Happy Vesak Day To You!
Vesak Day commemorates several special occasions in the life and also the past lives of Gautama Buddha. (pronounced veh-sah-k, the “k” is very soft) Generally speaking, Vesak day is considered to be the Buddha’s birthday, the day of his enlightenment and also the day he died. As a result, this is a very special day for Buddhists worldwide!
Vesak is derived from the Pali term Vesakha which is the name of a lunar month in the Hindu calendar. Furthermore, Vesakha day is the day of the full moon that falls during that particular month. Although Vesakha comes in April/May in the western calendar the specific day fluctuates annually due to the lunar cycle. In 2017 the day of the Vesak full moon came on May 10th in SE Asia.
Where Is Vesak Day A Formal Holiday?
Countries that formally celebrate Vesak Day include: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bhutan, Taiwan, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, South Korea, and India! Plus many other places worldwide. However, it was not formalized as a Buddhist holiday until 1950. Unfortunately, it is not certain why the special day was not internationally recognized at an earlier time. Nonetheless, in 1950 the World Fellowship of Buddhists held their first conference in Sri Lanka. As a result of the conference, Vesak is now formally recognized as an international holiday! However, Vesakha had been celebrated informally by Buddhists worldwide for many centuries.
The Special Significance of Vesak Day
The significant events in the life of Gautama Buddha that Vesak Day commemorates are more numerous than many people think. A comprehensive list will expose 3 additional events!
- Birthday – this is day that Gautama Buddha was born into this world as a human baby named Prince Siddhartha.
- Enlightenment – the Buddha also achieved enlightenment on the full moon of Vesak while meditating under the Bodhi tree.
- The Day He Died – Gautama Buddha concluded his mortal life on Vesak Day.
However, there are other events that are somewhat obscure but no less significant to Buddhists.
- The Hermit Sumedha – many eons ago on this same night, the hermit Sumedha vowed to free himself and all other sentient beings from suffering.
- Dipankara’s Confirmation – on Vesak Day the previous Buddha Dipankara, confirmed that Sumedha would succeed and that indeed another Buddha would arise.
- The Invitation of King Suddhodhanna – after the Buddha became enlightened his father King Suddhodhanna invited him to visit. As a result, the Buddha arrived at his parents home in Kapilavastu on the full moon day of Vesak. This event is not highlighted so much as the previously stated events, however it is a significant coincidence nonetheless!
Common Themes Venerated On Vesak Day
Mainly the 3 themes that are celebrated on Vesak Day are the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha. As a result, Buddha statues depicting these 3 moments in the Buddha’s life are commonly displayed during the annual festivities. The Vesak Day procession (known as Wesak Day) in Penang, Malaysia 2017 had several floats that displayed baby Buddha statues, meditating Buddha statues and also reclining Buddha statues.
Baby Buddha Statues
Commonly situated behind the baby Buddha statues is a statue of Gautama Buddha presumably reaching an enlightened state during meditation.
Nagas, Bodhi Trees and Lotus Flowers
In the following photo, note the leaves of the Bodhi tree which the meditating Buddha statue is placed under. In real life, the leaves of the Bodhi tree are heart shaped with the long tail protruding at the base. The Bodhi tree is commonly found throughout southern Asia and as a result realistic props for procession floats are easy to acquire!
Additionally, this procession display features a “naga” statue. A naga is a Buddhist deity that takes the form of a giant cobra. The cobra can be multi-headed or single headed as portrayed in the photo above. Known as Mucilanda, the naga is renown in Buddhist folklore for protecting the Buddha with it’s hood during a fierce thunderstorm. The naga in the preceding photo is depicted bathing the baby Buddha statue. Also of significance is that the baby Buddha statue is using a blossoming lotus flower as a pedestal. The lotus flower symbolizes the Buddha rising above earthly defilements to obtain enlightenment.
Although if appeared less frequently in the procession, a reclining Buddha statue was featured with the baby Buddha on one of the floats. The reclining Buddha statue symbolizes the Buddha’s last moments before he died. Additionally, the reclining statue’s posture always depicts the Buddha lying on his right side with his head resting on his right hand.
The State of Mind Called Beautiful by Sayadaw U Panditabhivamsa