Knowing and Celebrating Vesak
BY | Christina B.
Vesak Day, the day of the full moon of the year’s fifth month, is a sacred day to millions of Buddhists worldwide. This year, Vesak Day falls on Friday, June 2.
Vesak Day is often referred to as “Buddha’s Birthday”. It commemorates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and final nirvana. This is a joyous day for all Buddhists. It is also one of the festivals that different Buddhist communities around the world celebrate together, with each community incorporating its own cultural traditions within the festivities.
Vesak Day is considered one of the most significant occasions in Buddhism.It is also a time for quiet reflection on Buddha’s teachings and our personal spiritual development.
To mark the day, temples are elegantly decorated with Buddhist flags and lights, while shrines are filled with flowers, fruits and other offerings. Other common practices observed on this day include the lighting of oil lamps, and the performance of charitable deeds or volunteering. Vegetarian meals are often provided for all. Some Buddhists release captive animals that are to be slaughtered for food, such as crabs and fish. This act of kindness recalls the Buddha’s teaching of universal compassion.
For many Buddhists, the observance of Vesak commences early in the morning when they congregate at temples to observe the Eight Precepts. Others may join the communal observances by going through the Threefold Refuge ceremony, observe the Five Precepts, make offerings at shrines and engage in chanting and recitation. They may also participate in special processions and circumambulation and listen to discourses on the Dharma.
Some temples and monasteries also have their special traditions. Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, famous for its “three steps, one bow” ceremony, was the first Buddhist organisation in Singapore to hold this auspicious ceremony in 1984. The overnight ceremony usually starts around sunset on the eve of Vesak Day and continues till dawn on Vesak Day. Other significant ceremonies include the Bathing of Prince Siddhartha, Light Transference and others.
Let us understand the significance of some of these ceremonies, gestures of reverence, and offerings that Buddhists observe on Vesak Day:
BATHING OF PRINCE SIDDHARTHA
In many temples, Buddhists take part in the ceremonial bathing of the statue of infant Prince Siddhartha, standing in the centre of a basin filled with perfumed water strewn with flowers. The perfumed water is scooped with a ladle and poured over the statue. This symbolises the purification of one’s unwholesome thoughts and actions with wholesome ones.
LIGHT TRANSFERENCE CEREMONY
The ceremony begins with the Abbot lighting the first candle, and the flame is then passed on from one person to another. As the flame spreads, the darkness of the night is transformed into an ocean of lights, with devotees holding lighted candles in their hands and paving the perimeter of the temple while chanting mantras or the Buddha’s name.
This ceremony represents the passing of the light of wisdom (sharing of the truth) to every direction of the world to dispel the darkness of ignorance. On a personal level, it signifies the lighting of one’s inner lamp of wisdom. The continual passing of the flame to countless others without one’s flame being extinguished illustrates that wisdom can be shared.
Mindfulness is also practised by not letting the candle’s flame extinguish. This serves as a reminder to guard the mind against negative factors that can hinder spiritual growth.
As everyone’s flames burn on, the wicks of their candles gradually diminish, reminding devotees of the impermanence of all things, including their lives. This reflection helps them to cherish every moment alive without being attached to it.
“THREE STEPS, ONE BOW” CEREMONY
The “three steps, one bow” ceremony is an expression of devotion and serves to lessen karmic obstacles or repay fulfilled wishes. Through this act of repentance, devotees humble themselves and aspire to improve spiritually.
The ceremony involves walking three steps and taking a bow to repent for past misdeeds. By doing so, devotees purify their minds, humble their egos, and attain concentration and mindfulness of their body, speech, and mind.
The “three steps, one bow” ceremony reminds devotees that the journey towards Buddhahood is long, arduous, and filled with many difficulties. It is a test of their faith and perseverance on their path to enlightenment.
Devotees usually line up before sunrise to meditatively circumambulate the perimeter of the temple. They bow once every three steps, while chanting mantras or the name of the Buddha in praise of Him. Upon every prostration, devotees visualise the Buddha standing before their palms. They open their palm like lotuses, to receive Buddha’s teachings. The open palms also symbolise the purity of the lotus flower as it blossoms untainted even though the root is in the mud (mud of defilements).
At the end of the ceremony, the break of dawn represents the light of wisdom dispelling the darkness of ignorance as one advances towards enlightenment.
Prostration before an image of the Buddha is not an act of idol-worshipping. It is an expression of deep reverence. It acknowledges that the Buddha has attained perfect and supreme enlightenment. Through this act, it helps one to overcome egoistic feelings and cultivate a humble and receptive attitude towards learning from the Buddha.
Circumambulation is a gesture of respect and devotion performed by walking around an object of veneration, such as a stupa (a monument that houses holy relics of the Buddha or great Sangha masters), a Bodhi tree (which the Buddha sat under for shelter before he attained enlightenment) or a Buddha image, for three or more times. The act is performed by walking in slow measured steps in a clockwise direction, keeping one’s right towards the object of veneration. Doing so reminds one to keep the Buddha’s teachings in the centre of our lives.
Chanting is a melodious way of reading to reflect upon the Buddha’s teachings. Chanting in a soothing tune has a calming effect on both the reciter and the listener, and can bring about a sense of tranquility and inner peace. Like meditation, chanting helps one to develop a focused and peaceful state of mind. It also serves as a powerful reminder of the ideal qualities of the Triple Gem that Buddhists strive to achieve.
Offering items on a shrine is an important act of devotion that expresses appreciation and veneration to the Triple Gem. Buddhists who make offerings to the Triple Gem gain merits, especially when it is done mindfully and with an understanding of the significance of the offering.
Here are some common shrine offerings:
The offering of light represents the illuminating brightness of wisdom, which dispels the darkness of ignorance on the path towards enlightenment. This urges one to seek the light of ultimate wisdom.
The offering of fresh, fragrant and beautiful flowers, which soon become withered, scentless, and discoloured, reminds one of the impermanence of all things, including our very lives. This urges one to treasure every moment of one’s lives while not becoming attached.
The offering of burning incense which fills the air with fragrance symbolises the virtue and purifying effect of wholesome conduct. This reminds one to cease all evil and cultivate the practice of good conduct.
The offering of water symbolises purity, clarity and calmness. This urges one to cultivate one’s body, speech and mind to attain these qualities.
Fruits symbolise the truth of karmic cause and effect, and the fruits of spiritual attainment that leads towards the ultimate goal of enlightenment. This urges one to strive towards enlightenment.
As we immerse ourselves in the grand festivities this Vesak Day, let us commemorate Shakyamuni Buddha and remember his noble spirit and great achievements. Take a pause, reflect and seize this moment of spiritual renewal, and honour his wisdom, love and compassion by coming together as one and in harmony to shape a better and more peaceful world for every sentient being. Awaken magazine wishes all our readers Happy Vesak Day 2023!
Join us in celebrating this special occasion with a heart full of gratitude! Experience a “Season of Gratitude” this Vesak Day at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery. View the complete Vesak Day programme and the exciting lead-up activities at kmspks.org/vesak.