by Caryl Teh

7th May 2020 is Vesak Day! And to celebrate, we have two things for you: (1) some interesting facts about the history and customs of this celebration to share, and (2) a quiz! Ready to learn more about Vesak Day?

12 Interesting Facts about Vesak Day

1. Vesak vs. Wesak?

The official name of the celebration is Vesak. “Wesak” comes from the Malay translation of the name as Hari Wesak. 

2. Story behind Vesak Day – what does Vesak celebrate?

In a nutshell, Vesak Day celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha. So it’s more than just a birthday party for Buddha! This is the day when many people reaffirm their commitment to living a moral and compassionate lifestyle as outlined in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. This is why it is holy tradition on this day to read, or listen to monks and lamas teach, about Buddha’s life

That said, Buddha’s birth story on its own is pretty cool. (another great example of the incredible and miraculous birth tales found in the world’s faith traditions):
According to legend, the Buddha’s mother was traveling to her parents’ home for the birth. On the way, she stopped at a garden called Lumbini Park, which was near the kingdom of Nepal. While resting under a tree, her son, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, was born. The baby prince then stood up and took seven steps forward. At each step, a lotus flower appeared on the ground. At the end of his remarkable walk, the baby Buddha declared that this life was his last.

3. Who celebrates Vesak Day?

Even though Vesak is all about the Buddha, some followers of Sanatana Dharma (aka Hindus) also celebrate the holy day. That’s partly because Gautama Buddha was born into a Hindu family and partly because some Hindus consider the Buddha to be an avatar (earthly manifestation) of the Hindu god, Vishnu.

4. Did you know that Buddhists have a flag?

It’s common to see these flags being waved in the air during Vesak Day. The six vertical bands representing the six auras emanating from the Buddha after his enlightenment make up the flag. Blue, yellow, red, white, and orange are the colours of the first five bands. The sixth band is a combination of all the other colours to represent the Pure Essence/Truth of the Buddha’s Teachings. But you wouldn’t be able to find such a colour, so smaller bands of the five constituent colours depict the 6th aura.

5. When is Vesak Day celebrated?

The exact date of Vesak Day in any given country depends on two things: (i) which calendar is being used (Chinese, Indian, etc.), as well as (ii) local full moon observances. Vesak Day is celebrated on the full moon of the lunar month, Vesakha, which usually matches up to the month of May in the Gregorian calendar. If a month has two full moons, some countries celebrate on the first full moon while others celebrate on the second one. In Taiwan, the second Sunday in May (Mother’s Day) is designated for Vesak. If it’s a leap year, Vesak is often in June. 

Now onto some common emblems of Vesak Day:

6. Flowers, joss sticks and candles

On Vesak Day, temples are often filled with offerings of flowers, joss sticks and candles. These items act as a reminder of the fleeting and finite nature of life since the candles and joss sticks will burn down and the flowers will wither away.

7. Brightly-coloured lanterns

Traditionally, people lit the lanterns with candles. But nowadays, tea lights or other artificial means are deemed safer since lanterns are usually made of paper. They are hung pretty much anywhere & everything. But in some places, they are released into the sky or sent floating along a nearby river. These lights or lanterns carry deep symbolism of enlightenment, the full moon, and the illumination offered by the Buddha’s teachings.

8. Bathing the Buddha

On Vesak Day, a small statue of Buddha is normally bathed with scented water, tea, or milk. There are multiple possible meanings of this action: (a) an expression of gratitude and the desire for good fortune, (b) a recommitment to the Buddhist path that leads to insight and enlightenment, (c) to put forth a prayer that all beings may be free from suffering, (d) remembering a tale that shortly after Buddha was born as an infant prince, he was showered with waters of 9 dragons, (e) a reminder to people to clear their minds of negative thoughts like greed and hatred.

9. Three steps & one bow

The traditional procession done on Vesak Day eve is done by taking three steps then bowing once, so it can last up to 2.5 hours! Worshippers chant to remove distractions of the world and keep their focus on Buddha.

10. Go vegetarian for a day

To mark the beginning of Vesak Day with an act of purity, temples are normally filled only with vegetarian food and worshippers are encouraged to eat only vegetarian food for the day. In some countries, butcher shops close for two days in dedication to upholding this Vesak Day custom.

11. Meanwhile in Laos & Thailand… Bun Bang Fai!

The Bun Bang Fai festival – popular in Laos and Thailand – is occasionally associated with Vesak because it’s sometimes held in mid-May. It is actually an ancient, pagan festival that honors the Sky God and celebrates fertility and the rainy season. Typical festivals include parades with elaborate floats, dance performances, and traditional foods. But the highlight of Bun Bang Fai is the rocket launch competition! If you think these are small bottle rockets, check out this video!

12. Good deed day?

Many Buddhists believe that performing good deeds on Vesak Day will multiply merit many times over. That’s why on Vesak Day, they show extra compassion by eating only vegetarian meals and releasing caged birds or other animals; and extra kindness to the less fortunate by sharing food, or donating money or blood. Such good deeds are also known as “Dana”.

Vesak Day Quiz