The true meaning of Vesak
Perhaps the best known date on the Buddhist calendar, familiar even
to non-Buddhists, is the thrice blessed day of “Vesak”. Vesak is the
name of the month in the ancient Indian calendar and it usually falls in
May though sometimes it may commence in the latter part of April or
extend to the early part of June. Vesak is derived from the original
Pali word “Vesakha” or Sanskrit “Vaishakha” .
In some countries it is also known as Buddha Day.
The decision to agree to celebrate Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday was
taken at the first Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB)
held in Sri Lanka in 1950. The resolution that was adopted at the World
Conference reads as follows:
“That this Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, while
recording its respectful appreciation of the gracious act of His
Highness the Maharaja of Nepal in making the full-moon day of Vesak a
Public Holiday in Nepal, earnestly requests the Heads of Governments of
all countries in which Buddhist communities are to be found, either
large or small, to take steps to make the full-moon day of the month of
May declared as Buddha Day and observed as a Public Holiday in honour of
the Lord Buddha, who is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest
benefactors of humanity.”
At subsequent Conferences of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, many
resolutions pertaining to the celebration of Vesak or Buddha Day were
also adopted. The WFB Conference held in Rangoon, Burma, in 1954, passed
the following resolution:
“That this Conference requests the Government of India to declare
Buddha Purnima Day (the full-moon day of the month of May) a Public
Holiday for the whole of India.”
The fourth World Conference of the WFB held in Nepal in 1956, also
adopted a similar resolution reading as follows:
“That the Government of Pakistan be requested to declare the thrice
sacred Vesak Purnima, the full-moon day of May, a Public Holiday every
year in future.”
At the sixth World Conference held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1961,
the conference resolved “That the first, full-moon day of May be
recognised as the “Buddha Day” and celebrated accordingly.”
In 1976, at the 11 Conference of the WFB held in Bangkok, Thailand,
the decision to fix a universal day to observe Vesak was again
reiterated by the adoption of the following resolution:-
“That the meeting felt that it was necessary to see that the
resolution to observe Vesak on one day should be implemented, hence the
Committee would like to recommend to the plenary session once again to
re-iterate the implementation of the resolutions passed by previous
Birth of a noble prince
Vesak Day holds special significance for the millions of Buddhists
who comprise a fifth of the world’s total population. In thousands of
temples across the world, from Tokyo in the East to San Francisco in the
West, Buddhists will pay homage to an Indian Prince who forsook the
pleasures of a royal household to bring peace and happiness to mankind.
The Buddha, or the Supremely Enlightened One was born in 623 B.C. on
a Vesak Full-Moon day. The young prince was named Siddhartha or “the one
who has brought about all good.” His parents, King Suddhodana and Queen
Mahamaya, ruled a small kingdom called Kapilavastu in Northern India.
It is said that when he was born, an ancient sage called Asita came
to visit him. The sage took the child in his arms and first smiled, then
wept. Questioned about his extraordinary behaviour, the sage explained
that he smiled because the child would one day become the Greatest
Teacher the world has ever known and he wept because he would not live
long enough to see the boy grow up.
Siddhartha Gautama was provided with all the worldly comforts that
could be provided in a royal palace. His parents shielded him from the
harsh realities of the outside world. He excelled in sports and showed a
very superior intelligence, but he was not satisfied with such fleeting
He was usually a meditative person. One day he noticed a frog about
to be swallowed by a snake. Just then an eagle swooped and flew away
with the snake and the frog in its mouth. This set him thinking: that
human life was the same whereby the stronger was constantly destroying
the weaker in never ending succession. This made him realise that
happiness could only be found when this battle for survival could be
One day, when he was outside the palace gates, he sighted an old man
bent with age, a sick man and a corpse. The young Prince was horrified
when he learnt that the human body, which was so well cared for in
youth, could be subjected to the ravages of age, disease and death. He
started to contemplate deeply and was determined to seek a panacea for
The Prince also saw an ascetic, dressed in simple clothes, but
glowing with the inner peace of one who had given up his worldly
passions. He was deeply impressed by the sense of happiness and calm
that the ascetic radiated.
