The History of Vesak Day

Dr Jeff Wilson, 1/05/2019

The term ‘Vesak’ comes from the name of the second month of the Hindu calendar; vesākho in Pali and vaisākha in Sanskrit. Small festivals were probably held on the full-moon day of this month in ancient times when one’s sins could be cleansed by bathing in the Ganges and one celebrated the spiritual power of the moon. However, this day soon became known as Buddha Jayanti day to celebrate the birth of the Buddha.

In 1950, Vesak day was officially recognized by the World Fellowship of Buddhists as an international celebration of the Buddha’s birthday. The Maharaja of Nepal had already established this festival in his own country and encouraged other Buddhist countries to do the same. The World Fellowship took up the challenge and urged all Heads of Government to ‘take steps to make the full-moon day in the month of May a Public Holiday in honour of the Buddha’.

At the 45th meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, on the 13th December, 1999, Vesak Day was recognized as a United Nations Day of international observance to be celebrated each year by the UN and its member countries. The UN Day of Vesak was first internationally celebrated at the UN Headquarters in New York in 2000, and has continued to be celebrated each year in New York. The international day of observance has also been hosted by other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.

The Vesak Celebration in NSW

The first Australian Observance of the United Nations Day of Vesak was organized at Sydney Town Hall on the 31st May, 2007. It was initiated by the Buddhist Federation of Australia (BFA). The BFA works in cooperation with other Buddhist Organizations and with temples from the various Buddhist traditions that are represented in Australia. The organizing committee was supported by the senior monks of all the main traditions. It has been well recognized by the United Nations, the Australian government and the opposition party. The event acknowledged the antiquity of the festival through Buddhist chanting, talks by prominent Sangha leaders from different Buddhist denominations, speeches by prominent politicians and cultural performances by singers, dancers and musicians from the various denominations.

The Buddhist Federation of Australia continued to organize the celebration of Vesak at Sydney Town Hall for three years. The classic architecture of the Town Hall provided an appropriate setting for the celebration of such an important event. Before being held at the Town Hall, the celebration was held at various venues, the most notable being the Vesak that was held at Parliament House in Canberra on May 26nd, 2010. Prominent Members of Parliament presented addresses at this event.

The stage of the Town Hall was always beautifully decorated with flowers, banners and so on. A large screen was hung across the back of the stage onto which were projected images of temples from across Asia, the live action taking place on the stage and other inspiring Buddhist images and symbols. In the Foyer, Buddha relics were on display: these relics have great significance to many Buddhists to whom they provided a valuable experience

The first part of the festival would feature chanting by monks from the different traditions. Tibetan chants were heard alongside the Pali chants of South-East Asia. Dharma talks were given by prominent monks and leaders of the various denominations. Representatives of the leading political parties, such as Laurie Ferguson and Phillip Ruddock gave speeches. If MPs and other political leaders are unable to attend, they would invariably send messages through representatives.

In the second half of the evening, cultural performances were presented by the various countries and Buddhist traditions that have temples in NSW. Displays of traditional dancing were provided by groups from Cambodia and Burma. Sometimes a Cultural Tibetan group would take part. They would sing, dance and play traditional Tibetan instruments; all at the same time! The excellent dancers from the South-East Asian countries would make the audience feel that they were in Asia rather than George Street. Other groups, such as those from Vietnam and Tibet combined traditional dance with songs and musical instruments from their countries of origin.

One of the aims of the present-day Vesak festival is to bring together the various Buddhist disciplines represented in the Sydney area. Disciplines and schools of Buddhism that have taken part include those from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Tibet, Taiwan and Korea. One year there was even a performance by the Chinese Shaolin Temple which has a temple in Cabramatta. They gave an excellent display of Kung Fu and explained that their approach to this form of martial art is entirely peaceful and in keeping with the spirit of Buddhism.

The significance of Vesak

Vesak commemorates the birth, enlightenment and parinibbāna of the Lord Buddha. The stories surrounding the birth are well known; such as Queen Maya’s auspicious dream of the white elephant and her giving birth in Lumbini Park on her way to her father’s home as required by tradition. Accounts by different schools of Buddhism vary as to whether it was a transcendental body that was born or a mundane body. Some say that his mother was observing the eight precepts at the time of his conception so it could not have been a normal birth. All schools seem to agree that the Buddha was born with a complete recollection of his previous incarnations.

‘Enlightenment’ is an English language term that attempts to interpret the Pali/ Sanskrit word Bodhi. However, it is a difficult word to translate. The word also signifies omniscience, infinite knowledge, the attainment of the highest state of consciousness and freedom from the hindrances that distort perception. In the first discourse of the Majjhima Nikāya collection, the Buddha says that he has reached this cognitive state by freeing himself from all craving. He no longer desires anything or is attached to anything and is thus free to see the world as it really is. We cannot see the world clearly, in other words, if our perception is clouded by desire.

The parinibbāna is concerned with the last days of the Buddha and his final instructions to his disciples. In the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, he asks the assembled monks if they have any last questions but there is no answer. Venerable Ānanda says that this is because ‘there is not one monk who has doubts or uncertainty’. He tells the monks that they should ‘live as islands’ with only the Dharma as their refuge. The monks have no more questions because they have learned from his example how to find a sanctuary within themselves where they can be free from need and craving.

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