Buddhism’s Most Important Day: Celebrating Shakyamuni Buddha’s Birthday (563 B.C.) on Vesak or Saga Dawa Druchen 2021, May 26

Buddhism is a generous, loving, and compassionate path. In keeping with these beliefs, on Buddha’s “birthday” (this year on May 26, 2021) it is considered important to give and celebrate love and kindness — Metta and Karuna.

Above all, Vesak is a “celebration of life” — a life-affirming day to joyfully and mindfully engage with the world, our fellow sentient beings, and nature; you don’t have to be Buddhist to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday.

Prince Siddartha, later the Buddha, was a living, breathing spiritual hero who attained Englightenment in 528 B.C. and taught a path of wisdom and compassion. [Note: This is based on the latest archeological evidence. Earlier archeology timelines placed his life as 490 B.C. to 410 B.C., but recent finds now place his life as born 563 B.C. to Paranirvana at 483 B.C. — see timeline below.]

 

To Buddhists, around the world, the most important day of the year is Vesak (Wesak) — a day set aside to honor not only the birth (circa 563 B.C.), but also the enlightenment (528 B.C.), and the Parinarvana of Guatama Buddha (483 B.C.).

 

Buddha Weekly BUDDHA birthday.1800 Buddhism

Vesak 2021 May 26 Happy Birthday Buddha! May All Beings Be Happy!

 

Vesak falls on the full moon of lunar April, called the “Flower Moon” — this year it will be May 26, 2021.

 

Buddha Weekly Wesak Day Celebration Buddhism

Light offerings on Wesak (Vesak) Buddha’s Birthday.

 

Although it may be celebrated at different times — due to the lunar calendar and cultural aspects — this year most Buddhists celebrate Vesak on May 26, 2021. This day was established in 1950 by the World Fellowship of Buddhists. In 1999, the United Nations acknowledged Vesak internationally.

 

Buddha Weekly Bathing Buddha on Wesak Day Buddhism

Symbolically bathing the Baby Buddha statue is an ancient practice celebrated today on Vesak (Wesak) Buddha’s Birthday.

 

On this day we celebrate not only the Buddha, but the Dharma and Sangha — the teachings and the community. Vesak (Sanskrit Vaishakha, and Pali Vesakha) is also known as Saka Dawa (Tibetan),  Buddha Pumima, and Buddha Jyanti.

 

Buddha Weekly Dana or giving generosity is a Buddhist Practice dreamstime xxl 178863937 Buddhism

Generosity and giving have been a key practice in Buddhism since Buddha’s First Teaching around 528 B.C. Here a lay Buddhist give food to monks who eat only one meal a day.

Traditional activities of generosity

Affectionately known as “Buddha’s Birthday” — is it too cute to dub it BBDay? — we traditionally make extra efforts to help the unfortunate, poor, sick, and aged, and engage in “karma yoga” activities including cleaning and painting gompas and temples, painting thangkas, and feasting on vegetarian food — all in homage to The Enlightened One. In Japan, it is traditional to pour hydrangea flower tea (amacha), while in Sri Lanka they might hang beautiful multi-coloured lanterns on the streets. Monks in various traditions will engage in pujas, mantras  and other ceremonies.

 

Buddha Weekly Borobudur Temple in Indonesia celebrating Buddha Day Buddhism

Vesak Day celebrations in Borobudur Temple Indonesia for 2017.

 

The one overwhelming theme of Vesak is joy, life affirmation, and compassion for all beings.

This is why we might eat a vegetarian meal — to honour our fellow sentient-beings — or engage in acts of charity or kindness. On this day, most Buddhists — and non-Buddhists to honour the day of compassion — will typically engage in the five lay-precepts, to paraphrase them consicely (see Five Precepts below):

  • Refrain from taking life (hence vegan for the day!)
  • Refrain from taking what is not given.
  • Refrain from misuse of all our senses.
  • Refrain from wrong speech (gossip, lies, and so on)
  • Refrain from intoxicants that cloud the mind.

 

Buddha Weekly Baby Buddha the conqueror took seven steps immediately after birth dreamstime xxl 91402790 Buddhism

Buddha`s Birthday is a holiday traditionally celebrated in Mahayana Buddhism to commemorate the birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, later the Gautama Buddha and founder of Buddhism. According to the Theravada Tripitaka scriptures from Pali, meaning `three baskets` Gautama was born in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, around the year 563 BCE, and raised in Kapilavastu.

