Each year on the full moon of the sixth Thai lunar month, Thailand participates in the Buddhist observance of Visakhapuja Day (วันวิสาขบูชา — Wan Visakhabucha) commemorating the birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha. It is also observed as Thai National Tree Day (วันต้นไม้แห่งชาติ — Wan Tonmai Haeng Chart). Vesak (Vesākha in Pali and Vaiśākha in Sanskrit), also known as Buddha Purnima and Buddha Day, is a holiday observed traditionally by Buddhists on different days in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar and in other places all over the world. Sometimes informally called “Buddha’s Birthday”, it commemorates the birth, enlightenment (Buddhahood), and death (Parinirvāna) of Gautama Buddha in the Theravada or southern Buddhist tradition.
The decision to agree to celebrate Vesākha as the Buddha’s birthday was formalized at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950, although festivals at this time in the Buddhist world are a centuries-old tradition. The resolution that was adopted at the World Conference reads as follows:
“That this Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, while recording its appreciation of the gracious act of His Majesty, 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 large or small number of Buddhists are to be found, to take steps to make the full-moon day in the month of May a Public Holiday in honour of the Buddha, who is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest benefactors of Humanity.”
On Vesākha Day, Buddhists all over the world commemorate events of significance to Buddhists of all traditions: The birth, enlightenment and the passing away of Gautama Buddha. As Buddhism spread from India it was assimilated into many foreign cultures, and consequently Vesākha is celebrated in many different ways all over the world. In India, Vaishakh Purnima day is also known as Buddha Jayanti day and has been traditionally accepted as Buddha’s birthday.
In 1999, the United Nations resolved to internationally observe the day of Vesak at its headquarters and offices.
The name of the observance is derived from the Pali term vesākha or Sanskrit vaiśākha, which is the name of the lunar month in the Hindu calendar falling in April–May. In Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the holiday is known by its Sanskrit name (Vaiśākha) and derived variants of it. Local renditions of the name vary by language, including:
- Assamese: বুদ্ধ পূর্ণিমা — Buddho Purnima
- Bengali: বুদ্ধ পূর্ণিমা — Buddho Purnima, বুদ্ধ জয়ন্তী — Buddho Joyonti, ভেসাক — Bhesak
- Dzongkha: སྟོན་པའི་དུས་ཆེན་༥ འཛོམས་ — Dhüchen Nga Zom
- Burmese: ကဆုန်လပြည့် ဗုဒ္ဓနေ့ or “Full Moon Day”
- Chinese: 佛陀誕辰紀念日 — Fótuó dànchén jìniàn rì, 佛誕 — Fódàn (Birthday of the Buddha), 浴佛節 — Yùfójié (Occasion of Bathing the Buddha), 衛塞節 — Wèisāi jié
- Hindi: बुद्ध पूर्णिमा — Buddha Pūrṇimā, बुद्ध जयन्ती — Buddha Jayantī, वैशाख पूर्णिमा — Vaisākh Pūrṇimā
- Indonesian: Hari Raya Waisak
- Japanese: 花祭 — Hanamatsuri (Day of Flowers)
- Khmer: វិសាខបូជា — Visak Bochea
- Kannada: ಬುದ್ಧ ಪೌರ್ಣಮಿ — Buddha Pournami
- Korean: Hangul: 석가 탄신; Hanja: 釋迦誕辰日— Seokka Tanshin-il (Birthday of the Shakyamuni Buddha)
- Lao: ວິສາຂະບູຊາ — Vixakha Bouxa
- Malay: Hari Wesak (هاري ويسق)
- Mongolian: Бурхан Багшийн Их Дүйцэн Өдөр (Lord Buddha’s Great Festival Day)
- Newar: स्वांया पुन्हि — Swānyā Punhi
- Nepali: बुद्ध पुर्णिमा — Buddha Purnima, बुद्ध जयन्ति — Buddha Jayanti
- Sinhalese: වෙසක් — Vesak
- Tamil: விசாக தினம் — Vicāka Tiṉam
- Telugu: బుద్ధ పౌర్ణమి —Buddha Pournami or వైశాఖ పౌర్ణమి — Vaisakha Pournami
- Thai: วิสาขบูชา — Wisakha Bucha
- Tibetan: ས་ག་ཟླ་བ།, — Sa Ga Dawa
- Vietnamese: Phật Đản (Birthday of the Buddha)
On Vesākhauja Day, devout Buddhists and followers alike are expected and requested to assemble in their various temples before dawn for the ceremonial, and honorable, hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, The Dharma (his teachings), and The Sangha (his disciples). Devotees may bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and joss-sticks to lay at the feet of their teacher. These symbolic offerings are to remind followers that just as the beautiful flowers would wither away after a short while and the candles and joss-sticks would soon burn out, so too is life subject to decay and destruction.