Upon his return to the palace, the young Siddhartha, then aged 29
years, decided that he would give up all the temporal power that he was
heir to and seek answers to the questions that troubled him. What was
the cause of human suffering? What was the path to happiness?
He went to many teachers, but wise as they were, their wisdom was
limited. They could not help him to gain the Enlightenment that he was
seeking. So he decided to seek the path on his own. The struggle for
realisation of the truth took him six long years. One of the first
lessons he learnt was to seek the Middle Path: that is not to go
extreme. He felt that we should not indulge too much in worldly
pleasures or subject ourselves to extreme austerities. To calm the mind,
to gain purification, one must be moderate in all aspects.
Realisation of the Truths
He realised that man’s ignorance is the root of all misery. Man’s
clinging to an illusion of the ego creates desire to satisfy the concept
of self. The basis of His teaching is the Four Noble Truths; The first
is the Noble Truth of suffering. Life is filled with the miseries of old
age, sickness, death and unhappiness. People chase after pleasure, but
only end up with more suffering, pain and unsatisfactoriness. The second
is the Noble Truth on the cause of suffering. The third is Noble Truth
on the end of suffering. When desire is eliminated, suffering will
cease. And the fourth Noble Truth is the path which leads to the end of
Finally, on the 35th anniversary of his birth, again on the full-moon
day of Vesak, and seated under a Bo tree in Buddha Gaya, the ascetic
Siddhartha became the Buddha, the Fully Enlightened One. For the next 45
years, the Buddha travelled around Northern India, preaching His message
of Loving-Kindness for all beings and the realisation of the nature of
* Right Understanding
* Right Thought
* Right Speech
* Right Action
* Right Livelihood
* Right Effort
* Right Mindfulness
* Right Concentration
As with all other great religious teachers, the Buddha found
opposition to His teachings. But many saw the truth of His Teachings and
followed Him, learning how to lead a proper religious life and free
themselves from the misery of existence. Finally, after 45 years of
preaching, lying under two beautiful sal trees, before a large assembly
of monks, the Buddha passed away at Kusinara. This passing away is also
known as Maha Parinibbana or the attainment of ultimate peace and bliss.
This great event also occurred on the full-moon day of Vesak. The
Buddhist Era begins from the Maha Parinibbana - Passing away of the
Thrice Blessed Day
Hence on Vesak Day, Buddhists all over the world commemorate three
events: the Birth, Enlightenment and the Passing Away of Gautama Buddha.
As Buddhism spread from India to all parts of the world, the
teachings were readily assimilated with the cultures of the people who
accepted the teachings.
As a result, Buddhist art and culture took on a rich variety of forms
with profound gentleness and kindness as the Buddha expressly forbade
the use of force. The practice of Buddhism was adapted in many ways to
suit the nature of the various cultures that accepted it.
As a result of this, Vesak is celebrated in many different ways all
over the world. But in essence many practices have become universal. It
is most important to remember that this sacred day is purely and simply
a religious festival and not a festive occasion for feasting, drinking
On this day all Buddhists are expected to reaffirm their faith in the
Buddha Dhamma and to lead a noble religious life. It is a day for
meditation and for radiating loving kindness.
On Vesak day, devout Buddhists are expected to assemble in various
temples before dawn for the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist Flag and
the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: the Buddha,
Dhamma (His Teaching), and Sangha (His disciples).
Devotees may bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and
joss-sticks to lay at the feet of their great teacher.
These symbolic offerings are to remind one that just as the beautiful
flowers would wither away after a short while and the candles and
joss-sticks would soon burn out, life is subject to decay and
destruction in similar manner as the flowers, candles and joss-sticks.
