Vesak – also spelled Wesak - (pronounced way-sak) has come to be known as Buddha day. Vesak, which is named for the month of May, is generally acknowledged as the most important holiday of the Buddhist year.
In many ways similar to Christmas in the Christian faith, Vesak is a celebration that commemorates the Buddha’s birth. Additionally, in the United States Vesak has become an occasion for a common celebration to unite all Buddhist traditions and schools: Asian and non-Asian, immigrant and convert, Theravadin and Mahayana.
This year a majority of Buddhists will celebrate Vesak on May 9th; however, in any given year the exact date of Vesak varies according to the differing lunar calendars used in the various traditions.
Vesak day is a time to honor the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (his disciples) . . . and to rededicate one’s self to the Buddha’s teachings and to practice.
Much as there is no one universal way in which Christmas is celebrated, the ways in which Buddhist’s celebrate Vesak vary widely. In most cultures, devotees are directed to make a special effort to avoid killing of any kind and to partake of only vegetarian food. Additionally, simple gifts are often exchanged on Vesak day . . . and gifts to the disadvantaged are particularly encouraged. Visits are often made to orphanages, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, blood banks, and other places of need.
While not necessarily universal, here are a couple of practices which we found particularly engaging:
In some traditions thousands of birds, insects and animals are released in a “symbolic act of liberation” – giving freedom to those being held in prisons or otherwise being held captive against their will.
Some temples display a small statue of the baby Buddha in a basin which is decorated with flowers and filled with water. In what serves as both a reenactment of the events following the Buddha’s birth and as a symbolic personal cleansing of bad karma, practitioners pour water over the statue.
Traditional Greeting: Happy Vesak! Happy Buddha Day!
Adherents.com places the number of Buddhists at 376 million and ranks Buddhism sixth, based on number of adherents, among the world’s religions.
On Vesak day, all Buddhists are reminded to live in harmony with people of other faiths and to respect the beliefs of other people as the Buddha had taught. On this, the most important celebration of the Buddhist year, we suggest that we each join with our Buddhist brothers and sisters in reminding ourselves to live in harmony with, and to respect those, whose beliefs differ from our own.
Shalom Salaam Peace Kay & Dave Corby, FoundersCommon Tables