We celebrate our most important Buddhist festival, known variously as Vesākha Puja, Wesak, Buddha Jayanthi or Buddha Day, annually on the full moon of the ancient lunar month of Vesākha, which falls usually in May or some years in early June. This year it will be on May 13th and we will celebrate at The Forest Hermitage on May 18th.
Traditionally at Vesākha Puja we celebrate the Birth, the Enlightenment and the Passing of the Buddha. Early Buddhist scriptures state that all three occurred on various Vesākha full moons. However, it is probably the Enlightenment that remains the principal focus since it was that that transformed Gotama the ascetic, known prior to his Enlightenment as the Bodhisatta, into Gotama the Buddha, the One Who Knows, the Awakened One. In the days and weeks leading up to Vesākha Puja, it can be useful to contemplate why he did what he did. How he woke up to the awful realities of life, of ageing, sickness and death, and as a consequence felt compelled to renounce and leave behind his wealth, position and family to seek the unborn, the unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme surcease of bondage, Nibbāna.
The Enlightened state, achieved first by the Buddha, alone and unaided, and then through his example and teaching by many disciples since, is known as Nibbāna (Pali). It is achieved when in the mind of a person, through seeing the true nature of all things, attachment is let go of and all greed, hatred and delusion extinguished, which means that for the Enlightened there will be no more rebirth.
The precise year of the birth of the child who was to become the Buddha is uncertain but is believed to have been 623 BCE and the Buddhist Era commences eighty years later, counted from the year of the Parinibbāna or the Buddha’s Final Passing.
There are some slight cultural and local differences in how the various Buddhist groups and nations celebrate but broadly speaking devout Buddhists try to attend their local temple for at least part of the day with some remaining for the whole day and the night. The occasion will be marked with ‘the making of merit’, which means engaging in doing good and skilful things guided by the Buddhist principles of Giving, Virtue and Cultivation. It is said that one should not be slow to engage in merit since doing merit cleanses the mind. Giving usually involves bringing food to the temple to offer and share, as well as supplies and symbolic offerings for the Shrine. Virtue is observed by reaffirming commitment to the five moral precepts, and for some, for the day and the night, the eight. And the practice of Cultivation includes participating in chanting, meditation and listening to sermons. Buddhist festivals are generally cheerful and happy occasions, expressive of loving-kindness and support in the Buddhist life and training.