“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.”
Today the world celebrates the Vesak festival which is the most celebrated festival in the Buddhist world. It can be assumed that Vesak celebrations must have come to the highlight approximately after five centuries or more since the Parinibbana of the Buddha.
This is speculated to be one of the oldest known religious festivals in the world as it is believed that it was celebrated in grandeur in the 3rd century BCE in India during Emperor Asoka’s time and from the same time in Sri Lanka. According to local chronicles, Vesak has been a State festival that the Sinhala kings celebrated with great honour during historical times.
Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera explains that the, “Ceylon Vesak festival was modelled on Asoka’s ‘shows and processions’ and also on ‘the processions of images; seen by Fa Hein.” The Thera further believes that the Vesak festival was introduced to the Sinhalese by Arahat Mahinda – the son of Asoka. It is also possible that Arahat Mahinda, having seen those shows and processions organised by his father and realised their effect on the mass mind, introduced the same practice to Ceylon.
An International Day of Vesak was recognised by the United Nations (UN) on 15 December 1999.
Vesak festival is also known as Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanthi and the day is celebrated on the full moon day of the month of Vesak (Sinhala), Vesaakha (Pali), and Vaisaakha (Sanskrit). The reason for celebrating the day is that it is known as the birthday of Prince Siddhartha, the day of enlightenment of ascetic Siddhartha, and the day of the Parinibbana of Gautama Buddha. Hence, the celebration is also known as the Themagula, or the Three Noble Events.
Millions of Buddhists all over the world celebrate this day by performing religious rituals, meritorious acts, and colourful decorations, which are done as offerings for Buddha, the Supreme One.
The most sacred month for Buddhists
As Vesak Full Moon Day is known as the day on which Prince Siddhartha, who later became Gautama Buddha or the Enlightened One, was born, and is considered the most sacred day for Buddhists. This is the day that the founder of Buddhism was born. On the very same day, ascetic Siddhartha achieved Buddhahood or enlightenment, and then on another Vesak Full Moon Day, he attained Parinibbana or ended his noble journey forever.
He was born in Lumbini in Nepal, attained Buddhahood in Bodhgaya, and attained Parinibbana in Kushi Nagara in India. Hence, the Vesak month is considered the most sacred month by Buddhists all over the world, irrespective of the differences in their traditions and sects.
Significance of Vesak for Sri Lanka
Also, for Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Vesak Full Moon Poya Day has another cultural and national significance. According to the chronicles and beliefs of the Sinhala people, the first Sinhala king known as Vijaya arrived on this island on a Vesak Full Moon Poya Day. Also, it is believed that Buddha’s third visit to Sri Lanka (to Kelaniya) and marking his footprint on the summit of Mount Sumana happened on a Vesak Full Moon Poya Day. The two other significant events that occurred on a Vesak Full Moon Poya Day are the second coronation of King Devanampiyathissa and the commencement of the construction of the Maha Stupa (Ruwanweliseya).
Whether the historical accuracy of these events is true or not, these have been deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Sinhala Buddhists and thus, Vesak is considered a festival that ought to be given State-level importance and sponsorship.
Also, to believe that the arrival of the first Sinhala king (according to sources his name is Sinhala who was an Aryan prince from Northern India) happened on the very date of Buddha’s Parinibbana and to say that Buddha gave his blessings to this new king through god Upulvan, once again shows the attempt of the early chroniclers to build up a link between the Sinhala settlements and the Buddha.
Moreover, the arrival of the Buddha’s relatives in Sri Lanka as refugees when they were being massacred in the Shakya Kingdom further strengthened the historical connection between the Sinhala people and the Shakyans.
We do not know how true the former is, but the latter – the Shakyans’ arrival in Sri Lanka as refugees and finding settlement here – is known to be a historically proven fact. Accordingly, the Vesak Full Moon Poya Day and the Buddha’s birthday are celebrated with grandeur in Sri Lanka.
Vesak celebrations; Difference between various Buddhist traditions
Although the tradition dictates that all three noble events happened on a Vesak Full Moon Poya Day, some Buddhist traditions believe that the three events happened on three or two different days.
