Vesak is from the Sinhalese language for the Pali word, Vesākha. Vesākha is the name of the sixth month in the old Buddhist lunar calendar.  Although in the Indian national calendar, Vaisakha is the second month of the year. It corresponds to April/May in our Gregorian Calendar.

Vesak Day refers to a particular day in the month of Vesākha, the day of the full moon (Sanskrit, Purnima). The holiday has been officially celebrated since 1950, being formalized by the World Fellowship of Buddhists.

Phra Brahmagunabhorn explains its many names:

Vesak is also known, as: Buddha Pūrnima or Buddha Jayanti in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, Hanamatsuri in Japan, Seokka Tanshin-il in Korean, Fódàn (Mandarin), Fātdàahn (Cantonese) in Chinese-speaking communities, Phật Đản in Vietnamese, Saga Dawa in Tibetan, Visaka Bochea in Khmer, Visākha Puja in Thai, Waisak in Indonesia,Vesak (Wesak) in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, Vixakha Bouxa in Laos, and Ka-sone-la-pyae Myanmar.

So what is so special about Vesak Day? It commemorates three of the great events in the life of the historical Buddha. It celebrates Siddhattha Gotama’s (Sanskrit, Siddhārtha Gautama) birthday, full awakening into Buddhahood, and his passing away into final nirvana (Pali, parinibbāna). Some Mahayana sects celebrate the awakening and passing away on separate days.

As in the case of other religious teachers of antiquity, the Buddha’s birth is enshrouded in myth and legend, You can find these even in the Pali Canon. “As Buddhists,” writes K. N. Jayatilleke, “who have to believe only in things as they are, and therefore in verifiable historical truths, we are not obliged to believe in all these myths and legends.”

In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the Day of Vesak internationally. The UN did this to acknowledge the contribution that Buddhism has made to the spirituality of humanity. This day is commemorated annually at the UN Headquarters and other UN offices.

A Message from the former Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, to Buddhists on the Day of Vesak in May 1986 reads:

For Buddhists everywhere it is indeed a felicitous opportunity, while commemorating the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Guatama Buddha, to celebrate his message of compassion and devotion to the service of humanity. This message is today perhaps more relevant than ever before. Peace, understanding and a vision of humanity that supersedes national and other international differences are essential if we are to cope with the complexities of the nuclear age. This philosophy lies at the heart of the Charter of the United Nations and should be prominent in all our thinking, especially during this International Year of Peace.

The May 2022 full Moon will occur today, Monday, May 16th.

According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the Buddha’s birth and Awakening could have happened near May, but the passing away was more like February.

How to Celebrate

You may celebrate however you see fit. This is just how I celebrate Vesak.

First, clean the altar and the Buddha statue. Afterward, take a moment to quiet the mind. And then begin your private celebration.

Light a candle.🕯️

Giving Homage, 👄 say:

Homage to the Fortunate One, the Worthy One, the Fully Awakened Buddha.

Light incense.  🔥

Going for refuge, 👄 say:

I go to the Buddha for refuge.
I go to the Dharma for refuge.
I go to the Sangha for refuge.

A second time I go to the Buddha for refuge.
A second time I go to the Dharma for refuge.
A second time I go to the Sangha for refuge.

A third time I go to the Buddha for refuge.
A third time I go to the Dharma for refuge.
A third time I go to the Sangha for refuge.

Taking the five precepts, 👄 say:

I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.

Do seated meditation for 20 minutes. 🧘

Put the palms of the hands together and bow. 🙏

Send metta to all living beings, 👄 say:

May all beings be safe.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be free.

Read the Buddha’s first sermon. ☸️

Blow out the candle. 🕯️

The celebration has ended, now live the Dharma in mindfulness. 🚶

References

  • Dharmakosajarn, Phra. The Vesak Day: History, Significance and Celebrations. Ayutthaya, Thailand: Ahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University, 2010.
  • Jayatilleke, K. N. Significance of Vesak: The Wheel Publication No. 178. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1972.
  • The Pali-English Dictionary. T.W. Rhys Davids and William Stede, eds. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt Ltd, , 2008.
  • United Nations. “Vesak Day 16 May 2022.” United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/observances/vesak-day
  • Wikipedia contributors, “Vesak,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Vesak&oldid=1087839867 (accessed May 15, 2022).