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Vesak is an annual holiday observed traditionally by practicing Buddhists in South Asian and South East Asian countries like Nepalmarker, Singaporemarker, Vietnammarker, Thailandmarker, Cambodiamarker, Malaysiamarker, Sri Lankamarker, Myanmarmarker, Indonesiamarker, Pakistanmarker and Indiamarker. Sometimes informally called "Buddha's Birthday," it actually encompasses the birth, enlightenment (Nirvana), and passing away (Parinirvana) of Gautama Buddha.

In Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the holiday is known by its Sanskrit name, वैशाख Vaiśākha, and derived variants of it. The word Vesak itself is the Sinhalese language word (වෙසක්) for the Pali variation, Vesākha. Vesak is also known as बुद्ध पुर्णिमा/বুদ্ধ পূর্ণিমা Buddha Purnima or बुद्ध जयंती/বুদ্ধ জয়ন্তী Buddha Jayanti in Indiamarker, Bangladeshmarker and Nepalmarker, 花祭 (Hanamatsuri) in Japanmarker, 석가 탄신일 Seokka Tanshin-il in Korean, 佛誕 (Mandarin: Fódàn, Cantonese: Fātdàahn) in Chinese-speaking communities, Phật Đản in Vietnamese, ས་ག་ཟླ་བ། Saga Dawa (sa ga zla ba) in Tibetan, Visak Bochéa in Khmer, วันวิสาขบูชา Visakah Puja (or Visakha Bucha) in Thai, Waisak in Indonesiamarker, වෙසක් පසළොස්වක පෝය Vesak (Wesak) in Sri Lankamarker and Malaysiamarker. The equivalent festival in Laosmarker is called ວິຊຂບູຊ Vixakha Bouxa and in Myanmarmarker is called Ka-sone-la-pyae meaning “Fullmoon Day of Kasone” which is also the second month of the Myanmar Calendar.

The exact date of Vesak varies according to the various lunar calendars used in different traditions. In Theravada countries following the Buddhist calendar, it falls on the full moon Uposatha day (typically the 5th or 6th lunar month). While the Vesak Day in China, it is on the eighth of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. The date varies from year to year in the Western Gregorian calendar but falls in April or May.

The 2009 date for Vesak as observed by the Dhammayutika and Mahānikāya sects of Thai Buddhism was 8 May; 8 May 2009 was also Vesak in Sri Lanka. The 2009 date for Vesak as observed in Singapore is 9 May.

History

The decision to agree to celebrate Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday was formalized at the first Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lankamarker in 1950, although festivals at this time in the Buddhist world are a centuries-old tradition. The Resolution that was adopted at the World Conference reads as follows:

On Vesak Day, Buddhists all over the world commemorate events of significance to Buddhists of all traditions: The birth, enlightenment and the passing away of Gautama Buddha. As Buddhism spread from India it was assimilated into many foreign cultures, and consequently Vesak is celebrated in many different ways all over the world.

The celebration of Vesak

Vesak is on May 8, 2009 in Thailand.
(See column 2.) It is not May 9.
May 2007 had two full moon days, the 1st and the 31st. Some countries (including Sri Lankamarker, Cambodiamarker and Malaysiamarker) celebrated Vesak on the 1st, while others (Thailandmarker, Singaporemarker) celebrated the holiday on the 31st due to different local lunar observance. This difference also manifests in the observance of other Buddhist holidays, which are traditionally observed at the local full moon.

On Vesak day, devout Buddhists and followers alike are expected and requested to assemble in their various temples before dawn for the ceremonial, and honorable, hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, The Dharma (his teachings), and The Sangha (his disciples). Devotees may bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and joss-sticks to lay at the feet of their teacher. These symbolic offerings are to remind followers that just as the beautiful flowers would wither away after a short while and the candles and joss-sticks would soon burn out, so too is life subject to decay and destruction. Devotees are enjoined to make a special effort to refrain from killing of any kind. They are encouraged to partake of vegetarian food for the day. In some countries, notably Sri Lankamarker, two days are set aside for the celebration of Vesak and all liquor shops and slaughter houses are closed by government decree during the two days. Also birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands in what is known as a 'symbolic act to liberation'; of giving freedom to those who are in captivity, imprisoned, or tortured against their will. Some devout Buddhists will wear a simple white dress and spend the whole day in temples with renewed determination to observe the eight Precepts.
Young novice on Vesak Day Parade
Devout Buddhists undertake to lead a noble life according to the teaching by making daily affirmations to observe the Five Precepts. However, on special days, notably new moon and full moon days, they observe the eight Percepts to train themselves to practice morality, simplicity and humility.

