Celebration Of Wesak

By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda

Perhaps the best known date on the Buddhist calendar, familiar even to non-Buddhists, is the thrice sacred day of “Wesak”. Wesak is the name of the month in the ancient Indian calendar and it usually falls in May though sometimes it may commence in the later part of April or extend to the early part of June. Wesak is derived from the original Pali word “Wesakha” or Sanskrit “Waishakha”. In some countries it is also known as Buddha Day.

W.F.B resolutions
The decision to agree to celebrate Wesak as the Buddha’s birthday was taken at the first Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhist (W.F.B.) held in Sri Langka in 1950. The resolution that was adopted at the World

Conference reads as follows :-
“That this Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, while recording its respectful appreciation of the gracious act of His Highness the Maharaja of Nepal in making the full-moon day of Vesak a Public Holiday in Nepal, earnestly requests the Heads of Governments of all countries in which Buddhist communities are to be found, either large or small to take steps to make the full-moon day of the month of May declared as Buddha Day and observed as a Public Holiday in honour of the Lord Buddha, who is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest benefactors of Humanity.”

At subsequent Conferences of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, many resolutions pertaining to the celebration of Wesak or Buddha Day were also adopted. The W.F.B. Conference held in Rangoon, Burma, in 1954, passed the Following resolution:-

“That this Conference requests the Government of India to declare Buddha Purnima Day (the full-moon day of the month of May) a Public Holiday for the whole of India.”

The fourth World Conference of the W.F.B. held in Nepal in 1956, also adopted a similar resolution reading as follows:-
“That the Government of Pakistan be requested to declare the thrice sacred Wesak Purnima, the full-moon day of May, a Public Holiday every year in future.”

At the sixth World Conference held in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, in 1961, the conference resolved “That the first, full-moon Day of May be recognized as the “Buddha Day” and celebrated accordingly.”

In 1976, at the eleventh Conference of the W.F.B. held in Thailand, Bangkok, the decision to fix a universal day to observe Wesak was again reiterated by the adoption of the following resolution:-

“That the meeting felt that it was necessary to see that the resolution to observe Wesak on one same day should be implemented, hence the Committee would like to recommend to the plenary session once again to re-iterate the implementation of the resolutions passed by previous General Conferences.


Wesak – National Holiday In Malaysia.
Apart from the numerous resolutions adopted by the World Conference of the W.F.B., the Buddhist Fraternity in Malaysia, in 1961, in drafting a petition to the Malaysian Government to declare Wesak Day as a National Holiday for Malaysia, submitted lengthy arguments, which inter-alia, reads as follows:-
“In carrying out the said resolution, your humble Petitioners crave your indulgence in giving this humble Petition your very sympathetic consideration for Wesak full-moon day to be declared a Public Holiday every year in the Federation of Malaya. In the past there was no unanimity among the Buddhists in Malaya with regard to the Day to be set apart for commemorating the Birthday of Lord Buddha; some observing the 8* day of the Fourth (Chinese) Moon and others the full-moon day (i.e. 15th Day) of the Fouth Moon. This lack of unanimity has militated against a joint appeal for this holiday hitherto. In the terms of the said resolution, all Buddhists throughout the Federation have now agreed to commemorate Lord Buddha’s Birthday on the Wesak Full-Moon Day (i.e. the full-moon day in the month of May) and it has also been agreed that ceremonies at the Buddhist Temples will be performed on that day. “Wesak Day is the holiest of all Buddhist holy days and embraces a three-fold commemoration – the day Lord Buddha was born, the day he received Full Enlightenment and the day on which He attained Pari-Nibbana, i.e. the day on which He passed from this life. This threefold commemoration day is universally observed by Buddhists with great veneration.

‘The laity especially sets aside this day in performing acts of merit such as giving alms to the poor, making offerings to the temples, reciting surras, meditating, listening to preaching and observing the precepts”.
However, whilst a country-wide campaign was being launched to obtain signatures from all leading Buddhists in support of the Petition, our Government magnanimously agreed to declare Wesak Day as a National Holiday with effect from 1962.

