Welcome to the David Victor Vector Blog

Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Vesak (Wesak)


Buddha Altar
US Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, Colorado
The Birthday of Lord Buddha is one of the most important holidays in Buddhist tradition. The holiday is celebrated on different days varying by religious tradition.  

For 2021, Vesak is either on May 19 or May 26, depending on tradition. In Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, Vesak is celebrated a week earlier than in Theravada Buddhist tradition (as explained below).


The birthday of the Buddha is an official public holiday on May 19 in South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau. It is an official public holiday on  May 26 in Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and several Indian states.  

The holiday is most widely known as Vesak or Wesak, or in religious writings as Vesākha, the original word in Pali (the language of the Buddha). Other names for the Birthday of Lord Buddha include 
  • Fó Dàn in several Chinese dialects
  • Saga Dawa in Tibetan (and thus in many Vajrayan traditions)
  • Visakha Bucha or Wisakhabucha in Thai
  • Vixakha Bouxa in Lao
  • Visak Bochea in Khmer (Cambodian)
  • Phật Đản in Vietnamese
  • Hanamatsuri in Japanese
  • Seokka Tanshin-il in Korean
  • Wesak or Waisak in Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesian
  • Visakah Puja or Buddha Purnima in Nepalese). These are all names for the same holiday.

Dating Vesak

 Tian Tan Big Buddha, Hong Kong
The date assigned to Vesak depends on which of the different Buddhist lunar calendars each specific Buddhist tradition uses. Additionally, because none of these calendars parallel the Gregorian calendar, the date of Vesak appears on different days of the secular calendar; however, generally, Vesak comes in April or May.

Mahayana. Vesak is on May 19 in 2021 for most Mahayana Buddhist traditions. This is the date used in South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau and (most of) China and Taiwan, Hong Kong. 

In Mahayana tradition, Vesak falls on the eighth lunar day of the fourth month in the East Asian lunar calendar. Thus in 2021, Vesakh falls on May 19 in those traditions. In Hong Kong, the day after Buddha's birthday is also a public holiday. 

Theravada and Vajrayana. Vesak is on May 26 in 2021 in (most) Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions -- in other words, Vesakh begins a week later. In their calendar traditions, Vesak begins on the first full moon Uposatha (mind-clearing day) of the second month of their calendar.

Theravada is the dominant tradition practiced in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, southern India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism is the dominant tradition practiced in Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia and the Buddhist Tuva and Kalmykia Republics in Russia. This is also the tradition practiced in much of northern India in the states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and the Lakh district of Kashmir. It is also the tradition of the Tibetan diaspora community centered around the Dalai Lama at Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. 
The Newar Buddhists in Nepal who live in the Buddha's place of birth follow their own tradition but these are still Vajrayana. 

UN Vesak Day. The Theravada and Tibetan traditional Vesak day is also the date celebrated by the United Nations for the holiday.  While Myanmar (Burma) unofficially observes Vesak on May 26, it recognizes the official state holiday as the Full Moon of Kasong Day, which in 2021 is May 25. 
Finally, in Japan, Vesak (or Hanamatsuri) is not determined by the East Asian lunar calendar but instead has been officially tied to April 8 in the Gregorian calendar since the Meiji Restoration.

As multiple interpretations of when the date fell existed based on Chinese, Hindu and other calendars, the Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists met in Sri Lanka in 1998 and agreed to the first full moon of May date (with a leap year built into the cycle on a complicated formula that occasionally places the date in June).

Monks celebrating Vesak
at United Nations, 2006
This resolution was the basis for the United Nations General Assembly's resolution regarding the dating of Vesak. Since 2000, the United Nations officially observes Vesakh as the first full moon of May. The official UN Resolution for Vesak observance reads:

The General Assembly,
Acknowledging the hope expressed by the International Buddhist Conference, held in Sri Lanka in
November 1998, that the Day of Vesak, the Day of the Full Moon in the month of May each year, be recognized internationally and, in particular, at United Nations Headquarters and other United Nations offices,
Recognizing that the Day of the Full Moon in the month of May each year is the day most sacred to
Buddhists, who commemorate on that day the birth of the Buddha, his attainment of enlightenment and his passing away,
Considering that international recognition at United Nations Headquarters and other United Nations offices would constitute acknowledgement of the contribution that Buddhism, one of the oldest religions in the world, has made for over two and a half millennia and continues to make to the spirituality of humanity,
Resolves that, without cost to the United Nations, appropriate arrangements shall be made for
international observances of the Day of Vesak at United Nations Headquarters and other United Nations offices, in consultation with the relevant United Nations offices and with permanent missions that also wish to be consulted.
The Birth of the Buddha

The Gautama Buddha was born in 563 BCE in the town of Lumbini in northern India to the King Sudhodana and Queen Maya, the rulers of the kingdom of Sakya.  His parents named him Siddhartha. He is also called Sakyamuni or the Sage of Sakya.

