By PANDITHA BANDARA
VAISAKHA or Vesak is the name used for the second month in traditional Moon Calendar (lunar calendar) which corresponds with the month of May in the Gregorian Calendar (solar calendar).
On full moon day in the month of Vesak (May) all Buddhist countries celebrate Vesak and the media publishes reports of the festivities complete with colourful pictures. Non-Buddhists who read these reports have no clear idea about this event. The purpose of this article is to provide a complete account of Vesak festival to The National readers.
Vesak is a Pali language word and Visakha is a Sanskrit word. These are two languages used in ancient India. Buddha Jayanthi, Buddha Purnima and Buddha Day are the other names used by different countries and cultures.
On Vesak Day Buddhists celebrate three major events in life of the Buddhha; his birth, his attainment of Enlightenment and his passing into Nirvana. All these three events occurred on Full Moon Day in the month of Vesak.
A prince was born in Nepal on Vesak full moon day to the Queen Mahamaya and King Suddhodana and was named Siddhartha (meaning he who has accomplished his objectives) Gautama ( family name) who became Buddha. This happened over 2,500 years ago.
Siddhartha Gautama is the lay name of Lord Buddha. During his infancy, the sage Asita visited the king’s court and had prophesied that Siddhartha would become either a great ruler like his father if he remained within his father’s palace or a Buddha if he went out into the world. His father King Suddhodana believed that if his son observed human misery in the world, Siddhartha would leave his home of luxury to seek for truth.
Sheltered from the world
The king naturally wanted his son to inherit his throne and kingdom after his death. So he issued strict orders to his servants that the young prince was to be kept from seeing any form of evil or suffering.
The prince’s father sheltered him from the outside world confining him to the palace. He was brought up in a palace with all its comforts and luxuries. The king in fact built separate palaces for different seasons.
According to custom, at the age of 16, Siddhartha married princess Yasodhara and lived his life with pleasure and wealth. One day Siddhartha decided to elude the royal attendants and was able to leave his father’s palace where he rode his chariot four times through the city. During his journey He saw an old man, a person suffering from a disease, a dead man, and an ascetic (shaven monk).
Going outside he saw for the first time that there was great suffering among the people. He realised from his observations that life was full of sorrows and that happiness was an illusion. It was from these sights of suffering that he became deeply distressed.
He decided to leave the luxury of palace life and begin a quest to find the answer to the problem of pain and human suffering. It was the night on which his wife Yasodhara gave birth to their son Rahula. By that time Siddhartha was 29 years old.
In search of truth
On this night he decided to abandon his family and kingdom compelled to seek the truth that was hidden from him all his life. He took his faithful servant and his devoted horse to the forest, where he shaved off his hair and changed his robes in search of wisdom and enlightenment.
The next six years Siddhartha lived an ascetic life. He studied under several teachers and fasted, meditated using the words of various religious teachers as his guide. He thought fasting would enable him to become enlightened about life and death. Fasting did not seem to help his quest.
He later realised that neither fasting nor self-indulgence would help him find the meaning of life. Siddhartha encouraged people to follow a path of balance instead of one characterised by extremism. He called this path the Middle Way.
This realisation is known as the enlightenment. That night, Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree, vowing to not get up until the truths he sought came to him, and he meditated until the sun came up the next day.
He remained there for several days, purifying his mind, seeing his entire life, and previous lives, in his thoughts. And soon a picture began to form in his mind of all that occurred in the universe, and Siddhartha finally saw the answer to the questions of suffering that he had been seeking for so many years. In that moment of pure enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.
Four Noble Truths
At age 35 in the month of Vesak on Full Moon Day he discovered the Four Noble Truths, which became known as the wisdom of realisation. Gautama then became known as Buddha, the “enlightened one.” Buddha is not a name it means “Enlightened One”. The Four Noble Truths- the heart of the teaching of Buddha are as follows.
