In May this year, many Buddhists around the world celebrate the importance of the birth, life, and death (paranirvana) of the Buddha in a combined observance called Vesak. While Vesak will be established around a single day, sometimes a week or even a month of observances will be scheduled around the actual day of Vesak.
And there is no agreement across traditions on what that day is.There is no single unified date for Vesak on the Western calendar. Different traditions celebrate these events according to several different lunar calendars. Moreover, many Mahayana traditions do not conduct Vesak observations but rather observe the three key events of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha on separate days over the year.
In 2018, the Thai tradition observes Vesak on Tuesday, May 29. Moreover, this is the date chosen by the United Nations for the observation. It is true that most countries in Southeast Asia will follow suit to identify the event this year on May 29, or they may identify a day or more before or after May 29. Tibet observes its version of Vesak, Saga Dawa Duchen, for a month around Tuesday, June 2.
Here in the United States we will see Vesk celebrated on all of these days by communities and Temples representing their own heritage. (1)
But regardless of the day, we can note several public acknowledgments of the holiday.
Ideals of Buddhism Recognized
The value of the Buddha's teachings and the role of Vesak are recognized beyond various Buddhist communities. Since 1999, the United Nations has recognized the importance of Vesak.as an official holiday in its headquarters and offices. The impetus for this official acknowledgment was from the hopes expressed at the International Buddhist Conference of November 1998 in Sri Lanka. The resolution states in part that it means to acknowledge "contribution that Buddhism, one of the oldest religions in the world, has made for over two and a half millennia and continues to make to the spirituality of humanity." (2)
Religion and Politics
News articles often report on ethnic and nationalistic clashes fueled by religion as commingled with politics. The observance of Vesak in 2018 may help expand perspectives in a way to reduce such tension and conflicts. For example, in 2016 a Buddhist cleric from Myanmar took heart from Vesak celebrations in Indonesia and was inspired to take a message of equanimity and good will back to Myanmar.
These considerations of the Myanmar monk, U Sandi Marbhivamsa, are reported in a 2016 article in the Myanmar Times, which discussed his experiences in attending a Vesak-related interfaith conference in Indonesia last year. There he was reminded that the Buddha did not attack other religions or races.
Although the majority religion in Indonesia is Islam, Hindu and Buddhist cultural and archelogical traces remain and are even celebrated. At the famous Borobudur Temple the cleric joined Buddhist representatives of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. He also travelled to various Buddhist sites in Indonesia.
His experience in Indonesia showed him that the citizens there, representing one of the biggest muslim communities in the world, had no prejudice against Buddhists, he said. “I knew Indonesians respected Buddhism, despite [Indonesia] being a majority-Muslim country,” he is quoted in the Myanmar Times. “They are not extremists.” He looked forward to sharing this message when he went back home.
“We in Myanmar can protect Buddhism without insulting other religions. People of different religions can work together in a peaceful way. There is no need for religious extremism. We can learn from Indonesia in that respect,” he said. (3)
New Event Promoted by United Nations
For Vesak in 2018, the United Nations has partnered with Thailand's Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University for an event in Thailand cosponsorted by the IBSC for International Peace Studies Program several other peace-oriented groups. The event, stretching from May 25 through May 27, is based on the theme, "Buddhist Contribution to Hunan Development," with panesl on related topics.(4)
(See also "Vesak around the World.")
1. "Buddhist Holidays in 2017," ThougtCo, accessed May 9, 2017.
2. Resolution 54/115, "International Recognition of the Day of Vesak at the United Nations Headquarters and Other United Nations offices," originally executed December 15, 1999; PDF retrieved May 9, 2017.
3. Ei Ei Thu , "Monk says denigrating other religions is against Buddhism," Myanmar Times, May 30, 2016.
4. United Nations' Facebook Page, ""United Nations Day of Vesak Celebration 2018" accessed May 2, 2018.