This is the holiest of Buddhist holy days, celebrating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death, or attaining of Nirvana. While these anniversaries are observed in all Buddhist countries, they are not always celebrated on the same day. In Theravada Buddhist countries, all three anniversaries are marked on the full moon of Vaisakha. In Japan and other Mahayana Buddhist countries, the three anniversaries are usually observed on separate days—the birth on April 8, the enlightenment on December 8, and the death on February 15.
This celebration differs from country to country, but generally activities are centered on the Buddhist temples, where people gather to listen to sermons by monks. In the evening, there are candlelit processions around the temples. Homes are also decorated with paper lanterns and oil lamps. Because it’s considered important to practice the virtues of kindness to all living things, it’s traditional in some countries to free caged birds on this day. In some areas, booths are set up along streets to dispense food. In Burma (Myanmar), people water the Bodhi tree with blessed water and chant prayers around it.
The Buddha was born as a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, at Lumbini in present-day Nepal, an isolated spot near the border with India, and Lumbini is one of the most sacred pilgrimage destinations for Buddhists, especially on Vesak. A stone pillar erected in 250 B.C.E. by the Indian emperor Asoka designates the birthplace, and a brick temple contains carvings depicting the birth. Another center of celebrations in Nepal is the Swayambhunath temple, built about 2,000 years ago. On this day it is constantly circled by a procession of pilgrims. The lamas in colorful silk robes dance around the stupa (temple) while musicians play. On this day each year, the stupa’s collection of rare thangkas (embroidered religious scrolls) and mandalas (geometrical and astrological representations of the world) is shown on the southern wall of the stupa courtyard.
Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India, is the place where the Buddha preached his first sermon, and a big fair and a procession of relics of the Buddha highlight the day there. Bodh Gaya (or Buddh Gaya) in the state of Bihar is also the site of special celebrations. It was here that Siddhartha Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree, attained enlightenment, and became known as the Buddha, meaning the “Enlightened One.”
Gautama was born about 563 B.C.E. into a regal family and was brought up in great luxury. At the age of 29, distressed by the misery of mankind, he renounced his princely life and his wife and infant son to become a wandering ascetic and to search for a path that would give relief from suffering. For six years he practiced severe austerities, eating little. But he realized that self-mortification wasn’t leading him to what he sought. One morning, sitting in deep meditation, under a ficus tree now called the Bodhi tree, he achieved enlightenment, or awakening. This was at Bodh Gaya in about 528 B.C.E., when Gautama was 35 years old. In the years that followed, he laid down rules of ethics and condemned the caste system. He taught that the aim of religion is to free oneself of worldly fetters in order to attain enlightenment, or Nirvana, a condition of freedom from sorrow and selfish desire. The Buddha trained large numbers of disciples to continue his work. He died in about 483 B.C.E.
Excerpt from: Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 5th Ed., published by Omnigraphics