Commonly called ‘Buddha’s Birthday’, Vesak is actually the celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha and, unlike the birth and death of Christ, is celebrated as one occasion.
Buddhism is one of Southeast Asia’s major religions, second to Islam which is predominant in Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. As such, major Buddhist holidays like Vesak, is widely celebrated in various Southeast Asian countries.
The dates of celebration however differ from country to country depending on what calendar that particular country uses (traditional, lunar or luni-solar). Buddha himself left instruction on how this day should be commemorated, and the highlights of this celebration are in keeping with his instruction, although minor variations can be seen from one country to another. For Buddha, paying homage to him and to his teachings does not just end in almsgiving, burning incense and chanting prayers, but in living noble and introspective lives that are filled with loving kindness and peace.
This is how Southeast Asia observes “Buddha’s Birthday”
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 20 in 2016.
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 21, 2016.
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 2016, Hari Wesak falls on May 21.
Waisak, a public holiday in Indonesia, will be celebrated on May 22, 2016. 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.
Phat Dan or Vesak in Veitnam 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.
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.
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 is observed by Buddhist adherents by meditating on Buddhist precepts, eating vegetarian meals, and bathing Buddha’s relics.