The ritual, cultural and religious celebration, Wesak (or Vesak), commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death (or parinibbāna) of the Buddha. It is celebrated on the day of the full moon in May.
Wesak is celebrated in Theravāda countries in Asia, namely, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and some parts of Vietnam, Malaysia and even in North America by Buddhsits living in those countries.
Vesak gives prominence to “Amisa Pooja” and “Prathipatthi Pooja” (Religious activites) by way of observing both rituals and precepts.
Religious programmes on the Vesak Full Moon Poya Day
On this day all Buddhists are expected to reaffirm their faith in the Buddha Dhamma and to lead a noble religious life. It is a day for meditation and for radiating loving kindness. On Vesak day, devout Buddhists are expected to assemble in various temples before dawn for the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist Flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: the Buddha, Dhamma (His Teaching), and Sangha (His disciples).
Some devout Buddhists will wear simple white dress and spend the whole day in temples with renewed determination to observe the Precepts. Vesak is a day for meditation and observance of the Eight Precepts.
Devout Buddhists understand how to lead a noble life according to the Teachings by making daily affirmation to observe the Five Precepts. However, on special days, notably new moon and full moon days, they observe additional disciplines to train themselves to practise morality, simplicity and humility by Observing Sil.
The Eight Precepts to be observed on full moon days are:
* Not to kill
* Not to steal
* To observe celibacy
* Not to indulge in wrong speech
* Not to take intoxicating drinks and drugs
* To abstain from taking food at unreasonable times
* To refrain from immoral and illicit pleasures
* To refrain from using high seats to practise humility.
Devotees are expected to listen to talks given by bhikkus well versed in the deepest philosophies of the religion. On this day bhikkus will recite verses uttered by the Buddha 25 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 had taught.
Sil Programs at Temples
Like other Poya days, special Sil programs are organized by temples on the wesak day.
Following is the Sil Program offered by Canberra Buddhist Vihara (http://www.slbvc.org/poya-sil-program )
8:00am – 8:30am – observance of the Eight Precepts
8:30am – 10:00am – Dhamma Sermon
10:00am – 11:00am – Meditation
11:15am – 12:30pm – Lunch Break
12:30pm – 4:00pm – Dhamma sermon and discussions
4:00pm – Blessings by the Sangha and end of Sil program
Vesak – Festival of Light
Decorating the streets, homes and buildings with colourful lights, Lamps, lanterns and other decorations are a very common during vesak period. Several Vesak Zones are organised in Sri Lanka to decorate areas with colourful decorations and illuminations on the Vesak Fullmoon night.
Construction of Buddha’s birth at Lumbini garden with queen Māya usually portrays the baby Siddhattha walking over seven lotus flowers, since he was said to have been able to walk at birth. This reconstruction is a very popular tradition on Wesak day in Sri Lanka, and “today many households recreate the birth scene as part of their celebrations in all parts of Sri Lanka.
Wesak lanterns (Wesak kudu)
During the celebrations, the lighting of various candles and lamps not only adds to the festival scenery but is also a metaphor for the “light” that dispelled the darkness of ignorance or illusion through the Buddha’s enlightenment. Traditionally, lamps have been fashioned out of clay or the skin of raw fruit such as papaya. A more recent introduction takes the form of Wesak lanterns.
Wesak bhakti geeta (Devotional Wesak songs)
In contemporary Sri Lankan Buddhism, devotional songs and music play an important part and Wesak bhakti geeta or devotional Wesak songs are sung during vesak season.
The special feature of this festival is the erection of pandaIs, gaily decorated and magnificently illuminated. The Vesak Pandal depicting various Jathaka stories with paintings are erected all over Sri Lanka. On the pandals are to be found paintings depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. Some of these scenes are enacted on platforms, set in the pandals or erected at key points in various places. Short messages are also preached to the great crowds that gather before these pandals. These pandals have an educative value and are a source of great inspiration to the Buddhist devotees. On Wesak day thousands go by foot, cart, bus or car from dusk to dawn witnessing these pandals and other decorations.
Dan Sal (Free food)
Dansals are alms-giving stalls providing free food offers a massive social service during the Vesak. These places offer different food items such as rice, noodles, bread, biscuits, manioc, pickles, jack fruit, bread fruit and more in addition to various beverages in a ‘dansala’ like cool drinks, ice coffee, tea, coffee, milk tea, herbal drinks and soups.
Wesak in North America
From the humble beginnings, Buddhism has now become a strong social and religious presence in North America. By the 1980s, Asian-Americans had become the third largest minority group after Blacks and Hispanics. With the increase in immigrants from traditionally Buddhist countries, the organization of pan-Buddhist groups and collaborative festivals such as Wesak were developed.
Since Buddhism’s introduction to North American culture, Wesak celebrations are now held in practically every major center across Canada and the United States. Toronto, a city with more than sixty Buddhist groups has been hosting annual Wesak celebrations since 1981. In Chicago, the Buddhist Council of the Midwest has approximately ninety-nine group members and has been organizing a Wesak celebration every year for seventeen years. These Wesak festivities, which often last two days, similarly consist of a religious ceremony, a dramatic event, meditation instruction, and sometimes a forum for academic discussion. While traditionally held at local Buddhist temples, Wesak celebrations in North America are often held at school auditoriums, or even church halls due to the large number of lay people who attend these events.