Today in Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Laos and Indonesia, thousands of devout Buddhists will spend the day cleaning their homes, lighting candles, decorating temples with Buddhist flags and flocking to monasteries to make merit. That’s because today in parts of Asia (and earlier in May in China, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Myanmar) is one of the region’s most important religious and cultural holidays. For local Buddhists, Vesak Day is perhaps one of the most important dates on the calendar – a little like Christmas for Christians or Ramadan for Muslims. But for the uninitiated, the festivities across Asian countries has some of us asking, “What is Vesak Day?”
Before you set off to really discover what Vesak Day is all about in Asia, these are the 5 most important things you should know about this holiday – and what it means to Buddhists in this part of the world.
What does Vesak Day celebrate?
Vesak Day (called Visakha Bucha in Thailand, Phat Dan in Vietnam and Waisak Day in Indonesia) is sometimes referred to as Buddha Day or Buddha’s Birthday, because it celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see images and statues of a rather young-looking Buddha in shrines and temples, distinct from the adult versions you’ll often see the rest of the year. Most of the time, this statue of newborn Buddha is pointing up to “the Truth”, and is an important symbol of Buddha’s journey that guides Buddhist teachings.
Vesak Day is important to Buddhists because it celebrates one of the single most important journeys in a Buddhist’s life – the path to enlightenment. Vesak Day celebrates that journey and all of the teachings that go with it.
Why is so important about Enlightenment?
What’s possibly the most interesting thing about Buddha is how his story begins as a fairly normal man. He was born sometime between 400 and 560 BC, and when he turned 30, he set off to wander for years as a “Holy Man”, which meant he did little more than meditate and rely on the kindness of strangers for food. During this journey, he experienced his “Enlightenment” beneath a Bodhi tree. Here he devised the Four Noble Truths (the causes of human suffering), and the Noble Eightfold Path (the solutions to that suffering). That path, he said, was simple – and if devout Buddhists followed it, they could relieve themselves of all suffering and reach Nirvana like he did.
Enlightenment, therefore, is a lot more important than simply a period of understanding for the Buddha – it was the beginning of Buddhism’s most important teachings.
What’s an Eightfold Path?
Even beginners to the religion might know a bit about Buddhism’s Eightfold path, but may not know they do. Buddhism is reliant upon 8 different elements to reach enlightenment: Understanding, Thought, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration. Simply put, the “right” path for each of them dictates that devout Buddhists must have a sincere understanding of how things really are (Understanding); let go of material desires (Thought); be kind when they speak (Speech); live in a peaceful and honourable way (Action); work in an industry that harms nothing and no one (Livelihood); cultivate wholesome qualities and avoiding greed, anger and ignorance (Effort); and understand the benefits and importance of breathing and meditation (Mindfulness and Concentration).
These are the pillars of Buddhism that Vesak Day celebrates – which is why Vesak Day is widely celebrated as a day for meditation and worship to reaffirm their devotion to these teachings. This is also why you’ll find many locals in devoutly Buddhist countries are so hospitable!
What do Buddhists do on Vesak Day?
Many Buddhists will spend Vesak Day enjoying food with their families, but they’ll skip the meat today. Since monasteries and temples are usually no more than a stroll down the road in countries where Vesak Day is celebrated, many Buddhists will also spend Vesak Day visiting monasteries and listening to monks’ lessons. Those in Western countries might think Vesak Day celebrations are a lot like Christmas or Hannakuh!
Where should I go on Vesak Day?
In Thailand and Malaysia, Vesak Day also means a time for bigger celebrations, and parades aren’t uncommon! In countries where bigger celebrations aren’t as common, heading to nearby Buddhist temples are even more colourful and fascinating than usual – you’ll see more flowers and Buddhists flags decorating places of worship than usual. When it isn’t sunny (either in the early morning or evening), candles are popular since they are a symbol for Enlightenment. Incense, too, is popular during Vesak Day, so you might find the streets smelling sweeter than usual.
No matter where you are during Vesak Day in Asia, keep an eye out for the iconic image of baby Buddha, which is one of the most distinctive elements of Vesak Day celebrations.
Experience Vesak Day for yourself in Asia, on a customised journey! Explore Laos, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or Myanmar for Vesak Day – or discover even more on a Buddhism-focused tour in Cambodia.