The Significance of Buddha’s Journey of Dhamma

“The symbolic offerings are reminding the followers like the flowers would wither away after a short while, and the candles and joss-sticks would soon burn out, so too is life subject to decay and destruction”.

Last year this time, Vesak was celebrated subtly due to the Easter Sunday attacks and this year there will be no celebrations due to the Global Pandemic of the Covid-19 virus, which has restricted daily activity, including social gatherings. Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist nation will have to forgo the colour and vibrancy of this festival.

The Vesak festival holds a great significance, as it is the Buddha's birthday which was officially so declared at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950, although festivals at this time in the Buddhist world are a centuries-old tradition. Vesak in Pali Vesakha, and Sanskrit: Vaisakha, also known as Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima and Buddha Day, is a holiday traditionally observed by Buddhists and some Hindus. Countries like India, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mongolia, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and other parts of the world celebrate as a holy day observing Sil, visiting the temple, decorating homes and streets with lanterns and pandals which most the time narrate Buddhist folklore stories.

The May Month Full Moon

This year Vesak falls on May 7th and 8th of this month. May usually has one full moon, but as there are 29.5 days between full moons, occasionally there are two. If there are two full moons during May, some countries (including Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Malaysia) celebrate Vesak on the 1st full moon, while others (Thailand, Singapore) celebrate the holiday on the 31st because of a different local lunar observance. The difference also manifests in the observance of other Buddhist holidays, which are traditionally observed at the local full moon.

Vesak is associated with three important locations of Buddhist history – Lumbini in Nepal, the birthplace of Prince Siddharta, Bodh Gaya (Buddha Gaya) Bihar State in India where The Buddha attained the most exalted Enlightenment under a Bodhi Tree and Kushinagar (Kusinara) in Uttar Pradesh, India where The Buddha attained Mahaparinibbana.

The Celebration of Life  and Finding Meaning

On Vesak, devout Buddhists and followers gather at various temples before dawn for the ceremonial and honourable hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy Triple Gem: The Buddha, The Dharma (his teachings), and The Sangha (his disciples).

Devotees may bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and joss-sticks to lay at the feet of their teacher. The symbolic offerings remind the followers like the flowers would wither away after a short while, and the candles and joss-sticks would soon burn out, so too is life subject to decay and destruction. Devotees are enjoined to make a special effort to refrain from killing of any kind. They are encouraged to partake only vegetarian food for the day. In some countries, notably Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for the celebration of Vesak, and all liquor shops and slaughterhouses are closed by government decree during the two days. Birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands in what is known as a 'symbolic act of liberation' of giving freedom to those who are in captivity, imprisoned, or tortured against their will. (The practice, however, is banned in some countries such as Singapore, as it is believed that the released animals are unable to survive long-term and may adversely impact the local ecosystem if they do.)

Some devout Buddhists will wear simple white clothing and spend the whole day in temples with renewed determination to observe the Eight Precepts. Some undertake to lead a noble life according to the teaching by making daily affirmations to observe the Five Precepts. However, on special days, notably new moon and full moon days, they observe the eight precepts to train themselves to practise morality, simplicity, and humility.

Some temples in some countries also display a small statue of the Buddha in front of the altar in a small basin decorated with flowers and filled with water or sweet tea for devotees to pour over the statue. This is symbolic of the cleansing of a practitioner's bad karma, and to reenact the events following the Buddha's birth, when devas and spirits made heavenly offerings to him. 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 taught.

The Covid-19 Pandemic and Vesak

This year again Sri Lankans won’t be having the privilege of celebrating the festivities and other formalities of Vesak due to the Covid-19 global pandemic, and in a recent message to the nation Prime of Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa requested the public to restrict activities and celebrations to households during the Vesak season, as a preventive measure to combat the spread of the virus.

In his statement, he called on the public to prioritize festivities such as lighting the oil lamp and decorating their homes. Expects the Police and other law enforcement units to assist traders in the home delivery of raw materials required for these festivities.

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