Vesak Poya – The festival of Lights
Vesak or Wesak, Vesākha (Pali; Sanskrit), වෙසක්පෝය(Sinhala) commemorates the three most important milestones in the life of Gautama Buddha – His birth, enlightenment and Parinirvana (Nirvana after death).
Visiting the Temple is an important part of the Vesak Poya day activities of every Buddhist family. Young and old alike offer flowers and light oil lamps, with many observing sil all day. Buddhists in Sri Lanka spend the Vesak Poya day engaged in meditation and meritorious deeds, as it is considered appropriate to make a special effort to assist those in need and bring happiness to others during one’s lifetime. It is not a time for fulfilling one’s own desires. Instead Buddhists endeavour to pay homage to Lord Buddha by decorating Temples, creating beautiful decorations depicting scenes from His life and offering prayers of worship.
Vesak celebrations in Sri Lanka
Vesak is known as the festival of light, a very appropriate name since almost all the decorations are in the form of illuminations.
Families prepare decorations in the days preceding Vesak in their homes, consisting of paper lanterns, little clay oil lamps and intricate ‘kudu’ which are large lanterns surrounded by tiny lanterns decorated in many colours. All these are lit up on Vesak evening. The true creative talents of the people in this island emerge during this time as every lantern or ‘kudu’ is unique, and produced with dedicated devotion and piety. In recent years competitions have been organized by private and state institutions to judge the best ‘kudu’, and a very significant feature of these contests has been the innovative use of natural materials such as twigs, jute and leaves, veering away from the common practice of using paper when making these decorations.
Pandols are another beautiful expression of homage to Lord Buddha. These are huge board-like structures with illustrations of Jataka Katha or folk tales associated with the Blessed One. The entire structure and the individual sections within it are illuminated by hundreds of coloured blinking lights. The story, which always has a moral attached to it, is also narrated over a PA system for the benefit of the crowd gathered to witness this beautiful creation. A new innovation in the form of digital pandols has further promoted the theme of environmentally friendly decorations and reduced energy consumption.
Dansal: Free food and drinks for all
Dansal or alms-giving stalls are another popular sight all over Sri Lanka during Vesak, rendering an immense service to the people. These roadside stalls offer anything from soft drinks, ice cream, coffee, rice and curry to noodles and fruit salad, all free of charge. The food is bought and prepared using donations of money and dry rations from devotees, and everyone is welcome at these stalls. Operating a dansala and providing free food and drink is considered one of the most meritorious acts one can engage in during the Vesak festivities.
Historic significance of Vesak
Vesak commemorates three significant events in the Buddha’s life. The first one is His birth. It is said that His mother Queen Maha Maya was travelling from Kapilavasthu (her husband’s kingdom) to her father’s kingdom to give birth to her first child, as was the tradition. On the way however, her son Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born under a Sal tree in the garden of Lumbini. Several brahmin and ascetics are said to have predicted that He would become either a great King or a holy man who would change the universe.
The second event which is commemorated is the Buddha’s Enlightenment. At the age of 29, he left his father’s palace in search of the truth, renouncing all worldly possessions and begging for alms in the street. His search continued through the next few years, until at the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment seated under a Bodhi Tree, in a place called Bodh Gaya in India. It has been recorded that He reached attained Enlightenment after 49 days of meditation.
The Buddha’s Parinirvana is also remembered on Vesak Poya day. The Buddha was 80 years old, travelling with his cousin Ananda preaching the Dhamma, but his health was steadily deteriorating. His Parinirvana (death) occurred in a peaceful grove of Sal trees in Kushinagar, surrounded by his disciple monks. He lay on a couch on His right, with his feet one on top of the other and His right hand supporting His head. This position has been replicated in many a statue of the Enlightened One, called the Statue of the Reclining Buddha. It is said that the Sal trees, in spite of not being in season bloomed and shed their pale yellow petals on Him as He passed into Nirvana. Previously He had preached that all compounded things, including one’s own body, must disintegrate. He instructed his followers to pay homage to Him by leading noble lives, practice love and kindness, develop their minds and bring peace and harmony to the all living beings.
Be a part of the celebrations
Vesak in Sri Lanka is an experience not to be missed. Tourslanka will customise a holiday package that will enable you to see the beautiful decorations and visit some of the historic Temples. A tour of Colombo too will be included and this will no doubt leave you dazzled and amazed. We invite you to contact us today, you can look forward to an experience that will stay in your memory for a lifetime.
The ritual, cultural and religious celebration, Wesak (or Vesak), commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death (or parinibbāna) of the Buddha. It is celebrated on the day of the full moon in May.
Wesak is celebrated in Theravāda countries in Asia, namely, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and some parts of Vietnam, Malaysia and even in North America by Buddhsits living in those countries.
Vesak gives prominence to “Amisa Pooja” and “Prathipatthi Pooja” (Religious activites) by way of observing both rituals and precepts.
Religious programmes on the Vesak Full Moon Poya Day
On this day all Buddhists are expected to reaffirm their faith in the Buddha Dhamma and to lead a noble religious life. It is a day for meditation and for radiating loving kindness. On Vesak day, devout Buddhists are expected to assemble in various temples before dawn for the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist Flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: the Buddha, Dhamma (His Teaching), and Sangha (His disciples).
Some devout Buddhists will wear simple white dress and spend the whole day in temples with renewed determination to observe the Precepts. Vesak is a day for meditation and observance of the Eight Precepts.
Devout Buddhists understand how to lead a noble life according to the Teachings by making daily affirmation to observe the Five Precepts. However, on special days, notably new moon and full moon days, they observe additional disciplines to train themselves to practise morality, simplicity and humility by Observing Sil.
The Eight Precepts to be observed on full moon days are:
* Not to kill
* Not to steal
* To observe celibacy
* Not to indulge in wrong speech
* Not to take intoxicating drinks and drugs
* To abstain from taking food at unreasonable times
* To refrain from immoral and illicit pleasures
* To refrain from using high seats to practise humility.
Devotees are expected to listen to talks given by bhikkus well versed in the deepest philosophies of the religion. On this day bhikkus will recite verses uttered by the Buddha 25 centuries ago, to invoke peace and happiness for the Government and the people. Buddhists are reminded to live in harmony with people of other faiths and to respect the beliefs of other people as the Buddha had taught.
Sil Programs at Temples
Like other Poya days, special Sil programs are organized by temples on the wesak day.
Following is the Sil Program offered by Canberra Buddhist Vihara (http://www.slbvc.org/poya-sil-program )
8:00am – 8:30am – observance of the Eight Precepts
8:30am – 10:00am – Dhamma Sermon
10:00am – 11:00am – Meditation
11:15am – 12:30pm – Lunch Break
12:30pm – 4:00pm – Dhamma sermon and discussions
4:00pm – Blessings by the Sangha and end of Sil program
Vesak – Festival of Light
Decorating the streets, homes and buildings with colourful lights, Lamps, lanterns and other decorations are a very common during vesak period. Several Vesak Zones are organised in Sri Lanka to decorate areas with colourful decorations and illuminations on the Vesak Fullmoon night.
Construction of Buddha’s birth at Lumbini garden with queen Māya usually portrays the baby Siddhattha walking over seven lotus flowers, since he was said to have been able to walk at birth. This reconstruction is a very popular tradition on Wesak day in Sri Lanka, and “today many households recreate the birth scene as part of their celebrations in all parts of Sri Lanka.
Wesak lanterns (Wesak kudu)
During the celebrations, the lighting of various candles and lamps not only adds to the festival scenery but is also a metaphor for the “light” that dispelled the darkness of ignorance or illusion through the Buddha’s enlightenment. Traditionally, lamps have been fashioned out of clay or the skin of raw fruit such as papaya. A more recent introduction takes the form of Wesak lanterns.
Wesak bhakti geeta (Devotional Wesak songs)
In contemporary Sri Lankan Buddhism, devotional songs and music play an important part and Wesak bhakti geeta or devotional Wesak songs are sung during vesak season.
The special feature of this festival is the erection of pandaIs, gaily decorated and magnificently illuminated. The Vesak Pandal depicting various Jathaka stories with paintings are erected all over Sri Lanka. On the pandals are to be found paintings depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. Some of these scenes are enacted on platforms, set in the pandals or erected at key points in various places. Short messages are also preached to the great crowds that gather before these pandals. These pandals have an educative value and are a source of great inspiration to the Buddhist devotees. On Wesak day thousands go by foot, cart, bus or car from dusk to dawn witnessing these pandals and other decorations.
Dan Sal (Free food)
Dansals are alms-giving stalls providing free food offers a massive social service during the Vesak. These places offer different food items such as rice, noodles, bread, biscuits, manioc, pickles, jack fruit, bread fruit and more in addition to various beverages in a ‘dansala’ like cool drinks, ice coffee, tea, coffee, milk tea, herbal drinks and soups.
Wesak in North America
From the humble beginnings, Buddhism has now become a strong social and religious presence in North America. By the 1980s, Asian-Americans had become the third largest minority group after Blacks and Hispanics. With the increase in immigrants from traditionally Buddhist countries, the organization of pan-Buddhist groups and collaborative festivals such as Wesak were developed.
Since Buddhism’s introduction to North American culture, Wesak celebrations are now held in practically every major center across Canada and the United States. Toronto, a city with more than sixty Buddhist groups has been hosting annual Wesak celebrations since 1981. In Chicago, the Buddhist Council of the Midwest has approximately ninety-nine group members and has been organizing a Wesak celebration every year for seventeen years. These Wesak festivities, which often last two days, similarly consist of a religious ceremony, a dramatic event, meditation instruction, and sometimes a forum for academic discussion. While traditionally held at local Buddhist temples, Wesak celebrations in North America are often held at school auditoriums, or even church halls due to the large number of lay people who attend these events.