On May 14th this year, Buddhists across the world will be celebrating the Buddha’s birthday (or Shakyamuni) with Wesak (pronounced Vesak) Day, or Teacher’s Day. Considered to be the most important day in the Buddhist’s calendar, it is a day spent in contemplation of the Buddha’s life and enlightenment.
The exact date of Wesak varies depending on the geographical region. In countries that follow the Gregorian calendar the date shifts in a similar fashion to the way Easter moves from year to year, falling in either April or May. For those that follow the Chinese lunar calendar, Wesak always occurs on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month.
The Buddha Day festival is noted for its bright colours and rejoicing. Praying and chanting features strongly during Wesak, and many Buddhists will visit their local temple for services and teaching during this festival. Here they may also give offerings to the monks of food, candles and flowers.
In China, Chinese Buddhists often incorporate elements of their country’s culture into their religious celebrations, such as performing traditional dragon dancing. In Thailand, special Wesak lanterns are made of paper and wood, and there are large ceremonial releases of caged birds.
One of the most well known of the Wesak ceremonies is the ‘Bathing the Buddha’ ceremony when water is poured over the shoulders of a Buddha statue. This act, which is repeated throughout the day, serves as a reminder to purify the mind from greed, hatred and ignorance.
Buddhism was originally founded by Siddhartha Gautama, who is known best as Lord Buddha. The word “Buddha” literally means “the awakened one.” Wesak, or Buddha Day, is a chance for Buddhists to remember the story of how the Buddha gained Enlightenment, and to reflect on what it might mean to move towards the ultimate goal of Enlightenment themselves.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.