Vesak: The most important Buddhist holiday
Around the globe, Buddhists celebrate the most important full moon of the year this weekend. Full moon days always have a special place in the Buddhist calendar. However, once a year there is a very special full moon: Vesak. On this day, Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. This special holiday falls on a different date each year, always on the first full moon day of the fourth month in the Gregorian calendar. This year Vesak is on May 19, 2019.
Siddharta Gautama, the future Buddha, was born around 563 BC. in the Kingdom of the Shakyas in Lumbini, in the south of today's Nepal on the full moon day of the month Vesakha in the lunar calendar. His parents were Duke Suddhodana and his wife Maya, who died seven days after giving birth. They called their son Siddhartha, which means "The one who has reached his goal". Gautama means "leader of the flock" and stands for the adherence to the Gautama clan.
Shortly after Siddhartha's birth, the king's wise men prophesied that his son would become either a great ruler or a holy man. Consequently, his father tried to prevent Siddharta from getting in touch with religion and the suffering of the people because he wanted his son to be his successor.
The young Siddhartha grew up sheltered and protected in wealth and luxury. At the age of 16, he was married with his cousin, Princess Yasodhara. At the age of 29, shortly after the birth of his only son Rahula, he left his palace to go for a walk and for the first time saw the suffering of the people. On four different excursions, he saw four signs each: an old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic. Therefore, he decided to leave his comfortable life behind and search for a solution to the suffering of the world.
For almost six years, he lived a life of utter renunciation and extreme self- mortification in the valley of the Ganges as a disciple of Brahmin hermits until he nearly died of starvation and realised that such suffering could not lead to what he was looking for. Eventually, he gave up the life of the ascetic as well and became a religious wanderer without strict renunciation. From then on, he followed his own path, the Middle Way, also known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Determined to only getting up again once he attained enlightenment, he sat down under the foot of the Bodhi Tree and meditated.
On the full moon day of the month Vesakha, after 49 days of meditation under the Bodhi Tree, he attained enlightenment (Nirvana) at the age of 35 and became the highest Buddha, an "awakened one." As Siddhartha Gautama, Gautama Buddha, or simply the Buddha, he made history.
Soon after his enlightenment, he gave his first lecture in the game park at Isipatana. As a result, five ascetics decided to become his first disciples. In the following years, his teachings attracted many more followers. During his 45 years of activity, the Buddha travelled through the north of India, teaching about the suffering of life, the
cause of suffering, how to put an end to suffering, and gain inner peace and enlightenment.
At the age of 80, the Buddha embarked on his last journey with Ananda, his cousin and beloved disciple, and several other followers to Kushinagar. There are several reports of the cause of his death. Some say that he had food poisoning, according to others; it was simply due to old age.
One of the stories tells that, just before his death, the Buddha silently held a lotus flower in his hand in front of the gathered monks. None of the monks – except one – understood the meaning of this gesture. However, Mahakashyapa smiled, expressing the quality of his inner essence. The Buddha finally declared that all his wisdom and spirit had thus passed to Mahakashyapa. This set the wheel (Dharma) of the Buddhist teachings in motion. Mahakashyapa became the first of a number of Buddhist patriarchs. This is the founding myth of Zen Buddhism.
One last time, the Buddha preached to his disciples, and then, on the full moon day of the month of Vesakha, he attained Paranirvana, i.e. he entered into the last Nirvana.
Throughout Asia, the holy relics of the Buddha were spread between monuments known as stupas. These monuments are regarded as the living presence of the Buddha. These holy places became sites of pilgrimage, to which Buddhists from all over the world come to honour the Buddha.
The full moon in May – a worldwide holiday
The full moon day in May is the most important holiday of Buddhism, which commemorates the life and work of the Buddha. The Vesak Festival is an annual holiday celebrated in the following Asian countries: China, Tibet, Japan, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, South and North Korea, Cambodia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India.
In recognition of the Buddhist contribution to the World Heritage, Vesak was declared an International Holiday by the UN General Assembly in 1999. Buddhists around the world celebrate Vesak in different ways. The exact date of the Vesak Day depends on the lunar calendars used in each country and tradition. For example, in China, Hong Kong and Macau, Vesak Day is celebrated on the 8th day of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. In Japan, Vesak is always celebrated on April 8 and is based on the Gregorian calendar.
How is Vesak celebrated?
Buddhists celebrate these historically significant events by going to monasteries on Vesak Day, giving alms to the poor and practicing meditation. Many Buddhists fast on this holy full moon day. Animals must not be slaughtered on Vesak Day. It is even a tradition to release animals. Furthermore, Vesak is celebrated with Puja prayer rituals and processions to honour the Buddha Siddharta Gautama. Monks chant the Holy Scriptures, conduct meditations and give lectures on the topics of the Vesak Festival.
In addition, many Buddhist temples throughout Southeast Asia offer free meals and tea to all visitors to celebrate Buddha's birthday. The international Buddhist flag is also raised in many places, in honour of the Buddha and as a sign of the unity of all Buddhists worldwide.