Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and Death: How Wesak Is Celebrated Around The World

May 7 marks Wesak (or Vesak) Day, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha, a central figure in Buddhism. It is one of the most important days for Buddhists around the world. Unlike Christmas, which has a set date each year, Wesak falls on the full moon of the month of Vesakha according to the ancient Indian calendar, which is typically between April and May.

While Wesak is celebrated in many different ways, with some practices intertwined with the local culture, one common aspect of the festival is paying homage to Buddha and observing the Buddhist precepts of kindness to all living beings. As such, Buddhists will usually eat vegetarian food, go to temples to offer prayers, practice loving-kindness and donate to charity. Many temples around the world will also organise talks on dharma (the Buddhist equivalent of the gospel – ie Buddha’s teachings) and activities such as bathing the Buddha, a symbolic ritual which involves pouring water over a small Buddha statue to cleanse one’s sins.

MALAYSIA

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At 19.2% of the population, Malaysia has a significant number of Buddhists – and Wesak is considered a national holiday. During this time, temples are usually packed with devotees, who come together to donate to the needy and light candles, incense and joss sticks as offerings. The Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple – one of the most prominent Sinhalese Buddhist temples in Kuala Lumpur – turns into a bustling hive of activity on Wesak Day, as thousands converge to chant sutras together and pray for the wellbeing of all living beings. The highlight of the celebration is a large procession through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, with lighted floats of Buddha and the deities accompanied by devotees holding prayer candles.

NEPAL 

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Buddha was believed to have been born in Lumbini in Nepal, and every year, thousands of pilgrims gather at this pilgrimage site (as well as the surrounding Kathmandu Valley) on Buddha Jayanthi (Buddha’s birthday), to attend religious processions and chant Buddhist scriptures. Similar to other parts of the world, kind deeds and acts of charity are observed, such as donating food and clothes to the needy, providing financial aid to schools and monasteries, and taking part in blood donation drives. Some people dress in white (to symbolise purity), and observe a vegetarian diet.

SRI LANKA 

Piliyandala Vesak Thorana 2016
A Pandol for Vesak. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Varuna Harshana / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Wesak is a major event in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, with celebrations lasting for a week. The sale of alcohol and fresh meat is prohibited during this period. Aside from alms-giving and prayers, Wesak celebrations in Sri Lanka take on a slightly festive mood – with public displays of electrically-lit pandols (a temporary structure which illustrates stories from Buddhist scriptures) as well as colourful lanterns called Vesak kuudu hung along streets and in front of homes, to represent the light of the Buddha, Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community). There are also organisations and groups that go about singing bhakti gee, or Buddhist devotional songs, much like the Christian practice of carolling.

SOUTH KOREA 

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service/ CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

South Korea celebrates the birthday of Buddha, or ‘seokga tansinil’, on the 8th day of the 4th month in the Korean lunar calendar. Besides being a religious celebration, it is also very much cultural, with traditional performances, folk games, parades, and more. The world-famous Lotus Lantern Festival, which dates back over 1,000 years, is held in conjunction with seokga tansinil. Seoul hosts the largest event of its kind, featuring grand parades, floats with Buddhist figures and cultural icons such as dragons and phoenixes. Parade participants carry lotus-shaped lights (Buddha is often depicted seated on a lotus) – a symbol of purity and wisdom.

THAILAND 

Candle Light Vesak day ceremony at WatYai Chaimongkhol Temple, Ayudtaya, Thailand
Candle Light Vesak day ceremony at WatYai Chaimongkhol Temple, Ayudtaya, Thailand. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Leelaryonkul / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Another Buddhist-majority country, Thailand’s Wesak celebrations are massive. Many Thais are deeply devout (young men are encouraged to be ordained as monks for a certain amount of time as a rite of passage into adulthood) – so temples will usually be full of devotees offering prayers to gain ‘merits’ (in millennial terms – they’re kind of like a points system in Buddhism: do good stuff, get good merits, do bad stuff, get demerits) in order to accumulate good karma.

1 Wesak Day (in Thailand) 2007
Image via Wikimedia Commons – ผู้สร้างสรรค์ผลงาน/ส่งข้อมูลเก็บในคลังข้อมูลเสรีวิกิมีเดียคอมมอนส์ – เทวประภาส มากคล้าย / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

The Buddhism in Thailand is mainly of the Theravada branch (there are several differences between the two major branches namely Theravada and Mahayana), so devotees observe the Five Moral precepts according to the branch’s tradition – by refraining from harming living things or consuming intoxicating substances. Bars and clubs are closed during this period as a sign of respect.

INDONESIA 

Borobudur Temple on Vesak Day 2015
Waisak (as Vesak is known in Indonesia) celebrations at Borobudur. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Aditya Suseno / CC0

Indonesia once housed powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, with many ancient structures that have stood the test of time scattered across the region. One of these is Borobudur near the city of Yogyakarta, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. It is an important site for Indonesian Buddhists as well as pilgrims from around the world, who gather here for Wesak Day celebrations. Something unique to Indonesia’s Wesak Day celebrations is Pindapata, a ritual involving thousands of monks walking around the structure as well as on the streets, whilst praying to receive charity and blessings for the Indonesian people. Sky lanterns are also released into the night sky, which makes for a magical display against the backdrop of the full moon.

