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Vesak: happy birthday, Buddha


Photo by Lac Phap licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

Vesak (say "VEE-sak") is the most important day in the Buddhist calendar. It’s a holiday that celebrates the birth of Buddha — the person who began the religion known as Buddhism. The day is also known as Wesak, Buddha Day, or Buddha Burmina. It’s celebrated on the day of the full moon in May, which lands on different days depending on where you live in the world.

How is it celebrated?

Buddha statue gets a ladle of water poured on him.
The "bathing Buddha" ritual uses fragrant water to bathe baby Buddha to wash away anger, greed and ignorance. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

People often prepare for the holiday by cleaning their homes and decorating them. Temples are also decorated with flowers. When Vesak arrives, Buddhists visit their temples. They bring offerings of food, candles and flowers to the monks who then chant, pray and teach lessons to all of those who have come to the temple that day. A special ceremony called “bathing the Buddha” also takes place on Vesak. During this ritual, people pour water over a statue of Buddha. It’s a way to show respect to Buddha for his teachings and it’s also a celebration of new beginnings.

Are there any other special traditions?

Indonesian Buddhists pray with candles on the street.
Indonesian Buddhists pray during a ceremony welcoming the holy month of Vesak in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

The holiday of Vesak also focuses on giving to others. For this reason, people take part in acts of charity. To help others, they donate money and gifts to those in need; this is seen as a way to spread happiness and consider others.

Do celebrations vary from country to country?

Boy stands and looks at lanterns on the eve of Vesak.
A boy looks at lanterns at a street on the eve of Vesak full moon day, or a day ahead of Buddha Purnima, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Depending on the country, there are a number of different traditions for Vesak. For instance, in Thailand and Indonesia, special lanterns are made from paper and wood and then they’re hung from houses and trees. In China, there is a tradition of creating large, colourful dragons that are carried through the streets in a parade and some countries release caged birds into the air to symbolize that all creatures should be free and happy.

What else should I know about Buddha?

Statue of Buddha in front of a bright green wall.
Buddha that sits at the entrance to Miami's Zen Village as members of the community celebrate Buddha's birthday. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

Buddha was born in 563 BC and was the son of an Indian king. He was originally named Siddhartha Gautama and he lived a priviledged life inside the walls of his family’s palace. After growing up and having a family, he decided to venture out beyond his palace walls. Along the way he saw people suffering from old age, sickness and death. This affected him so much that he decided to leave his life of comfort to become a holy man. Siddhartha wandered around ancient India for six years; he spent his time meditating and trying to find true happiness. His main goal in life was to find a way to end human suffering. One day while meditating under a fig tree, Siddhartha awoke filled with complete joy. This is when he became known as Buddha, which means Enlightened One. He began to teach about compassion and peace — these teachings have become the foundation of Buddhism.