 

Dates of celebration may vary

In many traditions and countries, the full moon of lunar April is the celebration of Buddha’s Birthday, although the date varies due to lunar calendar variances between cultures and traditions. In Theravada traditions, we typically celebrate on the full moon in the 5th or 6th month, while in China and Korea Buddha’s Birthday might be on the eighth of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar.

 

Guatama Buddha on Shrine

Temple statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, with offerings and decorations for celebrating Wesak, the Buddha’s Birthday.

Celebrating Vesakha

Typically, devout Buddhists will assemble at a temple or gompa before dawn for ceremonies and honoring of the Holy Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (the Buddhist disciples and followers). All of the festivities are about celebrating live, joy and compassion:

  • Traditional offerings of flowers, water, incense are laid at the feet of the Buddha. If you have no altar, just imagine Buddha in front of you. Remember, all beings have Buddha Nature, so you are also offering to all beings.
  • On this day, there can be no killing of any kind if possible, and most eat only vegetarian (or, ideally, vegan) food for the day.
  • Release of animals or insects ceremonies. Releasing captive birds, animals, and insects is an auspicious, positive karma-activity. Motivation is important, making it vital to verify that the birds, animals, or insects you are releasing were not captured for the event by unscrupulous merchants. You should only release animals, birds and insects who would otherwise be in captivity — making it a genuine heroic action of the Bodhisattva.
  • Engage in any life-affirming act: visit a sick relative, take a walk in nature, sing, celebrate, visit your grandparents and parents, learn the art of gardening — anything that affirms positivity, compassion and joy.
  • Act with regard and compassion for all beings. Bring happiness to at least one other person. Bring happiness to at least one stranger — someone who is not a friend. (Hints — small acts, such as giving up your place in line, offering a chair to the elderly, even just being conscious of insects as you walk down the sidewalk.)
  • Try to follow the five precepts for the day, ideally the eight (see below.)

 

Buddha Weekly Buddha and the suffering monk Buddhism

Virtuous acts of compassion exemplify the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Here, Buddha helps a sick monk. On Vesak, especially, it is auspicious to undertake generosity, helping the elderly, sick or people in need.

 

“During Vesak many practitioners make special efforts to bring happiness to the elderly, disabled, and those suffering from illness, but it is also a time to give oneself happiness by creating beauty through artistic endeavors.” [1]

Vesak dates 2021 to 2025

2021 May 26 Wednesday
2022 May 16 Monday
2023 May 5 Friday
2024 May 23 Thursday
2025 May 12 Monday

 

The Precepts for the Day

Any day, a devout practicing Buddhist tries to observe the five precepts:

  1. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from onslaught on breathing beings.” (Pali: Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
  2. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from taking what is not given.” (Pali: Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
  3. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures.” (Pali: Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
  4. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from false speech.” (Pali: Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
  5. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from alcoholic drink or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness.” (Pali: Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)

However, the devout Buddhist who is a lay practitioner — on days such as Wesak — usually tries to observe the Eight Precepts of ordained Buddhists for the day, as training in morality and humility.

 

Noble Eightfold Path of Buddha

The Eightfold Path.

 

The remaining three precepts

The remaining three precepts, for special days (or ordained practitioners), would be:
6.    I undertake to abstain from eating at the wrong time — the correct time is after sunrise but before noon.
7.    I undertake to abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics and garlands or decorations.
8.    I undertake to abstain from luxurious places for sitting or sleeping, and overindulging in sleep.

Buddha Gautama

Shakyamuni Buddha, the current Buddha of our time, is honored by follower’s respect for the Dharma, His Teachings.

Homage to the Buddha

Guatama Buddha, the historical Buddha of our time, instructed us to pay homage to Him by sincerely following His teachings, the Dharma. Although offerings and flowers are respectful, a genuine homage to Siddartha Buddha is conveyed by conduct. On Wesak, we renew our promises to follow the Dharma, to lead noble lives, to cultivate Bodhichitta, to develop wisdom, and—of overwhelming importance—practice loving kindness.

 

Buddha Weekly Buddha teaching monks Buddhism

The Buddha first taught the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

 

Timeline of Buddha’s Life

Although earlier experts placed Buddha’s life at 490 B.C. to 410 B.C., the latest archeological evidence places Buddha’s Birth at 563 B.C. and his Paranirvana at 483 B.C. Dating relates to birth relics recently found, and his Paranirvana dates can be easily reinforced by his funeral relics scattered throughout India and Asia.

 

Buddha Weekly 1599px Dream Queen Maya BM OA 1932.7 9.1 Buddhism

Stupa drum panel showing the conception of the Buddha: Queen Maya dreams of white elephant entering her right side. Wiki Commons.

