Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha (Vesak)

A statue depicting the Buddha immediately after his immaculate birth
(Image: Fanyun Enterprises Company Ltd)

According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha (釋迦牟尼佛聖誕 Shijia Mouni Fo Shengdan) is observed on the 8th day of the 4th Chinese lunar month. This holy day is formally known as the Vesak Festival (衛塞節 Weise Jie), and it is informally known simply as Buddha’s Birthday (佛誕 Fo Dan). It is also called the Bathing the Buddha Festival (浴佛節 Yufo Jie) because a common practice during this festival is to pour water on a statue of the baby Buddha to symbolize the cleansing of one’s body, speech, and mind.

A common ritual during Vesak is to pour water on a statue of the infant Buddha to symbolize
the cleansing of unwholesome karma arising from one’s body, speech, and mind
(Image: Huaxia.com)

The Vesak Festival is actually a commemoration day that encompasses the Buddha’s birth, attainment of Supreme Enlightenment, and death (i.e. Parinirvana), although the focus of the observance seems to be primarily on the Buddha’s birth. According to legend, the day that the Buddha was born, achieved Enlightenment, and passed away all occurred on the full moon day of Taurus (the month of May in common years, or June in leap years).

Scenes from the Buddha’s birth (left), Enlightenment (right), and Parinirvana (death) (center)
(Image: Source unknown)

The Buddha’s birth (left); Enlightenment (center); Parinirvana (death) (right)
(Image: Source unknown)

However, the Chinese Buddhist tradition has not one, but three very different days for observing these three important events. Thus, in Chinese Buddhism, the day of Vesak is celebrated only as the Buddha’s birthday. The Chinese day for observing the Buddha’s birthday does not even fall on a full moon day. It precedes the full moon by about 7 days. That is why the Chinese celebration of Vesak is always different from the day used by other Buddhist traditions in other countries. This difference is most probably due to variations of local calendrical recognition. For the year 2011, the Chinese Buddhist observance of Vesak falls on May 10, while many other Buddhist traditions observe it on May 17 (the day of the full moon).

Notwithstanding any inconsistency between the actual day and the observance day of the Buddha’s birth, Vesak is still the holiest time of the year for all Buddhist followers because it commemorates the appearance of the great teacher who showed humankind the path to complete unsurpassed awakening. The actual day of the Buddha’s birthday is not as important as honoring Lord Buddha and remembering to follow his teachings.

According to legend, the Buddha was immaculately born from his mother’s right side
(Image: Unknown source)

Just after the infant Buddha was born, he walked seven steps, pointed to heaven and earth,
and proclaimed that he was the foremost in the world and that it would be his last rebirth.
(Image: Source unknown)

According to canonical records, on the night of the Buddha’s conception, Queen Mayadevi, his future mother, dreamt of a white elephant entering her womb. She carried the baby Buddha for ten months and close to the time of childbirth, Queen Mayadevi stopped with her entourage at a beautiful grove in the Lumbini Garden (located in present day Nepal near its border with India). She bathed herself in a pond and then walked to a sala tree. Leaning her right hand on a tree branch to support herself while remaining standing, the baby Buddha was miraculously born from her right side. Upon his birth, the infant Buddha took seven steps under which lotus flowers sprang. Then, with one finger pointing up towards heaven and one finger pointing down towards the earth, he proclaimed with the voice of a lion’s roar: I am the highest in the universe. I am the best in the universe. I am the foremost in the universe. This is my last rebirth. I shall be born no more. A great immeasurable light then filled the entire universe and all its world systems trembled and quaked. According to popular biographies about the Buddha’s birth in East Asian Buddhism, the infant Buddha is also said to have proclaimed the famous statement: Above and below the heavens, I alone am the most honored (天上天下 唯我獨尊 Tianshang tianxia weiwo duzun).

The assistants of Queen Mayadevi shielded her body when she was about to give birth.
The infant Buddha was then born from her right side as she grabbed a tree branch for support
(Image: Source unknown)

During Vesak, activities include meditation, chanting sutras and mantras, observing precepts, listening to teachings given by Buddhist teachers, eating vegetarian food, animal release, giving to charity, and bathing the Buddha to symbolically cleanse oneself of negative karma.

Buddhist followers in China engage in Bathing the Buddha rites during the Vesak Festival
(Image: Xinhuanet.com)

Vesak is the formal term used most often today in the English speaking world and comes from Singhalese, the language of the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. It is also usually the accepted term used in Singapore and Malaysia. But the festival is known by many other names in different countries including Wesak (variant of the Singhalese Vesak), Vesakha (Indian Pali), Vaisakha (Indian Sanskrit), Buddha Jayanti or Buddha Purnima (modern name used in India and Nepal), Buddho Joyonti or Buddho Purnyima (Bangladesh), Visakha Puja or Visakha Bucha (Thailand), Visak Bochea (Cambodia), Vixakha Bouxa (Laos), Kasone la-pyae Boda nei (literally Full Moon Day of Kason) (Burma), Waisak (Indonesia), Saga Dawa or Saka Dawa (literally Month of Merits) (Tibet), and Buddha’s Birthday (China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam).

Homage to the Root Teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha (南無本師釋迦牟尼佛 Namo Benshi Shijia Mouni Fo).

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

1 comment:

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