Global Buddhists Unite in Celebration of Vesak, Honoring Buddha’s Birth

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Every year, to honor the birth of the prince who would become Siddhartha Gautama, a global celebration known as Vesak takes place. Often referred to as the “Buddha’s Birthday,” this most sacred of Buddhist holidays celebrates the birth of a child born near the turn of the 4th century BC who would eventually revolutionize spiritual thought and philosophy as the Buddha, or “the awakened one.”

Buddhists observe Vesak in varying ways, often shaped by cultural norms and the interpretative lens of different schools of Buddhism. Depending on the region or sect, the occasion is celebrated on differing dates. In many Asian countries, Vesak is traditionally observed on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunisolar calendar. This year, that date falls on May 15. Meanwhile, in several South and Southeast Asian countries, Buddhists commemorate the landmark occasion on the first full moon of May, which this year lands on May 23.

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In the midst of these worldwide celebrations, the devout eagerly await a lantern parade, one of the centerpiece festivities of the Buddha’s Birthday. Taking place at Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea, this vibrant event always falls on a Saturday, this year on May 11.

Buddhism weaves a rich tapestry of narratives on Siddhartha’s birth and life. His birthplace, in today’s Lumbini on the India-Nepal border, was where Queen Maya, wife of King Suddhodana of the Shakya clan, gave birth to him. According to Buddhist texts, an auspicious white elephant entered the queen’s womb in a dream when she conceived, foretelling the birth of a remarkable being. The stories paint a vivid picture of Siddhartha’s miraculous birth, how he was received by the gods Indra and Brahma, took his first seven steps immediately after birth, and received a purifying bath from heavenly beings.

The narrative continues with how Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodana, sheltered him from pain and suffering in an attempt to groom him for future kingship. Yet the prince’s isolated existence could only last so long. Confrontations with the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death prompted deep introspection, eventually moving him to engage in six years of ascetic practice. He finally attained spiritual awakening, or enlightenment, at 35 in Bodh Gaya in northeastern India.

Buddhists worldwide celebrate Vesak, not only as commemoration of the Buddha’s birth but as a profound opportunity to reflect on their faith and the teachings of the Buddha. Family homes and local temples, ornately adorned with lanterns, become the nucleus of these comprehensive celebrations in much of Asia where chanting, meditation, and festive meals mark this special day.

South Korea, where Buddha’s birthday is a national holiday, sees the zenith of the celebrations in a lotus lantern festival. Known as Yeondeunghoe, this parade lights up Seoul’s streets with thousands of colorful, lighted paper lanterns often shaped like lotus flowers. On Buddha’s birthday, many temples offer free meals and tea to all visitors. The day also features traditional games and various performing arts displays, festive scenes that symbolize the light of Buddha’s teachings.

While not an official holiday in North Korea, Buddha’s birthday has been observed since 1988 in its Buddhist temples. In China, the faithful perform a bathing ceremony, where a statue of the infant Buddha is bathed in blessed water. Meanwhile, in Japan, Buddha’s birthday is observed on April 8 and is marked with the flower festival or Hana Matsuri. In diasporic countries, like Malaysia and Sri Lanka, Vesak festivities are infused with local traditions when animals are set free for good karma and homes and streets are lit up with candles, lanterns, devotional songs, and even electric light displays. Regardless of how it is celebrated, Vesak remains a vital observance, reverently recalling the ennobling life and teachings of the Buddha.