Thursday, May 19, 2016

Celebrating Vesakha

Today Vesakha is the most universally observed of all Buddhist celebrations or holidays. Traditionally it is believed that the Buddha was born, awakened and passed into final Nirvana on the same day, the full moon of the second month of the ancient Indian calendar  called Vesākha, which corresponds to the modern April-May. For at least the last 60 years Vesākha has been widely pronounced as Vesak, the Sinhalese way of saying it. Why not the Thai (Waistkha), the Tibetan (Sa Ga Dawa) or the Vietnamese (Phat Dan) forms? Because in 1950 at the inaugural  meeting  of the World Fellowship of Buddhists was held in, paid for and very much dominated by Sri Lanka, and their way of saying it became currant. It seems to me that as we call the founder of our faith by the Pali name Buddha not the Sinhalese Buddharajanwahanse, it only seems logical and right that we call the day that celebrates his advent and spiritual achievements by the Pali  Vesākha or at least the Sanskrit Vaiśākha.    
Vesākha has not always been a major celebration in all Buddhist countries. In Thailand it was only a low-key ecclesiastical holiday until 50 years ago, as was Magha Puja and Wan Asanha Bucha. The big holidays and celebrations were Brahminacal ones; Songkran, Loi Krathong, etc. and in the north of the country Inthakin and several others. Malaysian Buddhists hardly celebrated it at all until the dynamic American monk Sumangalo popularised it and began petitioning the government to make it a public holiday in the 1950.
Interestingly, there is very little information about how or exactly when Vesākha was celebrated in most Buddhist countries in ancient times. The records are blank except for India and Sri Lanka. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang wrote this concerning how Buddha’s when Buddhists celebrated the Buddha’s birth, awakening and passing.   
“The Bodhisattva was born on the 8th day of the second half of the month of  Vesākha …But the Sthavira school hold that it was the 15th day of the second half of Vesākha.”
“It is said in the ancient records that the Buddha entered Parinirvana…on the 15th  day of the second half of the month of Vesākha …But according to the Sarvastivada school he entered Parinivana on the  8th  day of the second half of the of the month of Karttika.” “The Tathagata attained full awakening on the 8th  day of the second half of the month of Vesakha on the Indian calendar. But according to the Sthavira school the event occurred on the 15th day of the second half of Vesākha.” 
 So it would seem that the Mahayanists and the Sthaviras (the Indian version of Theravada) disagreed on the days these events occurred, although not the month. Exactly how the celebrations were conducted  Xuanzang  says nothing.  However he did say something about  the Vesākha   celebrations at  Bodh Gaya. “Each year on that day the monarch of various countries and the monks and laymen of different places gather here in hundreds of thousands and bathe the Bodhi Tree with scented  water and milk to the accompaniment of music, flowers and lamps burning continually and vie with each other in making offerings to the Tree.”
At the beginning of the 5th century an earlier Chinese pilgrim, Faxian witnessed how Vesākha was celebrated in Patna. “On the 8th day of the second month (i.e. Vesākha) there is a procession of images. They construct a four-wheeled car and erect upon it a tower of five stages made of bamboo lashed together the whole being supported by a central post… so that it looks like a stupa.  Then they cover it with fine white linen which they later paint with bright colours. Having made figures of devas and decorated them with gold, silver they place them under canopies of embroidered silk. Then on each of the car’s four corners they make shrines in which they place images of the Buddha in the sitting posture flanked on each side by bodhisattvas. About twenty such cars are each somewhat differently decorated. During the day of the procession monks and lay people gather in great numbers with chanting, music and the offering of flowers. After being invited to do so by brahmacariyas (lay people keeping the ten Precepts for the day?) the cars enter the city and then stop. All night there is chanting and music by the people who have gathered from many different regions” This is most interesting because it is the earliest reference to the car festivals still done in Nepal and parts of India.
The earliest reference to Vesākha celebrations in Sri Lanka is from the 1st century BCE. It must have been a major, probably the major, religious festival. In the Mahavamsa  the reign of some kings is measured by how many Vesākhas they celebrated. But exactly what form the celebrations took we have no information. 
The Chinese pilgrim Faxian spent two years in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 5th century. He   witnessed one festival  for  the Tooth Relic  during which large brightly coloured depictions of all the Jataka stories “looking completely life-like” were set up on each side of the roads in the capital. Again this is interesting because it could well be an account of how Vesākha is celebrated in Sri Lanka today. At main intersections in many cities and towns large plywood  boards with  illustrations of Jataka stories or events in the life of the Buddha painted on them are erected. Nowadays most of these pandols, as they are called, are illuminated with thousands of light bulbs, some of the figures move, and loudspeakers explain each story.
However or whenever you celebrate Vesākha I hope it is a joyous time for   you and your family.    


Khemadhammo said...

Very good information, bhante. Could you specify the sources you've used? I'd like to use this information tho improve the article about Vesakha on Wikipedia.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ven. Khemadhammo, please contact me on

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