One of the holiest days for Buddhists all across the world, Wesak Day, also spelt as Vesak Day, marks the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Lord Buddha. In Malaysia, Wesak Day is a public holiday, and this year it will be observed from 15 May to 16 May.
Wesak Day is celebrated on the day of the first full moon of the ancient lunar month of Vesakha, which usually falls between mid-May and June. It is a time for religious gatherings, making offerings and donations, meditating and observing the teachings of Lord Buddha as a righteous way to lead life.
The United Nations also recognises Wesak Day by the General Assembly’s resolution 54/115 of 1999. The UN observes it as a day to commemorate the teachings of Buddha and the contributions of one of the oldest religions in the world. It is celebrated annually at the UN headquarters and other UN offices as well.
Read on to know all about the significance of Wesak Day and how it is celebrated
Origin of Wesak Day
About two and a half millennia ago, in 623 BC, Siddhartha Gautama was born as a prince in the palace of Lumbini in Nepal. It is believed that Gautama realised money and riches do not ensure ultimate happiness and peace. And the more he saw the world around him, the more pain and suffering he witnessed.
So one night, he denounced all his wealth and worldly pleasures and left the palace to live the life of a homeless hermit. After six years of meditation, travelling and penance, Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. Essentially, Buddha is not a name, but a title meaning the awakened one or the enlightened.
Wesak takes a grand shape in South-East Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore and India.
How is Wesak Day celebrated?
The Wesak Day celebration usually begins at dawn with devout Buddhists flocking to temples to pray and meditate on the eight precepts or holy teachings of Gautama Buddha. During this time, temples are adorned with beautiful lights and Buddhist monks, clad in saffron robes, chant prayers in unison, making the atmosphere one of calmness, bliss and spirituality.
Offering flowers, lighting candles and incense sticks, making donations and giving alms to monks make up a major portion of the festive rituals. This is symbolic of the fact that nothing is permanent in this worldly life. In the end, what is valued the most is compassion, harmony and love for all. Before dawn, devotees gather at the temples where the raising of the Buddhist flag takes place. Some Buddhist temples also distribute flags to worshipers who hang them in their homes.
In Malaysia, people visit the Malaysian Buddhist Association building and wait in a queue to pour water over the shoulders of the Buddha statue there as a symbol of cleansing one’s soul and mind. They also bring lotus-shaped candles and ask for blessings. The rituals end with a simple vegetarian meal. In the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, devotees also go to the Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple in Brickfields at sunrise to take part in the celebration and meditate.
Processions and Gatherings on Wesak Day
Whether you are observing Wesak Day or not, Gautama Buddha’s birthday holds high cultural and religious importance. People decorate their homes with lanterns and wear special white robes to commemorate the day.
The city of Kuala Lumpur becomes a sight to behold in the evening as devotees gather for a candle procession and parade that starts from the Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple in Brickfields. It features floats in the shape of Buddha statues, lights, candles and more.
Devotees come forward to carry the giant floats as well as seek blessings from monks. If you wish to catch a glimpse of the procession, be sure to reach the temple site well in advance to avoid heavy traffic and bottlenecks.
(Main image credit: Farah Almazouni/@farahm04/ Unsplash; feature image credit: Alex Azabache/ @alexazabache/ Unsplash)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Besides Buddhist Maha Vihara temple mentioned above, other temples to visit are: Chetawan Buddhist Temple or Wat Chetawan in Petaling Jaya, Buddha Jayanti Temple in Brickfields, and Kechara Forest Retreat in Bentong, Pahang.
Answer: Most Buddhists wear white, so it's a good idea to wear white clothing, whether its tops, pants or dresses.
Answer: Do bring some water in case the weather is hot. You can also bring offerings, flowers, candles and joss sticks.