The name Vesak is strongly connected with the date of the observance. It derives from the name of the lunar month of Vaisakha – the month of the Hindu calendar which is believed to be the month of Buddha’s birth. It corresponds to April/May in the Gregorian Calendar. Vesak is celebrated on the day of the full moon in that month. There is usually only one full moon in May, but it is also possible that there would be two. Some countries, such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia or Malaysia, observe Vesak on the first full moon then, while others, such as Thailand or Singapore – on the second.
There are different ways of celebrating Vesak. Most Buddhists assemble in their temples before dawn and sing hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, The Dharma (his teachings), and The Sangha (his disciples). The Buddhist flag is an important symbol of the observance. Some devotees bring simple offerings, such as flowers or candles. They are also encouraged to refrain from killing and become vegetarian for the day. Buddhists believe that Vesak is a great opportunity to give freedom to those in captivity or prison, and their ‘symbolic act of liberation’ in some countries is releasing birds, insects and animals by the thousands.
One of the most important aspects of celebrating Vesak is also making special efforts to bring happiness to others, especially those who are sick, handicapped or aged. This may include distributing gifts (also cash) or volunteering in charitable homes. Vesak is also a joyful time of concentrating on useful activities, such as decorating and illuminating temples. Buddhists believe that they need to pay homage to the Buddha not by offering him flowers or candles, but by truly and sincerely striving to follow the Dharma – the eternal truth of his teachings.
Although different Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore or India, have different ways of celebrating, Vesak has also become an international observance, declared as such by the UNESCO. The first Vesak celebration in the UN was observed on May 15, 2000. As the former UN Secretary-General said: ‘Peace, understanding and a vision of humanity that supersedes national and other international differences are essential if we are to cope with the complexities of the nuclear age. This philosophy lies at the heart of the Charter of the United Nations and should be prominent in all our thinking’. These words are the best conclusion and the reason why we should all, Buddhists or not, respect the observance of Vesak.
Did you know?
The most important system of morality for Buddhist people is called the Five Precepts. On Vesak Day, however, some Buddhists become determined to observe the eight precepts to train themselves. These include: to refrain from killing living beings, stealing, damaging speech, and to abstain from intoxicating drink or drugs, eating after midday or entertainment (dancing, singing, music etc.). One of the precepts is also abstinence of all sexual activity.
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