What Is Vesak?

A celebration of the Buddha's birth, death, and enlightenment, and a chance to jump-start your practice.

 

Vesak, or Visakha (pronounced way-sak), is a celebration that commemorates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death, and his passing into nirvana. It is named for the month of May and is celebrated on the full moon, when the Buddha's mother is said to have given birth to him in a garden in the Himalayan foothills while en route to her parents' home. According to most Buddhist calendars, he would be 2,548 years old this month.

Vesak is the most important holiday in the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, though its observance varies from culture to culture. In the United States, it has become the occasion for a common celebration that unites different Buddhist traditions and schools, Asian and non-Asian, immigrant and convert, Theravadin and Mahayana (for different schools of Zen, which is a tradition of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, the Buddha's birthday is celebrated according to a different calendar and falls on April 8; his enlightenment and death are also assigned to different days).

Vesak celebrations are a time for the rededication of one's commitment to the Buddha's teachings and to practice. At temples all over Southeast Asia and in the West, lay devotees clean the building and festoon it with lights and lanterns. Sometimes, a special pavilion is built for monks to sit on as they meditate and chant through the night. At Metta Forest Monastery outside San Diego, a monastery in the Thai Forest tradition, lay practioners come for a candle-lit procession, to make offerings, to chant, and to sit through the night in meditation. The celebration ends the following morning with a communal meal served to the monks by dozens of laypeople. "It is a time to honor the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, and to recommit to practice," says Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the monastery's abbot. "Something like a New Year's resolution."

No account of the Buddha's birth was recorded at the time, but Buddhist legend describes how the baby sprang miraculously from his mother's side, in what is today Nepal. Recent archeological research claims to pinpoint the exact location. In Thich Nhat Hanh's elegant telling of the life of the Buddha, "Old Path, White Clouds," he describes the birth like this:

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