Devotees are advised to make a special effort to refrain from killing
of any kind. They are encouraged to partake of vegetarian food for the
day. In some countries, notably Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for
the celebration of Vesak and all liquor shops and slaughter houses are
closed by government decree during the two days.
Birds and animals are also released by the thousands in a symbolic
act of liberation, of giving freedom to those who are in captivity.
However, it is not recommended that birds be released in the heart of
crowded cities, because by doing so we may cause harm to the poor
bewildered birds which are unable to fly far after a long period of
Unscrupulous bird dealers would recapture such birds for resale to
well meaning devotees. If birds are to be released it is recommended
that this be done in rural areas where the birds can achieve real
Some devout Buddhists will wear simple white dress and spend the
whole day in temples with renewed determination to observe the Precepts.
Vesak is a day for meditation and observance of the Eight Precepts.
Devout Buddhists understand how to lead a noble life according to the
Teachings by making daily affirmation to observe the Five Precepts.
However, on special days, notably new moon and full moon days, they
observe additional disciplines to train themselves to practise morality,
simplicity and humility.
The Eight Precepts to be observed on full moon days are:
* Not to kill
* Not to steal
* To observe celibacy
* Not to indulge in wrong speech
* Not to take intoxicating drinks and drugs
* To abstain from taking food at unreasonable times
* To refrain from immoral and illicit pleasures
* To refrain from using high seats to practise humility.
Devotees are expected to listen to talks given by bhikkus well versed
in the deepest philosophies of the religion. On this day bhikkus will
recite verses uttered by the Buddha 25 centuries ago, to invoke peace
and happiness for the Government and the people. Buddhists are reminded
to live in harmony with people of other faiths and to respect the
beliefs of other people as the Buddha had taught.
Celebrating Vesak also means making special efforts to bring
happiness to the unfortunate like the aged, the handicapped and the
sick. To this end, Buddhists will distribute gifts in cash and kind to
various charitable homes throughout the country.
Vesak is also a time for great joy and happiness. However, this joy
is expressed not by pandering to one’s appetites only, but by
concentrating on useful activities such as decorating and illuminating
temples, painting and creating exquisite scenes from the life of the
Buddha for public dissemination.
Devout Buddhists also vie with one another to provide refreshments
and vegetarian food to devotees who visit temples to pay homage to the
In recent years many Buddhist groups have taken to organising
processions with decorated floats carrying the image of the Buddha to
celebrate Vesak. Although there is really no such tradition in strictly
Buddhist countries, there is no harm in it at all, if such processions
help increase one’s devotion and help one to lead a more religious life.
Unfortunately some Buddhist groups have become over-zealous in their
construction of floats and tend to lose sight of the real meaning of
They waste enormous sums of hard-earned money simply on ostentatious
float decorations when this money could be much better utilised for
spreading the Dhamma and for charitable acts to relieve the sufferings
of others. It would be best if the float procession is confined to a
single reasonably and tastefully decorated float and temples are also
decorated modestly so as to encourage people to visit the temple to
attend the religious services and not merely to view the decorations.
Vesak would be much more meaningful if people are encouraged to
understand more about Buddhism, to practise charity, to meditate to
train the mind, to abstain from cruelty and to uphold spiritual
The Buddha Himself has given invaluable advice on how to pay homage
to Him. Just before He passed away, He saw His faithful attendant Ananda
The Buddha advised him not to weep, but to understand the universal
law that all compounded things (including even His own body) must
He advised everyone not to cry over the disintegration of the
physical body but to regard His teachings (the Dhamma) as their teacher
from then on, because only the Dhamma (Truth) is eternal and not subject
to the law of change.
He also stressed that the way to pay homage to Him was not merely by
offering flowers, incense, and lights, but by truly and sincerely
striving to follow His teachings.
This is how we should celebrate Vesak: use this opportunity to
reiterate our determination to lead noble lives, to develop our minds,
to practise loving kindness and to bring peace and harmony to all
May Vesak, the Thrice Blessed Day bring peace and happiness to each