 

563 B.C. Conception to the Sakyas

Sakyamuni (Shakyamuni) Gautama Buddha’s conception — in much of Asia, conception is the celebratory date, rather than the actual date of birth. [2] Famously, Queen Maha Maya, Buddha’s mother, had a conception dream of a white elephant with six tusks descending from heaven to enter her womb. His title Sakyamuni (pronounced Shakyamuni) literally means ‘sage’ of the Sakyans — where Sakya was his father’s kingdom or oligarchic republic (located in modern-day Nepal). Muni literally means “sage.” Śākyamuni (शाक्यमुनि) is title of Buddha fist cited  in  Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra (chapter VI).

Buddha Weekly Buddhas birth walked seven steps Buddhism

According to legend, Baby Buddha took seven steps to each of the directions immediately after his miraculous birth.

563 B.C. Siddartha’s Birth in Lumbini Nepal

Buddha was actually born Prince Siddartha, in Lumbini Nepal. According to tradition:

Buddha emerged from his mother’s side, as she stood leaning against a tree, in a painless and pure birth.” [2]

He was named Siddartha (or Sarvathasiddha) — literally meaning “a man who achieves his goals” — by his father the king, who was determined he would be a great worldly king and conqueror, not a Buddha as predicted by the sages. His mother passed away, and he was brought up by his aunt Mahaprajapati.

 

Buddha Weekly Shakyamuni Buddha before his enlightenment practicing martial arts Buddhism

Siddartha Buddha grew up in the palace and was an expert in martial arts.

 

548 B.C. Siddartha’s marriage to Yasodhara

His father the king determined he must be sheltered from the suffering of the world to remove any causes that might arise compassion in the young prince. True to his father’s aspirations, he was brought up a privileged prince, sequestered in the palace. He was married to young Yasodhara, who conceived their son Rahula.

Siddartha grew up in Kapilavastu, the capital, and became very accomplished in “kingly arts” including the martial arts.

 

Buddha Weekly Siddartha leaves the palace and sees the the four sights sickness death old age Buddhism

Siddartha leaves the palace and sees the four sights: poverty, illness, old age and death.

 

534 B.C. Buddha sees the four sights: suffering

True to predictions of the sages — and despite his father’s fiercely protective tactics — Prince Siddartha escaped the palace and saw the four sights of suffering: poverty, illness, old age, and death. He also saw religious ascetics. His “existential crisis” [2] led to his life’s mission — to release the world from all suffering.

 

Buddha Weekly Buddha parts from wife and child Buddhism

Buddha determines to leave his wife Yasodhara and son Rahula to seek Enlightenment — to release them from ultimate suffering in Samsara. Later, they both become his followers.

 

534 B.C. Siddartha leaves home

With compassion awake in the young Prince Siddartha, he became driven to overcome the suffering of Samsara. In a dramatic moment, Siddartha determined to leave home — quietly leaving the palace to avoid his father’s guards. He knew he must abandon his conventional, privileged life, to seek the answers that would save all beings from the eternal cycle of suffering.

Dramatically, he left his beloved wife and child — knowing he must for the ultimate benefit — cut his hair and left behind even his inseparable horse. Cutting his hair was a symbol of leaving behind his ordinary life. He traveled south, seeking out other spiritual seekers, and ended in Magadha (current Bihar) where he begged on the streets.

Buddha Weekly Buddhas journey to enlightenment in a Tarot Buddhism

Buddha Tarot by Robert Place features the life and journey to Enlightenment of Siddartha Buddha as the major Aracana, in place of the “fool’s journey” to spiritual enlightenment. On the top (left to right) are the white elephant that descended to Queen Maha in the conception dream, Siddartha leaving the palace on his horse, Siddartha cutting his hair to become an ascetic, then Buddha’s first sermon.

533 B.C. Siddartha Meditates in Magadha

Like most spiritual seekers, Siddartha sought out and trained with many meditation teachers — notably “the masters Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta” [2]

He learned and mastered with the best of the great sages of the time, attaining great realizations, but not the ultimate solution. He determined they did not have the final “permanent” solution, and decided he must seek the solution on his own.

 

Buddha Weekly Aesetic Buddha starving Buddhism

Buddha as the ascetic. Buddha starved himself eating only a grain of rice a day, seeking the answers through the ancient practices of asceticism.

 

532-5238 B.C. Siddartha the Ascetic

Asceticism was an extreme form of practice that included living in the wild without protection, extreme fasting — basically, an attempt to “down the physical influence of one’s being and release the soul, an insubstantial essence in each individual.” [2]

He continued this until he was nothing but dry skin and bones, close to death.