The Noble Truth of suffering
The Origin or Course of suffering
The End or Cessation of suffering
The Path which leads to the cessation of all sufferings
Passage into Nirvana
After a successful ministry of 45 years the Buddha passed into Nirvana at the age of 80 on a Vesak Full Moon Day. In Buddhism, death is not the end of life; it teaches rebirth and differentiates it from reincarnation because Buddhism does not recognise a self or soul that is continually reappearing in a new form.
But for the enlightened who have extinguished all desire including the desire to be born again, there is no rebirth. So Buddhists don’t usually refer to Buddha’s death but to his passing, into Nibbana or Nirvana. Only by passing into Nirvana can a person end the cycle of death and rebirth.
Buddha’s body was cremated in Kushinagar in India and the relics were placed in monuments and pagodas. Some of them are on display in temples in many Buddhist countries even today.
Religion, philosophy and inner peace
For some, Buddhism is a religion. For others, it is a philosophy, while others practice Buddhism to find themselves and experience inner peace. Buddhism is practiced worldwide. In fact, it is believed that as many as 535 million people around the world practice this religion, which would represent between 8 and 10 per cent of the world’s total population. This means it is the fourth largest religious group in the world. Nearly 99 per cent of Buddhists are located in the Asia – Pacific region.
Vesak Day celebrations vary from country to country and culture to culture. Sri Lanka, India, Japan, Singapore, China, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mongolia, Philippines, South Korea, North Korea, Vietnam are leading Buddhist countries that celebrate Vesak. It is a holiday for many Buddhist countries.
The first conference of The World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950, resolved to declare Vesak Full Moon day as a public holiday in honour of the Buddha.
In Malaysia Vesak Day is celebrated by washing a statue of Buddha. They believe this ritual will cleanse their souls and purify them. They say prayers and end their celebrations with a vegetarian meal.
Decorated floats carrying a large statue of Buddha along the streets is also part of the celebrations. People walk beside the floats carrying flowers and candles.
China is home to 255 million Buddhists. For them it is Buddha’s birthday and celebrated in temples by making offerings to monks and lighting incenses including bathing the Buddha statue. This is a common practice in Japan and Taiwan as well. Japan is home for 84 million Buddhists.
Sri Lankan Buddhists
Like many other countries most of the Vesak activities in Sri Lanka revolve around Buddhist temples.
In temples devotees worship, spend time in listening to religious discussions and talks by monks, observing the eight percepts, offer flowers, light oil lamps and burn incense.
Temples, houses and streets are draped with colorful Vesak paper lanterns. They are illuminated by lamps at night. Buddhist flags also hang in public places, houses and temples.
In Sri Lanka Vesak pandals (illuminated picture stories) are erected many parts of the cities. Vesak pandals depict scenes from Lord Buddha’s former life or teachings. Buddhists generally wear a white dress to go to the temple and participate in religious ceremonies.
On this day, alms giving plays an important role. It symbolises sharing. Groups of volunteers or welfare societies get together and offer food, drinks, coffee etc., freely for the people who are visiting temples and to watch Vesak decorations in cities. Singing Vesak devotional songs is also another feature of the festival. Well trained singing groups get into a float and sing devotional songs throughout the night in every street of the cities. During the Vesak Festival week, the selling of alcohol and meat is usually prohibited, with abattoirs also being closed.
The United Nations General Assembly accepted the importance of Vesak and in 1999 by its resolution acknowledged that Buddhism as one of the oldest religions in the world contributing to the spirituality of humanity for over two and half millennia. It is commemorated annually at the United Nations headquarters and UN Offices.
The 2019 Vesak or the 16th United Nations Day of Vesak was celebrated at the Tam Chue Buddhism Centre, in Vietnam from May 12 -14. The Vesak 2019 celebration has the theme ‘Buddhism’s Approach to Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Sustainable Societies’ and was chaired by the Vietnam Buddhist Sanga in co-coordination with the International Council for the Day of Vesak.
Around 1,500 foreign Buddhist leaders, scholars, researchers from 105 countries and territories together with heads of state and ambassadors and representatives of international organisations in Vietnam attended the event. Around 20,000 local and overseas Buddhists were also expected to attend.
- The writer is a senior lecturer of the University of Papua New Guinea.