What day do millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of an influential spiritual leader? Did you guess Christmas? Ok yes, but did you know there is other answers to this question as well? Vesak, also known as Wesak or Buddha Day, is one of the most important Buddhist holidays and commemorates the birth, enlightenment and nirvana of their founder the Buddha. Celebrated in the spring, it is a time to reflect on Buddha’s teachings and what it means to be a Buddhist.
Who Was Buddha?
Born in the 5th century BCE, Buddha was born as a prince Siddhartha Gautama in a kingdom located in modern day Nepal. After a sheltered and privileged childhood, he was exposed to life outside his palace walls and became acutely aware of the suffering all around him. It is taught that he rejected his title and his wealth and began a quest to understand the reason and remedy for this suffering.
After years living as a monk, wandering and studying, Siddhartha sat meditating under a Bodhi tree and is said to have attained enlightenment. (Buddha literally means The Enlightened One) After this experience, Buddha began to share his path to this enlightened state so others might follow and achieve this same awakening.
It is important to note that Buddha did not claim to be nor is he worshipped as a God. A Buddhist saying is “The finger that points to the moon is not the moon.” To followers Buddha and his teaching point the way. Buddhism sprung forth from the teachings of the Buddha and has guided millions of followers along the eight-fold path for centuries.
How Do Buddhist Celebrate Vesak?
Buddhism has many different sects and traditions reaching a very diverse multicultural following. It makes sense then that the celebration of Vesak varies depending on who you talk to and where they call home. I had the privilege to talk with Brother Jethro Lai a Buddhist living in the Metro Detroit area. A native of Taiwan, he shared with me briefly about how Vesak is celebrated in his community and what it means to him.
Called Fú Rì in Taiwan, many followers of Buddha wake early in the morning and travel to the temple. They light candles, lay flowers at the foot of Buddha, and chant prayers. The burning down of candles and the withering of flowers throughout the day are symbolic of the natural decay and death of all living things.
One of the most significant aspects of the holiday is the Bathing of the Buddha. Preformed in temples, shrines and in homes, this ceremony reminds invites devotees to make internal vows to cleanse the mind, heart, and spirit, moving forward with a clean slate. Followers strive to maintain pure awareness and keep their minds clean of impure thoughts throughout the ritual. This clarity of thought brings wisdom to make good judgements and awareness of the consequences of good or bad behavior.
Here is an example of a hymn offered during the bathing ceremony.
“I now bathe the Tathadata (Buddah). Purity, wisdom, majesty and ocean of merit. May all beings purify themselves from defilement and attain the Tathagata’s pure Dharmakaya (Buddha-nature), pure Dharmakaya, pure Darmakaya.”
Vesak is also a day devoted to spending time with family and friends and preforming good deeds such as caring for the poor and visiting the elderly.
There is much more to be said about this beautiful holiday and about the followers of Buddha. I especially appreciated learning about the Bathing of the Buddha which brought up thoughts of baptism in my own faith tradition and the weekly recommitment to that path through the ordinance of the Sacrament (similar to Communion or the Eucharist). These moments of renewal and reflection are important to me as I work to become better each day.
Thank you for sharing Brother Jethro and Happy Vesak to all who strive for enlightenment.