Buddha Weekly Temperance middle path Buddha Tarot Buddhism e1567443955570

In Robert Place’s stunning Buddha Tarot, card XIV illustrates the moment of insight of the Buddha, after he had endured starvation and ascetic practices, that the “middle way” is the path to Enlightenment. Here, he is offered a bowl of rice at just that moment.

528 B.C. Siddartha risks death at Varanasi

Pushing his practice to the extreme, he tried every extreme meditation and practice — together with five other ascetics — only to nearly die of starvation. Finally, he realized the “middle way” was the correct path to Enlightenment — neither the extreme of deprivation nor its opposite of luxury. Barely able to move, he accepted a tiny bowl of mik, rice from a devotee named Sujata. From that moment, he pioneered the “Middle Path” now known as “Buddhism.”

 

Buddha Weekly Buddha surrounded by Maras armies Buddhism

Mara’s army is swept away by a flood of merits. The Earth Mother rings out her hair releasing the torrent. In each of Buddha’s many lifetimes as a compassionate Bodhisattva, he accumulated drops of merit — released now as an epic flood on the day of his Enlightenment.

 

528 B.C. Awakening at Bodh Gaya

At Buddhism’s most “famous” site, Bodhgaya, Siddartha found the liberating path. Rejected by the five ascetics, he ate modest meals, recovering his strength, then moved to a new meditation site under the most famous tree in history — the Pipal Tree of Bodh Gaya. [A decedent of this tree is still honored today in Bodhgaya.]

He withdrew into his mind, pioneering a new “middle way” of meditating. He endured trials under the tree, tempted by the Mara and his legions and armies. [Mara and his legions, assailing the Buddha under the tree, can be thought of as the struggle Buddha faced internally with his own attachments and past karmic imprints.] Finally, he awakened, and Mara and his legions vanished. Famously, the symbol of this is Buddha touching the earth as his witness. He attained Bodhi — Awakening — and became the Buddha, the Awakened One.

 

Buddha Weekly Buddha Teaching Buddhism

The Buddha teaching — his first teaching was on the Four Noble Truths.

 

528 B.C. First Teaching at Sarnath

Buddha “turned the first wheel” of teaching, determined to help others with his perfect methods. His first pupils were the five ascetics who had earlier rebuked him. His first teachings were the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path:

Buddha first taught the Four Noble Truths, the Truth of Suffering, metaphorically, the “disease” we are treating.

“What, monks, is the truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, decay, sickness and death are suffering. To be separated from what you like is suffering. To want something and not get it is suffering. In short, the human personality, liable as it is to clinging and attachment brings suffering.” [3]

 

Buddha Weekly Eightfold Path Buddhism

Eightfold Path

 

Overcoming suffering relied on the Eightfold Path:

“This is the noble eightfold way, namely, right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right attention, right concentration, and right meditation.” — Shakyamuni Buddha at Deerpark

For a feature on the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, see>>

Buddha Weekly Buddha teaching monks Buddhism

The Buddha continued to teach for 45 years to a growing group of committed monks and lay disciples.

528-483 B.C. Countless teachings, Turning the Wheel

Buddha traveled with a growing entourage of disciples, teaching for the next 45 years. These precious teachings, recorded by his pupils, became a vast body of Pali Sutta, and later Mahayana Sutra — the largest collection of spiritual teachings in history. His teachings would spread throughout India, China, Japan, Korea, and all of Asia — and ultimately around the world.

Buddha Weekly Buddha attains nirvana Buddhism

Shakyamuni Buddha practiced the eightfold path and taught it to his disciples. He attained Enlightenment.

 

483 B.C. Paranirvana at Kusinagara, Malla

At the age of 80, he decided it was time for him to leave the teachings to his Sangha of disciples. He gave his last teaching. He asked his disciples if they had any last questions for him before he left.

Finally, he said, “Things that arise from causes will also decay. Press on with due care.”[3]

He lay down on his right side, with his hand under his face — in the pose made famous by the Sleeping Buddha statue — and passed into the peace of ultimate Paranirvana.

 

Buddha Weekly BUDDHA birthday.1800 Buddhism

Vesak 2021 May 26 Happy Birthday Buddha! May All Beings Be Happy!

 

NOTES

[1] National Today “Vesak May 26, 2021” >>

[2] BBC: Life of the Buddha, a Spiritual Journey>>

[3] The Vision of the Buddha: The Path to Spiritual Enlightenment, by Tom Lowenstein.

Lee-Clark-buddha-weekly-5

Lee Kane

Author | Buddha Weekly

Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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