Birth of a Noble Prince.
Wesak Day holds special significance for the millions of Buddhist who comprise a fifth of the world’s total population. In thousands of temples across the world from Tokyo in the East to San Francisco in the West, Buddhists will pay homage to an Indian Prince who forsook the pleasures of a royal household to bring peace and happiness to mankind. The Buddha, or the Supremely Enlightened One was born in 623 B.C. on a Wesak Full-Moon day. The young Prince was named Siddhartha or “the one who has brought about all good.” His parents, King Suddhodana and Queen Mahamaya, ruled a small kingdom called Kapilavattu in Northern India.
It is said that when he was born an ancient sage called Asita came to visit him. The sage took the child in his arms and first smiled, then wept. Questioned about his extra-ordinary behaviour the sage explained that he smiled because the Child would one day become the Greatest Teacher the

world have ever known and he wept because he would not live long enough to see the boy grow up.

A Prince of Superior Intelligence
Siddharta Gautama was provided with all the worldly comforts that could be provided in a royal palace. His parents shielded him from the harsh realities of the outside world. He excelled in sports and showed a very superior intelligence but he was not satisfied with such fleeting pleasures.
He was usually a meditative person. One day he noticed a frog about to be swallowed by a snake. Just then an eagle swooped and flew away with the snake and the frog on its mouth. This set him thinking: that human life was the same whereby the stronger was constantly destroying the weaker in never ending succession. This made him realize the happiness could only be found when this battle for survival could be ended.
One day, when he was outside the palace gates, he sighted an old man bent with age, a sick man and a corpse. The young Prince was horrified when he learnt that the human body which was so well cared for in youth could be subjected to the ravages of age, disease and death. He started to contemplate deeply and was determined to seek a panacea for such sufferings.
The Prince also saw an ascetic, dressed in simple clothes but glowing with the inner peace of one who had given up his worldly passions. He was deeply impressed by the sense of happiness and calm that the ascetic radiated.

Upon his return to the palace, the young Siddarta, then aged 29 years, decided that he would give up all the temporal power that he was heir to and seek answers to the questions that troubled him. What was the cause of human sufferings? What was the path to happiness?
He went to many teachers but wise as they were, their wisdom was limited. They could not help him to gain the Enlightenment that he was searching. So he decided to seek the path on his own. The struggle for realization of the truth took him six long years. One of the first lessons he learnt was to seek the Middle Path: that is not to go extreme. He felt that we should not indulge too much in worldly pleasures or subject ourselves to extreme austerities. In order to calm the mind to gain purification one must be moderate in all aspects.

Realization of the Truths
He realized that man’s ignorance is the root of all misery. Man’s clinging to an illusion of the ego creates desire to satisfy the concept of self. The basis of his teaching is the Four Noble Truths; The first is the Noble Truth of suffering. Life is filled with the miseries of old age, sickness, death and unhappiness. People chase after pleasure but only end up with more sufferings, pain and unsatisfactoriness. The second is the Noble Truth on the cause of suffering. The third is Noble Truth on the End of suffering. When desire is eliminated, suffering will cease. And the fourth Noble Truth is the PATH which leads to the end of suffering.
He then explained the Path which is the Noble Eightfold Path as:-

Buddha’s Enlightenment
Finally, on the 35th anniversary of his birth, again on the full-moon day of Wesak, and seated under a Bodhi tree* in Buddha Gaya the ascetic Siddarta become the Buddha, the Fully Enlightened One. For the next forty-five years the Buddha traveled around Northern India preaching His message of Loving-Kindness for all beings and realization of the nature of existence.
1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

The Buddha’s Passing Away
As with all other great religious teachers the Buddha found opposition to his teachings. But many saw the truth of His Teachings and followed Him, learning how to lead a proper religious life and free themselves from misery of existence. Finally, after forty-five years of preaching, lying under two beautiful sala trees, before a large assembly of monks, the Buddha passed away at Kusinara. This passing away is also known as Mahaparinibbana or the attainment of ultimate peace and bliss. This great event also occurred on the full-moon day of Wesak. The Buddhist Era begins from the Mahaparinibbana – Passing away of the Buddha.

A Thrice Sacred Day
Hence on Wesak Day, Buddhists all over the world commemorate three events: The Birth, Enlightenment and the Passing Away of Gautama the Buddha. As Buddhism spread from India to all parts of the world, the teachings were readily assimilated with the cultures of the people who accepted the teachings. As a result, Buddhist art and culture took on a rich variety of forms with profound gentleness and kindness as the Buddha expressly forbade the use of force. The practice of Buddhism was adapted in many ways to suit the nature of the various cultures that accepted it.
As a result of this, Wesak is celebrated in many different ways all over the world. But in essence many practices have become universal. It is most important to remember that this sacred day is purely and simply a religious festival

and not a festive occasion for feasting, drinking and dancing. 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.

