bhutan, Vesak day is known as Duechen Nga Zom, or Lord Buddha’s Parinirvana falls between the Months of May and June, on the 15th day of the fourth month of the Bhutanese calendar or Saga Dawa. The whole month is considered auspicious, the import and sale of meat is banned in Bhutan during this holy month. The day is celebrated by devotees offering prayers, and lighting butter lamps, religious relics, and idols are displayed in temples to bestow blessings and practices such as visiting monasteries, making offerings, and turning prayer wheels are believed to have double the spiritual merit on this day.

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3. Southeast Asia

In Thailand, Vesak day is called Visakha Puja and it is an official public holiday. Devotees gather at temples to listen to speeches by monks, chant prayers, and donate offerings of food, flowers, and candles, symbolic of the finite nature of material life. Buddhists observe the five moral precepts according to Theravada Buddhism. These include refraining from taking intoxicating substances, and from harming living things. 

In Cambodia, Buddha’s Birthday is called Visak Bochea and is also a public holiday. As is common in Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhist flag is raised above temples and paraded in the streets by monks. Monks also hold parades carrying lotus flowers, candles, and incense, with people usually offering monks alms.

In Indonesia, Vesak day is known as Waisak. It is recognised as an official holiday, with a large procession occurring between various Buddhist temples. It begins at the Mendut Temple in Java, and ends at the Borobudur Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. The famous ritual of releasing lanterns also occurs at this temple! 

Vesak Day was only declared a public Holiday in Singapore in 1955. To celebrate, temples are adorned with Buddhist flags, and lotus flowers, and devotees make offerings. This year, to adapt to covid times, temples such as the Thekchen Choling Buddhist Temple, have moved to online platforms, where video sermons have been uploaded, as well as vegetarian recipes cooked by the nuns for people to cook at home. Mahayana Buddhist temples in Singapore like Phor Kark See Temple on Bright Hill street, practise the three step, one bow ritual on Vesak Day. Devotees take three steps on both knees and bow at every third step as they pray for repentance or blessings. The Theravada Buddhists worship at the Burmese Buddhist Temple, and the Sri Lankaramaya temple on St. Michel’s Road, where rituals such as the cooking of rice in a pot of milk are part of the celebrations. This ritual is symbolic of the last meal Buddha had before fasting.

By Praveena K / Updated May 2021

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