LAOS 

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The Rocket Festival being celebrated in Yasothon, Laos. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Takeaway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Wesak is known as Visakha Bouxa in Laos, where Buddhism is the predominant religion. As Visakha Bouxa falls during the transition between dry and wet season, Laotians celebrate it with Boun Bang Fay, or the Rocket Festival. Villages compete with each other to send large homemade rockets into the sky in an attempt to convince celestial being to send down rain. The rockets can be rather dangerous as they contain a large amount of gunpowder and can sometimes reach several hundred metres. The rocket launching is preempted by parades, musical shows and dance performances. These practices are also apparently quite prevalent in the northern Thai region of Isan.

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Locals performing as part of a street parade for the Yasothon Rocket Festival. Photo via Wikimedia Commons – Takeaway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

 

 

 

 

Visiting Senso-ji, Asakusa – Tokyo’s Oldest Buddhist Temple

Buddhism came to Japan very early – around the 6th century – and the archipelago is dotted with ancient shrines and temples. Unlike regions where the rise and fall of kingdoms have resulted in a change of the major religions (think the ancient Indonesian kingdoms which used to be Hindu, then Buddhist, and now Muslim), Buddhism in Japan has survived the influence of outside forces. Today, many Japanese practice either Shinto-ism or Buddhism, or a blend of both, as the principles tend to complement each other.

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One of Tokyo’s most important Buddhist temples, also its oldest, is the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. Completed in 645, it is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon, or Avalokitesvara, who is depicted as the female goddess Guanyin (the goddess of Mercy) in Chinese Buddhist beliefs.

The story of how the temple came to be goes that two fishermen found an Avalokitesvara statue while fishing near the river. The chief of their village built a shrine for it, and it slowly grew into a magnificent temple, with worshippers coming from far and wide. During the Tokugawa era, it was even proclaimed as the main temple for the Tokugawa clan.

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Entering from the South end, visitors will first pass through the outer gate guarded by two kami (Shinto deities) – Fujin and Raijin,gods of wind, lightning and storms – and the Buddhist gods Tenryu and Kinryu on the east and west, respectively.

The temple grounds house dozens of stalls selling everything from souvenirs and food to toys and clothes. After a long stretch, you will be greeted by the Hozomon, ie the ‘Treasure-House Gate’, or the inner gate before you enter Senso-ji’s main courtyard. Towering  two-storeys high with a wide berth, the structure is impressive to look at, and features giant lanterns hanging down each of the archways. We arrived right before a typhoon was forecasted for the night, so the main lantern had been rolled up and tethered for safety.

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The main temple is quite a sight, but what we’re seeing is actually a reconstruction – albeit a very accurate one. The original temple was bombarded by air raids during World War II,\ and much of the grounds and its buildings were destroyed. The roof, for example, is made from titanium, but retains its traditional architecture.

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Booths where you can get a fortune reading.

 

 

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Before entering the temple, you can cleanse yourself at a basin by scooping water up with a ladle. There is a proper way to do this with instructions written at the site, but I can’t recall – I think you’re supposed to wash your left hand, then your right, your mouth and finally the handle?

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The main hall, with the goddess Kannon in the centre. The original statue is kept hidden, similar to the one I visited in Nagano. You can make an offering by placing some coins in a large wooden container at the front, before paying your respects.

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SENSO-JI

2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan

Getting to Senso-ji 

The temple can be reached by the Tokyo Metro, by exiting at Asakusa Station. The temple is a one minute walk from the station. Alternatively, take the A4 Exit at Toei Asakusa Station, which will take you two minutes, or the Tobu Asakusa Station, which is 3 minutes away.

Opening hours (temple): 6AM – 5PM (Daily). Note: The temple grounds can be visited at any time.

 

Visiting The Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple In Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur

Many Buddhist temples in Kuala Lumpur follow the Chinese tradition, so it’s common to see cultural decorative elements such as dragons and phoenixes in its design. The Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple in Brickfields is more ascetic, so it might not be a draw for tourists – but it is still an interesting place to visit if you’re in the neighbourhood and want to learn more about Theravada Buddhism. If you come during major celebrations such as Wesak (Buddha’s Birthday), the place transforms into a colourful and bustling hive of activity.

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Established by the immigrant Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) community in the late 19th century, the temple now encompasses several buildings and shrines. Dharma classes and talks are held weekly, and vegetarian food is served at the canteen after.

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The main shrine in the middle of the compound. It used to be a striking red colour, but has since been painted over in white.

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Buddha statues and ornate decorative tiles adorn the walls.

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Modern building where events and classes are held.

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Free books and CDS (on meditation, dharma talks, etc.) on Buddhism are available in various languages.

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Another shrine houses a small museum of sorts. You can observe Buddha statues from different regions and the different art styles. The statues are accompanied by helpful information on the rise and establishment of Buddhism in countries such as India, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.

We were pressed for time so we didn’t get to visit a lot of places in Brickfields, but if you’re ever here, do visit the other religious abodes around the area as well, such as  St Mary of Theotokos (A Syrian Orthodox church), Sri Kandaswamy Kovil (Hindu temple), Church of Our Lady of Fatima (Catholic church) and Sam Kow Tong Temple (Chinese Buddhist temple).

BUDDHIST MAHA VIHARA TEMPLE 

123, Jalan Berhala, Brickfields, 50470 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur

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Walked to the Little India neighbourhood nearby and got a Henna tattoo for RM15!

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