Vesākha, Wesak or Vesak is a holy day observed traditionally by Buddhists in Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and the ASEAN countries of Singapore, Viet Nam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Sometimes informally called “Buddha’s Birthday”, it actually commemorates the birth, enlightenment (nirvāna), and death (Parinirvāna) of Gautama Buddha.
The exact date of Vesākha varies according to the various lunar calendars used in different traditions. In Theravada countries following the Buddhist calendar, it falls on a full moon Uposatha day, typically in the 5th or 6th lunar month. Vesākha Day in China and Korea is on the eighth of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. The date varies from year to year in the Western Gregorian calendar, but usually falls in April or May. In leap years Vesākha is celebrated in June.
In Cambodia, monks, young and old, take to the streets with flags, candles, incense and lotus flowers as they commemorate Visak Bochea. Cambodian Buddhists also take part in the almsgiving ritual to the monks and the needy. Visak Bochea is a public holiday in Cambodia.
Waisak, a public holiday in Indonesia, will be celebrated on May 25, 2013. Indonesian Buddhists take sacred water from springs, particularly those from Jumprit in Temanggung, and light an eternal flame at Mrapen in Grobogan. In keeping with Buddha’s dharma, the faithful also participate in the alms-giving ritual and meditate at the height of the full moon.
Vixakha Bouxa festival is the Lao version of the Thai Visakha Puja, which it closely resembles. It commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, which are all said to have happened on the same date. It is held around the month of May or Vesak, based on the lunar calendar. Celebrations include dances, poems, parades, processions, deep meditation, theatrical performances, and puppet shows.
Although only 20% of Malaysians are Buddhists, Hari Wesak is celebrated in Malaysia at dawn when the faithful congregates at Buddhist temples to meditate on the precepts of Buddhism. Aside from fulfilling this spiritual obligation, Malaysians also offer food to the monks and the needy, light incense and joss sticks, and offer flowers and say prayers at the temples, while the monks, wearing saffron robes, chant the sutras (Buddhist text) in chorus. Hari Wesak, a national public holiday in Malaysia, concludes with a candle procession. Vegetarian meals are usually served on this day, while monks observe a vegetarian diet on the days preceding Hari Wesak. The day falls on May 24, 2013.
The Full Moon of Kason, as Vesak is called in Burma, is celebrated by watering the Bodhi tree (an old, sacred fig tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment). The water-pouring ceremony is preceded by theatrics, recitation of poems venerating Buddha, and the chanting of Paritta verses. In bigger pagodas, the rites are accompanied by music and dance numbers and agape. This day is a public holiday in Myanmar.
Buddhism is a minor religion in the Philippines, mostly practiced by Chinese Buddhists. Although not a public holiday in the country, Vesak, or Araw ni Buddha, is observed by Buddhist adherents by meditating on Buddhist precepts, eating vegetarian meals, and bathing Buddha’s relics.
A good 42.5% of Singaporeans are Buddhists, so Hari Wesak, as Vesak is called in Singapore, is a national public holiday. Singaporean Buddhists visit the temples to pray, meditate on Buddha’s dharma (teachings) and show an act of generosity towards the needy and the monks. Singaporean Buddhists also perform the ceremonial release of caged birds and animals to signify a release of oneself from past sins. The day caps off with a candlelit procession, particularly in Chinatown. Young Buddhists even organize mass blood donations at hospitals on this day. In 2013, Hari Wesak falls on May 24.
As a predominantly Buddhist country (with 90% of the population as adherents of the faith), Thailand considers Visakah Puja or Wisakha Bucha, a public holiday. Buddhists give alms to monks, normally in the morning, and prepare for light-waving ceremonies at night. In between, the relics of Buddha are taken out of their shrines for a special bath and public veneration, and the faithful gather at the temples to make merits and offer flowers. Monks chant sacred hymns in Buddhist temples, and some even join the celebrations at Borobudur (in Java, Indonesia). The Royal Family usually attends ceremonies in various Thai provinces, while the rest of the Buddhist faithful offer food to the monks or attend Dharma lectures and view Buddhist exhibits in the cities. Lanterns made of paper and wood are released along with caged birds as a symbol of giving freedom to those who have been held against their will, and on a more personal level, to release oneself of past sins. Visakah Puja falls on May 24 in 2013.
Phat Dan or Vesak in Viet Nam is considered a working holiday. Vietnamese Buddhists commemorate Buddha’s Birthday in pagodas outside Hanoi by pouring scented water on Buddha’s relics. Bathing the statue with sacred water is a Vesak tradition.