How to celebrate Wesak
On Wesak 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, The Dhamma (His Teaching), and The Sangha (His disciples).
Devotees may bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and joss-sticks to lay at the feet of their great teacher. These symbolic offerings are to remind one that just as the beautiful flowers would wither away after a short while and the candles and joss-sticks would soon burn out, life is subject to decay and destruction in similar manner as the flowers, candles and joss-sticks. Devotees are advised to make a special effort to refrain from killing of any kind. They are encouraged to partake of vegetarian food for the day. In some countries notably Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for celebration of Wesak and all liquor shops and slaughter houses are closed by government decree during the two days. Birds and animals are also released by the thousands in a symbolic act of liberation, of giving freedom to those who are in captivity. However, it is not recommended that birds be released in the heart of crowded cities, because by doing so we may cause harm to the poor bewildered birds which are unable to fly far after a long period of captivity. Unscrupulous bird dealers would recapture such birds for resale to well meaning devotees. If birds are to be released it is recommended that this to be done in rural areas where the birds can achieve real freedom. Some devout Buddhist will wear simple white dress and spend the whole day in the temples with renewed determination to observe the Precepts. Wesak is a day for meditation and observance of the Eight Precepts.
Devout Buddhists understand how to lead a noble life according to the Teaching 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 practice morality, simplicity and humility.

The Eight Precepts to be observed only on full moon days are:
1. Not to kill
2. Not to steal
3. To observe celibacy
4. Not to indulge in wrong speech
5. Not to take intoxicating drinks and drugs
6. To abstain from taking food at unreasonable time
7. To refrain from immoral and illicit pleasures
8. To refrain from using high seats in order to practice humility.

Devotees are expected to listen to talks given by monks well versed in the deepest philosophies of the religion. On this day monks will recite verses uttered by the Buddha twenty-five 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.

Bringing Happiness to Others
Celebrating Wesak also means making special efforts to bring happiness to the unfortunate like the aged, the handicapped and the sick. To this end, Buddhists will distribute gifts in cash and kind to various charitable homes throughout the country. Wesak is also a time for great joy and happiness. But this joy is expressed not by pandering to one’s appetites only but by concentrating on useful activities such as decorating and illuminating temples, painting and creating exquisite scenes from the life of the Buddha for public dissemination. Devout Buddhists also vie with one another to provide refreshments and vegetarian food to devotees who visit the temple to pay homage to the Blessed One.

Float Procession
In recent years many Buddhist groups have taken to organizing processions with decorated floats carrying the image of the Buddha to celebrate

Wesak. Although there is really no such tradition in strictly Buddhist countries, there is no harm in it at all, if such procession helps to increase one’s devotion and helps one to lead a more religious life. Unfortunately some Buddhist groups have become over-zealous in their construction of floats and tend to lose sight of real meaning of Wesak. They waste enormous sum of hard-earned money simply on ostentatious floats decorations when this money could be much better utilized for spreading the Dhamma and for charitable acts to relieve the sufferings of others. It would be best if the float procession is confined to a single reasonably and tastefully decorated float and temples are also decorated modestly in good taste so as to encourage people to visit the temple to attend the religious services and not merely to view the decorations. Wesak would be much more meaningful if people are encouraged to understand more about Buddhism, to practice charity, to meditate in order to train the mind, to abstain from cruelty and to uphold spiritual development. People must practice Loving-Kindness and Understanding.

subject to the law of change. He also stressed that the way to pay homage to him was not merely by offering flowers, incense, and lights, but by truly and sincerely striving to follow his teachings.
This is how we should celebrate Wesak: use this opportunity to reiterate our determination to lead noble lives, to develop our minds, to practice loving-kindness and to bring peace and harmony to all mankind.


Proper Way To Pay Homage To The Buddha
The Buddha himself has given invaluable advice on how to pay homage to Him. Just before He passed away, he saw his faithful attendant Ananda, weeping. The Buddha advised him not to weep but to understand the universal law that all compounded things (including even His own body) must disintegrate. He advised everyone not to cry over the disintegration of the physical body but to regard His teachings (The Dhamma) as their Teacher from then on, because only the Dhamma TRUTH is eternal and not subject to the law of change. He also stressed that the way to pay homage to him was not merely by offering flowers, incense, and lights, but by truly and sincerely striving to follow his teachings.

This is how we should celebrate Wesak: use this opportunity to reiterate our determination to lead noble lives, to develop our minds, to practice loving-kindness and to bring peace and harmony to all mankind.