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Vesak (Wesak, Buddha's Birthday)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Buddhist)
Date of Observation: April-May; full moon of Vaisakha
Where Celebrated: China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and by Buddhists all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Bathing the Buddha, Bodhi Tree
Related Holidays: Rocket Festival


Vesak is the holiest day of the year in Buddhism, one of the four largest religious families in the world. Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 B . C . E .), who came to be known as Buddha, or "The Enlightened One." The basic tenets of Buddhism can be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are 1) the truth and reality of suffering; 2) suffering is caused by desire; 3) the way to end suffering is to end desire; and 4) the Eightfold Path shows the way to end suffering. The Eightfold Path consists of 1) right view or right understanding; 2) right thoughts and aspirations; 3) right speech; 4) right conduct and action; 5) right way of life; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; and 8) right contemplation.

Vesak celebrates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death, or attainment of Nirvana. While these anniversaries are observed in all Buddhist countries, they are not always celebrated on the same day. Theravada Buddhists, who practice the oldest form of their religion and can be found primarily in Southeast Asia, observe all three anniversaries on the full moon of the sixth month. In Japan and other Mahayana Buddhist countries, these three events are celebrated on separate days: the Buddha's birth on April 8, his enlightenment on December 8, and his death on February 15.

Although the celebrations differ from country to country, activities generally center on Buddhist temples, where people gather to listen to sermons on the life of Buddha. In the evening, there are candlelight processions around the temples, while homes are decorated with paper lanterns and oil lamps. Because it's considered important to practice the virtues of kindness to all living things, it's traditional in some countries to free caged birds on this day, or to set up booths to dispense food to the poor. Siddhartha Gautama, who came to be called the Buddha ("the Enlightened"), was born into an aristocratic family. At the age of twenty-nine, distressed by the misery of mankind, he renounced his life of luxury and left his wife and infant son to become a wandering ascetic. For six years he practiced the most severe austerities, eating little and meditating regularly. But then he realized that self-deprivation wasn't leading him to what he sought. One morning in 528 B . C . E ., while sitting in deep meditation under the BODHI TREE , he experienced a wider vision of his own existence and derived from that vision his blueprint for religious life. In the years that followed, he laid down rules of ethics and condemned the caste system. He taught that the aim of religion is to free oneself of worldly concerns in order to attain enlightenment, or Nirvana. The Buddha trained large numbers of disciples to continue his work. He died in about 483 B . C . E .

In Japan, Buddha's birthday is known as Hana Matsuri or Flower Festival because it marks the beginning of the cherry blossom season. The image of Buddha is covered by a miniature unwalled shrine called the hana-mido or "flowery temple." Sometimes the flower-decked temple is drawn through the streets by a horse or ox. In China, sutras (sermons of Buddha) are chanted to the accompaniment of drums and bells, brass cymbals, and tiny gongs. The fish, a symbol of watchfulness, appears in the form of wooden fish heads, which are struck with small sticks. In Sri Lanka, where the great festival of Wesak is held on the first full moon in May, people sit out in the moonlight in little shanties made of flowers and greenery and listen to the long sermons of the Bikkhus (priests), which tell stories from the life of Buddha.


Bathing the Buddha

The tradition of bathing images of the Buddha on Vesak seems to have derived from an episode in the story of his life in which the two serpents, Nanda and Upananda, bathe him after his birth. Today, the bathing ritual takes many different forms. In China, his image is carried out of the temple and into the courtyard, where it is sprinkled with water that is exceptionally pure. Sometimes the image of Buddha is placed in a big jar of water, and believers take a spoonful of water and sprinkle it over his head as they pass through the courtyard.

In Japan, Buddha's image is bathed with ama-cha, a sweet tea prepared from hydrangea leaves that have been steamed and dried. The statue of the Buddha usually shows him with one hand raised high toward heaven and the other directed toward the earth. This posture is derived from the story of his birth, soon after which he raised his right hand and lowered his left, declaring, "I am my own Lord throughout heaven and earth." Worshippers take some of the tea home with them so their faith and good health will be perpetuated. Vesak

Bodhi Tree

The tree under which the Buddha was enlightened in 528 B . C . E . was a type of ficus or Asian fig tree that can grow as high as 100 feet. Like the banyan tree, it branches indefinitely and has thick "prop" roots that support the extended branches.

There are actually two points in Gautama's life where a tree plays a significant role. The first was when he was a boy and he slipped naturally into a trance while sitting under a rose-apple tree. When Gautama abandoned the ascetic life at the age of thirty-five, he recalled that early experience and again sought refuge under a tree to compose his thoughts and await enlightenment. The tree that sheltered him throughout the night came to be known as the Bodhi Tree-bodhi meaning "enlightenment" or "awakening."

