Rituals of the World – Vesakh (Buddha´s birthday)

Unity in diversity

Vesakh is celebrated with large processions according to the lunisolar calendar.
Vesakh is celebrated with large processions according to the lunisolar calendar.

Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on different days, depending on the country, but nevertheless the festival unites Buddhists all over the world.

Great spiritual teachers leave behind a body of work that becomes variously construed and interpreted over generations. And at the latest when their teachings spread worldwide, the feast days they establish – or which are held in their honor – are celebrated on different days, also partly because varying calendars are used. Just think of the Christian feast of Easter, the date of which Orthodox churches calculate differently from Catholics and Protestants.

It’s exactly the same for Buddha’s birthday celebrations. This most meaningful of Buddhist feasts is always celebrated in the spring, in 2019 between May 12 in China and June 17 in Bhutan. For the purposes of this blog we will use the date determined by the UN: The first full moon day in May, which is the 19th this year, on which the celebration is held, for instance, in Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia as well as many Western countries. And although the feast day is known by a host of different names, here we will use the most well known of these: Vesakh. The range of rituals that various people perform to celebrate this day is also very broad. And that’s not at all surprising, as after all, three important events are commemorated on that day: The birthday, the enlightenment, and the death of Siddharta Gautama, whose honorary title “Buddha” means “the awakened one” and lends its name to Buddhist teaching. Buddha’s life in the 6th and 5th centuries BC – and his development from a pampered young nobleman to an itinerant preacher – has been handed down in numerous legends. The places of his ministry in northern India are highly revered. Here, as in the countries that Buddhism later reached, both doctrine and legends were also based on older religious rites and traditions.

Artfully designed lanterns cast an enchanting light into the night.
Artfully designed lanterns cast an enchanting light into the night.

Bathing the Buddha

On Vesakh it is a widely practiced custom to give generously to Buddhist monks, who first decorate their monasteries in a festive manner. In Indonesia, thousands of monks circumambulate important temples, reciting mantras as they walk. Buddhists in South Korea celebrate the enlightenment of Siddharta Gautama in nighttime processions with lanterns. In some countries, his charity and respect for all living creatures is demonstrated by purchasing songbirds and other small animals, which are then released from their cages into freedom. The custom of pouring a small amount of liquid over small Buddha statues also varies from one region to the next. In Taiwan, for example, they use clear water, whereas in Japan they prepare a special sweet tea made of hydrangeas for the occasion.

Ritual with tradition: numerous lights should bring something good into the dark world and thus show respect for Buddha.
Ritual with tradition: numerous lights should bring something good into the dark world and thus show respect for Buddha.

The gift of freedom

Although calendars, dates, names, and customs differ greatly, the feast day has a unifying character for Buddhist congregations worldwide. In many places, the international Buddhist flag is hoisted on Buddha’s birthday. And even in North Korea, where the Buddhist community is only a very small minority, the feast day is respected as an official public holiday.

Vesakh stands for the idea of unity in diversity, which is quite a modern thought, coming as it does from teachings that are two-and-a-half thousand years old. And that’s what makes it a very special ritual, too.

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