Wesak Day: the Birth, Enlightenment, and Death of Buddha
Most Malaysians probably would know Wesak Day as a national public holiday. Some would even know of it as celebrating the birthday of Buddha. However, there is much more to Wesak Day than just that. Today, we shall look into this holiday and come to a better understanding of it.
What Is Wesak Day?
Wesak Day, also known as Vesak in most parts of the world outside of Asia, is the commemoration of three occasions of the life of Gautama Buddha: his birth, enlightenment, and death. Thus, part of the celebration of Wesak Day is celebrating the birthday of Buddha. As Buddhism is the second largest religion in Malaysia with about 20% of the nation professing a belief in Buddhism, it only makes sense that Wesak Day is regarded as a national public holiday.
What Does “Wesak” Mean?
The “Wesak” in Wesak Day actually comes from the Chinese pronunciation of Vesak, which in turn came from the Sinhalese term for Vaisakha Purnima, where Purnima means full moon and Vaisakha is the name of a month in the Hindu calendar, not to be confused with the unrelated Vaisakhi, the Hindu Solar New Year. This is why there are many other names for this religious observance, including Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima and Buddha Day. Apparently, it was not until 1950 that Wesak Day was decided upon by the World Fellowship of Buddhists as the day on which the birthday of Buddha is to be celebrated.
When Is Wesak Day Celebrated?
As with most celebrations based on a lunar calendar, the day on which Wesak Day is celebrated is not fixed according to the calendar. The World Fellowship of Buddhists had decided that it is to be celebrated during the full moon in May. However, because the solar calendar is not based on the phases of the moon, there are times when two full moons would occur about 30 days apart in May itself, so different countries would celebrate Wesak Day based on their local lunar observances, e.g. Malaysia would celebrate on the first full moon, while Singapore and Thailand would celebrate on the second full moon. China, Korea and Vietnam do not follow the same rules as they celebrate Buddha’s Birthday on the eighth day of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, so there is often a difference of either one week earlier or 23 days later than the dates observed in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Malaysia. Japan adopted the use of the Chinese lunar calendar in the past, but they have switched over to the solar calendar based on the Gregorian calendar, so while they still celebrate it during the eighth day of the fourth month, they celebrate it on 8 April instead.
How is Wesak Day Celebrated?
Prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Wesak Day celebrations in Malaysia would be lively and eventful as devotees of Buddha would gather at Buddhist temples throughout the country, beginning at dawn. As the saffron-robed monks chant the sutras, the devotees would meditate on the Eight Precepts:
- I will abstain from being harmful to living beings.
- I will abstain from stealing.
- I will abstain from all sexual practices.
- I will abstain from uttering lies.
- I will refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
- I will abstain from eating after noon time.
- I will abstain from listening to or playing music, songs, wearing flowers, jewellery and other ornaments.
- I will refrain from lying down or sitting on high and luxurious places.
For Buddhist laypeople, only the first five are important for daily life, but on observance days and festivals, all eight are equally observed. During this time, only vegetarian food would be consumed to signify the following of the first precept of not bringing harm to living things, as well as to embrace simplicity during this time of self-reflection. Another important aspect of this celebration is almsgiving, where food is given to the hungry and donations are provided to the needy. The highlight of Wesak Day would be the night parades accompanied by floats of varying sizes, sights and sounds, some being replicas of giant statues of Buddha, while others have several statues of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas. During this time, however, most of these things would not be possible for public safety, but the almsgiving continues as the poor and needy are some of the ones hit hardest by this pandemic. So whenever possible, please show some love and care for your fellow Malaysians in need.
So that was some information about Wesak Day, I hope you learn something new each day. Let us know in the comments what are some of the things about this holiday that inspire you.
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