The world celebrates many important days throughout its calendar, including holy days from each major religion. One such day is the upcoming day of Vesak, in which we remember and honour the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha.
Vesak is celebrated on the day of the full moon in the month of May, where followers of the teachings of Buddha pay homage and celebrate his message of peace and compassion that breaks the eternal chain of reincarnation to obtain nirvana.
Buddhists around the world celebrate Vesak following various customs and traditions passed down from generation to generation, and Sri Lanka is no stranger to that. Each year, the streets come alive with beautiful lights, Vesak lanterns, intricate pandols that display various Jataka stories and of course, the dansal, where people share alms with the travellers, a beautiful example of altruism and caring for fellow beings on this journey of samsara.
Sadly, the past few years have been difficult to the usual attractions that we can expect during Vesak.
Sri Lanka has had a rough spell throughout the past few years. This year is no different, as I’m sure you’ve heard and seen about all that’s been going on.
But although we won’t be able to enjoy the external beauties of Vesak, that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to experience the true meaning and spiritual value of this holy day for Buddhists around the world. Let’s now travel to a few countries to learn how they celebrate this special day.
A lot in common
Of course, throughout the many countries that celebrate Vesak, there are many common observances, including spending the day at their local temple, engaging in pious deeds, meditating and reflecting on different teachings of the Buddha. There are also plenty of processions and other observances that both monks and lay people participate in, which is commonly seen in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Lanterns and light are commonly used throughout the nations. In South Korea for example, followers light lotus lanterns that cover the temples in remembrance of these lotus footsteps (similar to what we do here in Sri Lanka). In Indonesia, Buddhists light and release lanterns into the air while visiting the Borobudur temple.
Vesak celebrates freedom and achieving new or greater wisdom, which is why light plays such an important role in the celebration of the one who achieved enlightenment. But there are other observances by devotees that we haven’t talked about.
Like in many places, Buddhists from India will usually dress in white and head to temples and monasteries to hear sutras, or sermons, and observe a vegetarian-only diet featuring kheer, a type of sweet rice pudding eaten to symbolize an offering of free porridge given to a young fasting Buddha.
In Nepal, where Buddha was born, the holiday is marked with much fanfare, and members of the Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley, which claim to trace their lineage to the prince’s clan, hold it in the highest regard.
As in India, the holiday is marked with the eating of sweet rice pudding and people, usually women, going to temples dressed in white.
In Japan, home to a predominantly Buddhist population of around 84 million, many of the holiday’s local traditions revolve around flowers, namely the lotus flower, which sprang from where the infant Buddha walked, according to legend. In temples, adherents are also invited to “bathe the Buddha,” and he is sprinkled with ama-cha, a form of sweet tea made with a variety of hydrangea leaves, and lotuses are hung around his neck.
The chief event is the Kanbutsu-e or Hana-matsuri (Flower Festival), officially held on 8 April to coincide with the blooming of the cherry blossom, though some traditionalists mark it according to the Buddhist calendar.
As Buddhists around the world honour this wonderful day, let us all pay our respects to the enlightened one and his teachings, apply his precepts in our life and continue to improve, moving forward to the day when we all may achieve the bliss of nibbhana, the end to all suffering.
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage