Vesak: Birthday of the Buddha

Zack Burns

Zack’s interests include writing on everything from literature, food, folklore, and everything in between, reading, and pretending he isn’t an enthusiastic gamer in his free time. He lives with his wife and their two cats, Ichigo and Sweeney Todd.

Today, around the world, people are celebrating Vesak, the birthday of the Buddha.  For many of us in Western culture, this day is a complete enigma.  Luckily, we have Zack Burns, an English major at Middle Tennessee State University, to help us with a brief overview of the holiday.  I met Zack at Congregation Yeshuat Yisrael some time ago while in college.  Since then, it has been interesting to see the many ways in which our lives have crossed paths.  Today, I find myself grateful, once again, for that as he provides some excellent insight into one day in the religion of Buddhism:

What do you get for the person who let go of everything? What sort of present would you give to the man who achieved perfect enlightenment? If you’re a Buddhist, you celebrate Vesak, the day that commemorates the birth of Prince Siddartha Guatama, also known as the Buddha. Vesak is celebrated around the world as a recognition of the birth, enlightenment, and physical death of the Buddha. Vesak is generally celebrated by assembling at local temples to chant hymns and prayers, make offerings to monks, and set animals free. In addition to these customs, Vesak celebrations often include local traditions, which make for a wide array of festivities.

In China, the largest home of Mahayana Buddhists, the day is marked with prayers and offerings, with the main focus on a ceremony known as “Bathing the Budhha”. This ceremony involves pouring scented water over a statue of the baby Buddha, whose right forefinger points towards the sky and left forefinger points to the earth. According to legend, shortly after being born the Buddha said that “Above heaven and below heaven, none are equal to me. This is my last birth. There will be no more births”.

In Japan, the celebration revolves around flowers, particularly the lotus, which is said to have sprang up wherever the infant Buddha walked. Japanese Buddhists attend a “Bathing the Buddha” ceremony at their local temples, where the Buddha is sprinkled with a tea made from hydrangea leaves known as am-cha, and lotus flowers are hung about the Buddha’s neck. The main event is the Hana-matsuri, or Flower Festival, which coincides with the blooming of the cherry blossoms.

In the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, the celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and transition is a month-long celebration known as Saga Dawa Duchen. Saga Dawa Duchen is marked by practicing generosity and meritorious deeds. Many practitioners observe a vegetarian diet for the entire month. Additionally, Sojin, the practice of releasing animal like fish and birds, is observed.

For us who seek to better the world through connection with the lives around us, and especially in the case of YOAM as we respond to natural disasters and social justice issues, I think it is important to remember the words of Prince Siddartha Guatama when he announced his final birth (Buddhists hold a belief in reincarnation).  There comes a time when all one can do has been done, and the best choice then is to move on.  This makes way for new generations, new ideas, new hopes, and new dreams.

As we continue to “Dream in Color” this year, we are excited to gratefully honor the past from which Youth On A Mission came and reach into the future toward what lies ahead.


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