Vesak Day 2022: when is Buddhist festival, how is it celebrated around the world, and what is its history?

Vesak is one of the most important Buddhist festivals, celebrating the Buddha’s birthday and for some, marking his enlightenment

Vesak, known as Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima, Wesak, or Buddha Day, is a holiday observed by Buddhists in South Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as Tibet and Mongolia.

This festival celebrates the birth, enlightenment (Nirvana) and death of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.

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But when is Vesak and how is it celebrated? Here’s what you need to know.

When is Vesak 2022? 

The lunar month of Vaisakha is considered to be the month of the Buddha’s birth and derives from the Pali term vesākha or the Sanskrit word vaiśākha.

In 2022, Vesak falls on 8 May for Buddhists in China, Vietnam and in the Philippines, 15 May for those in Singapore, Thailand and Sri Lanka, and 16 May for Buddhists in Indonesia, India and Nepal.

The Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple is lit during the annual Buddhist festival of Vesak in Colombo

The dates differ because Vesak depends on different Asian lunisolar calendars, but the festival will always fall in April, May or early June.

If a month has two full moons, some countries such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Malaysia will celebrate on the first full moon, and others such as Thailand and Singapore will celebrate Vesak on the second full moon.

What is the history of Vesak? 

Vesak is a festival celebrating Gautama Buddha, who was a spiritual teacher in South Asia in the 5th Century BC.

The Buddha, also known as Siddhārtha Gautama, was born as a prince, who thought wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness.

It is said he found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, now a religious site in India, after travelling around the world as a homeless man, studying and meditating for six years.

The Buddha practised a life of asceticism, a life absent of sensual pleasures for spiritual gain, but taught a middle way between asceticism and sensual indulgence.

After becoming an Enlightened being, he taught others a path to freedom from ignorance, craving, rebirth and suffering.

Buddhist monks meditate at the yard of Borobudur temple, built between 750 and 842 AD, June 1, 2007 in Magelang, Central Java province, Indonesia

In 1950, Sri Lanka held the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists to decide to celebrate Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday in multiple Buddhist countries.

Vesak commemorates significant events to Buddhists of all traditions, such as the birth, the enlightenment and the death of Gautama Buddha.

Because Buddhism has stretched its way around the world, the way the date is celebrated differs between cultures and countries.

How is Vesak celebrated? 

On Vesak, Buddhists congregate in their temples before dawn and hoist the Buddhist flag, singing in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, The Dharma, and The Sangha.

Buddhists bare gifts and offerings from flowers to incense sticks to symbolise how life progresses and will fall to decay and destruction, like how a flower will wither or candles burn out.

Some cultures dance, recite poems, perform deep meditations, and most popularly, this date is when the Rocket Festival, also known as Boun Bang Fay, occurs - where competitions for the most colourful, fastest and highest rocket wins.

Devotees are encouraged to refrain from killing insects and many partake in eating only vegetarian food for the day.

A view of a giant Vesak day display featuring a seated Buddha during the annual Buddhist festival of Vesak in Colombo

In the UK, Buddhists follow cultural practices from their denomination of Buddhism.

In some devout countries such as Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for this celebration, and the government closes off-licences and slaughterhouses.

Life release, a traditional Buddhist practice, sees devotees in their thousands releasing birds, insects and animals to give freedom to those in captivity, but some countries have banned this as some released animals may not survive long-term or may impact the ecosystem if they do.

Some devotees wear white, and most listen to sermons by Monks emphasising the beliefs of the Buddha, to live in harmony and respect others.