Devotees are enjoined 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 Vesākha and all liquor shops and slaughter houses are closed by government decree during the two days.
Birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands in what is known as a ‘symbolic act of liberation’; of giving freedom to those who are in captivity, imprisoned, or tortured against their will. This practice, however, is banned in some countries such as Singapore, as it is believed that the released animals are unable to survive long-term, and may adversely impact the local ecosystem if they do.
Some devout Buddhists will wear a simple white dress and spend the whole day in temples with renewed determination to observe the Eight Precepts.
Devout Buddhists undertake to lead a noble life according to the teaching by making daily affirmations to observe the Five Precepts. However, on special days, notably new moon and full moon days, they observe the Eight Precepts to train themselves to practice morality, simplicity and humility:
- 1. I undertake to abstain from killing.
- 2. I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given.
- 3. I undertake to avoid sensual misconduct.
- 4. I undertake to abstain from false speech.
- 5. I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.
- 6. I undertake to abstain from eating at the wrong time (the right time is after sunrise, before noon).
- 7. I undertake to abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories).
- 8. I undertake to abstain from luxurious places for sitting or sleeping, and overindulging in sleep.
Some temples also display a small statue of the Buddha in front of the altar in a small basin filled with water and decorated with flowers, allowing devotees to pour water over the statue; it is symbolic of the cleansing of a practitioner’s bad karma, and to reenact the events following the Buddha’s birth, when devas and spirits made heavenly offerings to him.
Devotees are expected to listen to talks given by monks. On this day, monks will recite verses uttered by the Buddha twenty-five 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 taught.
Celebrating Vesākha also means making special efforts to bring happiness to the unfortunate like the aged, the handicapped and the sick. On this day, Buddhists will distribute gifts in cash and kind to various charitable homes throughout the country. Vesākha is also a time for great joy and happiness, expressed not by pandering to one’s appetites 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 followers who visit the temple to pay homage to the Enlightened One.
Tradition ascribes to the Buddha himself instruction on how to pay him homage. Just before he died, he saw his faithful attendant Ananda, weeping. The Buddha advised him not to weep, but to understand the universal law that all compounded things (including even his own body) must disintegrate. 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 Buddhists are expected to celebrate Vesak: to use the opportunity to reiterate their determination to lead noble lives, to develop their minds, to practice loving-kindness and to bring peace and harmony to humanity.
In Nepal, which is considered the birth-country of Buddha, Vesak is celebrated on the full moon day of the Vaisakha month of the Hindu calendar, and is traditionally called Buddha Purnima, Purnima meaning the full moon day in Sanskrit. In Theravada countries following the Buddhist calendar, it falls on a full moon Uposatha day, typically in the fifth or sixth lunar month. Nowadays, in Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Vesak/Buddha Purnima is celebrated on the day of the full moon in May in the Gregorian calendar. In Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Vesak is celebrated on the fourteenth or fifteenth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. In China, and Korea, Vietnam, Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar, in Japan the same day but in the Gregorian calendar. The date varies from year to year in the Western Gregorian calendar, but usually falls in April or May. In leap years it may be celebrated in June.
Vesak falls on May 10, 2017, in Thailand, marked on calendars here as the year 2560 BE (Buddhist Era). In a country that’s over 90% Buddhist, this is an incredibly important holiday. If you should find yourself in Thailand over Visakhapucha, do your best to observe and respect the customs — put down that bottle of Chang, swap chicken for veggies, and head to a temple to partake in this very spiritual day. Buddhists are some of the most understanding and welcoming people in the world, so you’ll be welcomed in with open arms.
Scott #2235 was issued on May 12, 2006, to mark Visakhapuja Day — a single 3-baht stamp lithographed on granite paper and perforated 14×14½.