Especially in the East Asian Buddhist traditions (Mahayana traditions), Buddha Jayanthi (birthday), Bodhi Day (day of enlightenment), and Nibbana Day (day of Parinibbana) are celebrated not on the Vesak Full Moon Poya Day; they only celebrate the Buddha Jayanthi (birthday) on the Vesak full moon day and the other two on two other days.
It is also reported that if there are two Full Moon Poya Days on Vesak (the second day is called Adhi Vesak in Sri Lanka), then the first Full Moon Poya Day is celebrated in Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Malaysia, while the second Full Moon Poya Day is celebrated in some Buddhist countries including Thailand Singapore.
There are different Buddhist traditions in the Buddhist world, and the rituals, practices, and teachings slightly change accordingly. It is not only the various traditions that affect the various changes in the Buddhist rituals from country to country but the native cultures and natural environmental factors also have an influence on the various Buddhist rituals that exist in different countries.
There is a unity between these various Buddhist traditions although they slightly differ from each other. There has never been and nor does it now, exist any animosity or dispute between the followers of these many Buddhist traditions. One reason for this is that all traditions honour and pay homage to the historic Buddha (Gautama Shakyamuni) as the founder of Buddhism, and Nirvana – their ultimate goal and inner peace and Metta – the essence of all these traditions.
Can we celebrate Vesak at present?
At present, in Sri Lanka, as the situation is tense and we are experiencing grave political and social turmoil, can we celebrate Vesak?
Yes, we can and this is the best time to do so. When we use the word celebrate, we must know that Vesak is not about partying or feasting, as generally a festival celebration would mean. Vesak is about paying homage to The Blessed One. Paying homage is to follow his path and practice what he taught.
Buddha taught his followers to lead a simple lifestyle and to cleanse the mind from greed, hatred, and ignorance. What is a better time than this for us to practice this? Greed, hatred, and ignorance have led us to the mess that we are in today.
If our minds are in unrest, full of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, what is the best time than this to embrace the path that Buddha showed us? His path is a path to inner peace.
Meditating, helping the needy, observing sil and offering flowers, lighting lamps, and lighting fragrance sticks are perfect healing methods.
We witness our own people divide and kill each other; spread hatred and commit violent acts. Social media is full of hate speech and violence. Our own people are being bullied, killed, and tortured. Houses and vehicles are being burnt. People steal from destroyed houses.
We witness how humanity is being mocked. Our hearts are filled with sadness and despair.
There is a story that comes in the Buddhist history and literature that perfectly matches this situation. This greatly helped me to console myself and I am sure this will help you too.
Buddha and Vidudabha
One day, Buddha came to know that King Vidudabha of the Koshala Kingdom has planned to attack the Shakya Kingdom. The Shakya Kingdom was the Buddha’s hometown. The Shakyas were his family. Hearing this, the Buddha felt compassion and kindness towards his own clan and visited Kapilvastu – the capital city of the kingdom.
Outside the city gate, was a huge tree, but it was dry and bared no leaves. Buddha sat under the tree. Angry King Vidudabha with the intention of revenge marched towards Kapilvastu with his massive army. Seeing Buddha sitting there, he stopped and spoke. He asked,
“O, The Blessed One, why are you sitting under a dry tree, there has no shade?”
The Buddha replied,
“The wind that swept across my own land, where my family lives, where my kingdom is, where my hometown is, is comforting enough to me.”
Out of respect and understanding of the intention of the Buddha, the king withdrew.
This happened three times and when the king was about to attack the Shakya Kingdom for the fourth time, the Buddha realised that there is a Karma of the Shakyans that they have committed in their past lives, that cannot be avoided. Hence, he did not intervene.
King Vidudabha massacred the entire Shakyans, while some fled the country to neighbouring kingdoms.
King Vidudabha, committing a great sin by killing thousands, was killed in a great flood on his way back to his kingdom. According to literature, he was the grandson of King Mahanama Shakya and the son of King Pasenadi Kosol of the Koshala Kingdom. He vowed to take revenge upon the Shakyans because he was insulted by the Shakyans for the reason that his mother was the daughter of a slave girl.
This Vesak, let us understand the true meaning of what Buddha taught and follow the path of loving compassion.
“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by loving compassion; this is the eternal rule.”
— Gautama Buddha
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy