Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day?

By Wendy Thomas Russell | May 14, 2014 | 4 comments

Man, I loves me some Buddhism.

It’s all just so common sensical. By following even one tenant in the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path — or at least trying — you are almost guaranteed to improve your life. If the Buddha were alive today, I’m certain he would be a self-help guru. He’d make a damn good one, too.

Although Buddhism is unlike any other religion (in that you don’t need to believe in a deity at all), it’s still got some of the classic markers, and the celebration of holidays is one of them.

So here’s a brief rundown on a biggie in the Buddhist world: Vesak Day.

Holiday: Vesak (pronounced VEE-sak)

AKA: Wesak or Vesākha

Religion Represented: Buddhism

Celebrates: The life, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Date: Most countries celebrate Vesak on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2014, it falls on May 14, although it’s being celebrated the 15th and 16th in other parts of the world.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Vesak scores a perfect 10, according to my friend Tracey Nguyen, the granddaughter Buddhist monks. There is nothing more important than the life and times of the Buddha.

Star of the Show: Siddhartha Guantama, AKA the Buddha

Back Story: Siddhartha Guantama was the Hindu-born son of an Indian king born somewhere between 400 and 560 BC. Although stories of his birth vary, most sacred texts hold that Siddhartha was born in a field, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was said to have magically sprung from his mother’s side, bathed in golden light. Siddhartha’s mother died only days later, and Siddhartha was raised by his father and his aunt inside the sprawling walls of the king’s palace. Siddhartha did not see suffering — illness, old age and death — until he was well into adulthood; and, when he did, it deeply affected him. Before the age of 30, he left his home and his crown behind and became an ascetic, or “holy man” — which meant he would wander his country, meditating, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food. His goal was singular: to find an end to human suffering. At one point during his years-long journey, Siddhartha stopped eating and grew desperately thin and weak. When he became too weak to meditate, he finally accepted food. It was at this point that he experienced his “Enlightenment” and became known as the Buddha.

What’s the Deal with Enlightenment?: According to scripture, the Buddha was sitting beneath a Bodhi tree, meditating, when he devised of the Four Noble Truths (the cause of all human suffering) and the Noble Eightfold Path (the solution). This is what is referred to as his Enlightenment. His realization was rather simple: If people followed the Eightfold Path, they could eliminate their suffering (as he had done!) and thereby achieve Nirvana. It was an extraordinary conclusion, and he spent the next 40 to 50 years expanding on it so that others could practice it for themselves. Much revered, Buddha died at the ripe old age of 80(ish.)

Associated Literary Passages: The Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa (A second translation is here), The DhammapadaThe Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, and The Life of Buddha by Andre Ferdinand Herold, among others.

The Food and Fun: Buddhists partake in any number of Asian dishes on Vesak, but consume no meat — a symbol of their compassion for all living things. They also visit monasteries, give to charity, hang lanterns, decorate with flowers, and listen to lessons offered by monks. Often, they’ll  have parades of musicians, dancers, floats and dragons. A Baby Buddha statue is a commonality, and celebrants often pour water over the statue to symbolize, among other things, a pure and new beginning. Most importantly, Buddhists reaffirm their devotion to the Buddha’s 10 precepts and teachings.

Conveying meaning to kids: It’s never too early to introduce youngsters to the Buddha and his Eightfold path, and Vesak is a great excuse. You might also might consider making paper lanterns or drawing pictures of lotus blossoms. Show your child some pictures of Buddhist monks. Enjoy a vegetarian meal. Check out some books: I particularly like Buddha by Susan L. Roth. Make a Buddhist flag and fly it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about talking to kids about religion, it’s that it really helps to have props: A menorah on the table during Hanukkah, a nativity scene at Christmas. Consider picking up a Buddha statue or statuette — something for your child to look at and touch while you talk about Buddhism. It’s the difference between books without pictures and those with; you’re just more likely to hold the kid’s attention if you present something interesting for them to look at.

This post originally appeared in April 2012.


4 comments

  1. Chris Bartley says:

    Thanks, Wendy. I had a lovely Vesak…beautiful full moon and a cool, quiet evening outside with my new lantern: http://instagr.am/p/KRGhuzx8JU/

  2. Thanks for sharing out lantern craft. And what a great site you have!

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