Some temples also display a small image of the baby Buddha in front of the altar in a small basin filled with water and decorated with flowers, allowing devotees to pour water over the statue; it is symbolic of the cleansing of a practitioners bad karma, and to reenact the events following the Buddha's birth, when devas and spirits made heavenly offerings to him.

Devotees are expected to listen to talks given by monks. On this day monks will recite verses uttered by the Buddha twenty-five 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 to respect the beliefs of other people as the Buddha had taught.

Bringing happiness to others

Celebrating Vesak also means making special efforts to bring happiness to the unfortunate like the aged, the handicapped and the sick. To this day, Buddhists will distribute gifts in cash and kind to various charitable homes throughout the country. Vesak is also a time for great joy and happiness, expressed not by pandering to one’s appetites but by concentrating on useful activities such as decorating and illuminating temples, painting and creating exquisite scenes from the life of the Buddha for public dissemination. Devout Buddhists also vie with one another to provide refreshments and vegetarian food to followers who visit the temple to pay homage to the Enlightened One.

Paying homage to the Buddha

Tradition ascribes to the Buddha himself instruction on how to pay him homage. Just before he died, he saw his faithful attendant Ananda, weeping. The Buddha advised him not to weep, but to understand the universal law that all compounded things (including even his own body) must disintegrate. He advised everyone not to cry over the disintegration of the physical body but to regard his teachings (The Dhamma) as their teacher from then on, because only the Dhamma truth is eternal and not subject to the law of change. He also stressed that the way to pay homage to him was not merely by offering flowers, incense, and lights, but by truly and sincerely striving to follow his teachings. This is how devotees are expected to celebrate Vesak: to use the opportunity to reiterate their determination to lead noble lives, to develop their minds, to practise loving-kindness and to bring peace and harmony to humanity.

Vesak in Japan

In Japan, Vesak or hanamatsuri (花祭) is also known as: Kanbutsu-e (灌仏会), Goutan-e (降誕会), Busshou-e (仏生会), Yokubutsu-e (浴仏会), Ryuge-e (龍華会), Hana-eshiki (花会式). It is not a public holiday. It is based on a legend that a dragon appeared in the sky on his birthday and poured soma over him.

It used to be celebrated on the 8th day of the fourth month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, based on one of the legends that proclaims the day as Buddha's birthday. At present, the celebration is observed on April 8 of the Solar Calendar since the Meiji government adopted the western solar calendar as the official calendar. Since the 8th day of the fourth month in the lunar calendar commonly falls in May of the current solar calendar, it is now celebrated about a month earlier.

In Japan, the general populace are not practicing Buddhists (and may be called casual Buddhists), so most Buddhist temples provide a way to allow the general public to celebrate and participate in only the aspect of the day being Buddha's birthday, providing the statue of baby Buddha and allowing the populace to worship or pay respect by pouring ama cha, a tea made of Hydrangea. In Buddhist temples, monasteries and nunneries, more involved ceremonies are conducted for practicing Buddhists, priests, monks and nuns. Also, there are public festivals made out of the day in some areas.

Vesak in Sri Lanka

A Vesak pandol or torana in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Vesak is celebrated as a religious and a cultural festival in Sri Lanka on the full moon of the month of May, for a duration of one week. During this week, the selling of alcohol and flesh is usually prohibited, with abatoirs also being closed. Celebrations include various religious and alms giving activities. Electrically lit pandols called toranas are erected in various locations in Colombo and elsewhere, most sponsored by donors, religious societies and welfare groups. Each pandol illustrates a story from the 550 Jataka Katha or the 550 Past Life Stories of the Buddha. In addition, colourful lanterns called Vesak koodu are hung along streets and in front of homes. They signify the light of the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. Food stalls set up by Buddhist devotees called dansälas provide free food and drinks to passersby. Groups of people from various community organisations, businesses and government departments sing bhakti gee or Buddhist devotional songs. Colombo experiences a massive influx of public from all parts of the country during this week.

Vesak in Vietnam

Vesak at a Vietnamese temple in Australia.


In 1963, the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic and younger brother of Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc banned the flying of the Buddhist flag. This led to a demonstration and flag-waving in defiance of the ban. Diem's forces opened fire on the Buddhist crowd, killing nine, sparking the Buddhist crisis, a period of civil disobedience against religious discrimination.

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