His mother the queen had a dream of a white elephant and a white lotus entering her womb.  This was interpreted as an omen that the child she would bear would be either a great warrior or a great religious leader. It was for this reason that the young Siddhartha was shielded from the outside world by his father who wanted him to be a great warrior king and feared that exposure to the sufferings of the world would turn his son into a spiritual leader instead.

Birth of the Buddha
Panel painting, Jogyesa Temple
Seoul, South Korea
Legend has it that Queen Maya gave birth to him with no pain of childbirth and that immediately after being born, the baby Siddhartha took seven steps to represent the seven Buddhist directions (east, south, west, north, up, down and here). It is for this reason that when the Buddha is depicted as an infant, he is often shown standing while pointing with one hand up and the other down to signify the seven directions.

In the Mahayana tradition, the infant is also supposed to have immediately spoken, saying, "I alone am the World-Honored One." It is important to note that this last point is highly debated. Some Buddhists do not accept that he said these words while others interpret these words only as meaning that he was aware at birth of the Buddha nature that is present in all living beings, not simply referring to himself.

Queen Maya died one week after the birth of her son but not before the visit of the ascetic Asita who pronounced that he saw in the child the 80 signs that he would become the Enlightened One. After his mother's death, the young Siddhartha was raised by his older sister.

Traditions Where the Buddha's Death Is Celebrated With His Birth

In Theravada Buddhism, Vesak is seen as both the day of the Buddha's birth and that of his death. This remains a very happy celebration even in Theravada tradition where the Buddha's death is intermingled with his birth. This is because at the Buddha's death, the Buddha counseled the disciple Ananda not to cry or feel sad but rather to honor the Dhamma, for the teachings that the Buddha shared are -- it was taught -- the only thing that is eternal.  Buddhists interpret this, then, as celebrating Vesak by reaffirming their belief in the Eight Noble Truths, to seek enlightenment, to practice acts of love, and to try to bring peace and harmony to the world.

Mahayana Buddhism, by contrast, celebrates the day of Buddha's death as a separate holiday. Please see my blog on Paranirvana (or Nirvana Day) for more on that holiday:

Observances and Celebrations

The celebration of Vesak -- regardless of tradition -- usually centers around ceremonies at the Buddhist
temple.  Buddhists in most traditions sing prayers about the Buddha, the Buddha's teachings (called the Dhamma) and the followers of the Buddha (called the Sangha). 

It is customary to bring beautiful offerings that by intention do not last long, showing the impermanence of all things.  Thus, some people bring cut flowers or flower petals (that wither soon), decorated candles (that
soon burn out) or incense sticks (that rapidly turn to ash). 

In almost all Buddhist traditions, people celebrate with items that fly, as representative of the freedom of the spirit brought by the Buddha's teachings. Among the most common of these practices comes with flying kites and with hanging paper lanterns that move in the wind. Many traditions fly special flags. Releasing birds is also practiced in many traditions.

Bathing the infant Buddha

Another common practice shared across many different traditions is the washing of an image of the Buddha as a baby standing with one hand pointing up and one hand pointing down. Worshippers place the baby Buddha statue on an raised altar inside of a basin or large bowl. They then pour water or tea from a ladle symbolically washing the baby Buddha.

Because this is a point of common misunderstanding, it should be emphasized here that images of the Buddha, though treated with great reverence, are not idols but simply representations of the Buddha. These statues and images are not seen as deities themselves.

Many Buddhists traditionally wear white as a part of the holiday as well. It is also customary to eat only vegetarian meals on Vesak for those who otherwise are not vegetarian.

An important aspect of Vesak is to express happiness and especially to bring happiness to those who may be unhappy.  This involves giving donations or doing special things for the sick and the elderly. It is
also traditional to decorate the temples with things of beauty and with scenes of the life of the Buddha, which are supposed to bring happiness to all who see them.

As always, this is my own summary of a religious tradition. I welcome your input.

Happy Vesak!

Want to Learn More?

"The Birth of the Buddha: Legend and Myth," About.com Buddhism:  http://buddhism.about.com/od/buddha/a/birthofbuddha.htm

“The Life of the Buddha,” Souled Out.org., http://souledout.org/wesak/storybuddha.html
"The Significance of Vesak: Buddha Day," (The Venerable) Mahinda, Buddhanet: http://www.buddhanet.net/vesak.htm

"Vesak or Visakah Puja," Buddhist-tourism.com, http://www.buddhist-tourism.com/buddhist-festivals/vesak.html

"What is Vesak Day and Why Celebrate It?" James Ure, The Buddhist Blog: http://thebuddhistblog.blogspot.com/2007/04/what-is-vesak-day.html

Photo and Clip Art Credits

Buddha Altar, US Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado: My own photo

Tian Tan Big Buddha, Hong Kong: My own photo

Monks celebrating Vesak at United Nations, 2006: http://www.worldzen.org/vesak.php

Birth of the Buddha panel painting, Jogyesa Temple, Seoul: My own photo

Bathing the infant Buddha: http://www.palyulph.org/teachings.htm

No comments:

Post a Comment