Known by many names and observed on different days depending on tradition, Vesak is celebrated by Buddhists around the world.
What to Call It?
Vesak, Veshāka, Wesak, Buddha Purnima, Buddha Jayanti, and Vaisakha are just a few of its titles. When you are dealing with celebrations ranging across countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and Vietnam — not to mention the western countries where such traditions are also now represented — it's not surprising that we find many names for Vesak.
What Vesak Signifies
Vesak celebrates the birth, life, and enlightenment of the Buddha. Many traditions focus especially on the birth of the Buddha, and often the observance includes bathing a statue of the infant Buddha in pure water or sweetened tea. The bathing echoes words in the sutras about the Buddha's birth in which the event is marked by a magical shift from the dry season, as dry and gray plants turn vibrant and green — suddenly bursting into bloom — and a gentle ("sweet") rain falls from the sky.
More Than Just Birth. Although sometimes called "Buddha's Birthday," the event marks more than just the birth of Buddha. Vesak also highlights the achievements of his 80-year life, including his enlightenment and passage into a great and final Nirvana. Specifically, the three important events most celebrated are the birth, enlightenment (Nirvana), and death (entry into Paranirvana).
Where and When Observed
Where. You will find Vesak observed in the countries and cultures noted above and in communities of immigrants from those countries and other adherents of their traditions.
When. Many observe Vesak on the day of the first full moon of the fourth or fifth month of the year on the Hindu calendar. In fact, the Pali name of this lunar month, vesākha, or the Sanskrit name, vaiśākha, provide the source of the many variants for its name. But not all cultures choose the same day. For some, if a month has two full moons, Vesak is observed not on the first but the last full moon of the month. Other cultures have their own traditions for identifying the date of Vesak each year. Therefore not all cultures observe Vesak on the same day.
Not Universal. For that matter, not all Buddhist cultures observe Vesak in its current form. Some Buddhist countries and cultures have different traditions, in which the three important events are celebrated individually on calendar dates that vary somewhat. In Japan, for instance, Buddhists will separately observe the birth of Buddha (Hanamatsuri or Flower Festival), enlightenment (depending on sect, Shaka-Jōdō-e, Jōdō-e, or Rohatsu, or Bodhi Day), and the death (Paranirvana or Nirvana Day). We see this approach to the important events in the Buddha's life most often in some Mahayana traditions. The dates of these observations may vary across sects within a single country.
Connection to Love as Theme?
Often love is an important theme in Vesak celebrations, which may at first surprise you if you are thinking that love is an egoistic passion, and that Buddhists try to transcend such passions. But the Buddhist concept of love is broad and Buddhist love is not blind. In Buddhism love identifies the absence of superficial egoist needs and living one's presence with full awareness or living one's present moment. The symbol shown above, and repeated following, comes from the Mongolian Buddhist tradition and is a symbol of such love -- two interpenetrating diamonds, with flourishes.
About the Love Knot Symbol
At some Vesak observances you may see this Mongolian symbol meant to signify love in the Buddhist sense. In Tibet the symbol would be the more common Buddhist Endless Knot, in which a single ribbon is plaited to create a knot in an unending sequence. The symbol shown here and the endless knot have rich histories and can symbolize many things. For convenience we can consider the two symbols, the linked diamonds and the endless knot, to be one and the same, that is, functioning as one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism. In Buddhism, the infinite knot can variously represent love (intertwining), the mutual dependence of religious and secular life, the union of wisdom and compassion, the unending wisdom of the Buddha, among other meanings, usually depending on context.
The Eight Asupicous Symbols. You may have seen one or more of these symbols in Buddhist art: The conch, the endless knot, the fish (usually a pair), the lotus, the parasol, the vase, the Wheel of Dharma (see BDK's masthead above), and the victory banner. It's important to note that these eight auspicious symbols are seen in many Indian traditions, including Hinduism and Jainism, and not just Buddhism.
Transcending Human Cultures
Despite the varying specifics of how Vesak and the three important events of the Buddha's life are observed across cultures, the importance of the Buddha and what he accomplished in his life can unify our understanding beyond the details of human culture and help us deepen our understanding of the teachings of the Buddha. It is worth noting that since 1999, the United Nations also formally recognizes Vesak as an important spiritual holiday.
2. For a deeper discussion of Vesak and the Mongolian version of the symbol of the knot, including instructions on how it can be drawn, see Dr. Lalit Kashore, Buddhist Festival of Vesak: Precept of Love and its Symbol in Buddhism, at the Indian news website, Merinews.