When King Asoka of India sent his daughter to Sri Lanka as a Buddhist missionary, she took a branch of the famous Bodhi Tree with her. According to legend, the branch took root, a symbol of the new religion.


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Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.

Vesak (Wesak; Buddha's Birthday)

April-May; full moon of Hindu month of Vaisakha; April 8
This is the holiest of Buddhist holy days, celebrating the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death, or attaining of Nirvana. While these anniversaries are observed in all Buddhist countries, they are not always celebrated on the same day. In Theravada Buddhist countries, all three anniversaries are marked on the full moon of Vaisakha. In Japan and other Mahayana Buddhist countries, the three anniversaries are usually observed on separate days—the birth on April 8, the enlightenment on December 8, and the death on February 15.
Vesak is a public holiday in many countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, and Singapore.
This celebration differs from country to country, but generally activities are centered on the Buddhist temples, where people gather to listen to sermons by monks. In the evening, there are candlelit processions around the temples. Homes are also decorated with paper lanterns and oil lamps. Because it's considered important to practice the virtues of kindness to all living things, it's traditional in some countries to free caged birds on this day. In some areas, booths are set up along streets to dispense food. In Burma (Myanmar), people water the Bodhi tree with blessed water and chant prayers around it ( see Kasone Festival of Watering the Banyan Tree).
The Buddha was born as a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, at Lumbini in present-day Nepal, an isolated spot near the border with India, and Lumbini is one of the most sacred pilgrimage destinations for Buddhists, especially on Vesak. A stone pillar erected in 250 b.c.e. by the Indian emperor Asoka designates the birthplace, and a brick temple contains carvings depicting the birth. Another center of celebrations in Nepal is the Swayambhunath temple, built about 2,000 years ago. On this day it is constantly circled by a procession of pilgrims. The lamas in colorful silk robes dance around the stupa (temple) while musicians play. On this day each year, the stupa's collection of rare thangkas (embroidered religious scrolls) and mandalas (geometrical and astrological representations of the world) is shown on the southern wall of the stupa courtyard.
Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India, is the place where the Buddha preached his first sermon, and a big fair and a procession of relics of the Buddha highlight the day there. Bodh Gaya (or Buddh Gaya) in the state of Bihar is also the site of special celebrations. It was here that Siddhartha Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree, attained enlightenment, and became known as the Buddha, meaning the "Enlightened One."
Gautama was born about 563 b.c.e. into a regal family and was brought up in great luxury. At the age of 29, distressed by the misery of mankind, he renounced his princely life and his wife and infant son to become a wandering ascetic and to search for a path that would give relief from suffering. For six years he practiced severe austerities, eating little. But he realized that self-mortification wasn't leading him to what he sought. One morning, sitting in deep meditation, under a ficus tree now called the Bodhi tree, he achieved enlightenment, or awakening. This was at Bodh Gaya in about 528 b.c.e., when Gautama was 35 years old. In the years that followed, he laid down rules of ethics ( see Magha Puja) and condemned the caste system. He taught that the aim of religion is to free oneself of worldly fetters in order to attain enlightenment, or Nirvana, a condition of freedom from sorrow and selfish desire. The Buddha trained large numbers of disciples to continue his work. He died in about 483 b.c.e.
From its start in northern India, Buddhism spread throughout Asia. The religion grew especially after Asoka, the first great emperor of India, adopted it as his religion in the third century b.c.e. and traveled about preaching and building hospitals and monasteries. He also sent his son, Mahinda, to preach the tenets of Buddhism in Sri Lanka ( see Poson). The Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asia is the oldest form of the religion, known as Theravada Buddhism, or "The Way of the Elders." As Buddhism went north, into Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, Korea, and then Japan, it took a different form called Mahayana Buddhism, or "The Great Vehicle."
Vesak, or Wesak, is also known as Waisak (Indonesia), Wisakha Bucha (Thailand), Buddha Jayanti (Nepal and India), Phat Dan Day (Vietnam), Buddha Purnima (India), Kambutsu-e or Hana Matsuri (Japan), Full Moon of Kason (Myanmar), Vixakha Bouxa (Laos) and sometimes the Feast of the Lanterns .
See also Bun Bang Fai and Songkran
BkFestHolWrld-1970, pp. 76, 78
BkHolWrld-1986, May 26
DictWrldRel-1989, pp. 121, 135
EncyRel-1987, vol. 2, p. 548, vol. 3, p. 325
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 198
FolkWrldHol-1999, pp. 305, 308
HolSymbols-2009, p. 1020
IntlThFolk-1979, p. 345
RelHolCal-2004, pp. 170, 218
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