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Celebrating Buddha’s Birthday: The Significance, Customs, and Festivities Across Asia
Buddha’s birthday celebrates the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. The actual year the Buddha was born is unknown, but he is at least 2500 years old. On the other hand, Asia Exchange is celebrating its 16-year anniversary this year. A pretty big difference between the numbers, but let’s celebrate both, nevertheless!
This giant Buddha statue can be found in Hong Kong. Photo by Jason Cooper
The birthday of the Buddha is celebrated on different dates by various schools of Buddhism but they are all around springtime. In most Asian countries, it is usually celebrated on the first full moon of May.
The Significance of Buddha’s Birthday
Buddha’s birthday, also known as Vesak or Buddha Purnima, is a significant event for millions of people worldwide who follow Buddhism. This sacred day celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and passing of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. Observed on the full moon day of the lunar month Vesakha, which typically falls in April or May, this occasion is marked with various festivities and customs throughout Asia, reflecting the diverse cultures and traditions of the region.
Customs and Traditions Across Asia
Buddha’s birthday is commemorated with diverse customs, rituals, and celebrations across various Asian countries. Some of these include:
China – Bathing Buddha and the Fragrant Hills
In China, the celebration takes place in Buddhist temples where people light sweet-smelling incense and bring food offerings for the monks. In Hong Kong, the Buddha’s birthday is a public holiday. People light lanterns, which symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightenment, and visit temples to pay their respects.The Buddha statues are also bathed to celebrate the day.
In China, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated with various activities and rituals, including the Bathing Buddha ceremony. Devotees visit temples to pour water over Buddha statues, symbolizing the cleansing of their minds and souls. One of the most notable celebrations takes place at the Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan) in Beijing. During this event, a grand procession is held, featuring the “Three Steps, One Bow” ritual, where participants take three steps and then bow in reverence. This solemn yet lively occasion is a unique opportunity to experience China’s rich Buddhist heritage.
Indonesia – Waisak at Borobudur Temple
In Indonesia, Buddha’s Birthday is known by a different name, Waisak, and it is a public holiday.Part of the celebration includes lighting and releasing lanterns into the air. At Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, thousands of Buddhist monks will join together to chant mantras and meditate. Monks also celebrate by bottling holy water, which symbolizes humility, and transporting flames, which symbolize light and enlightenment, from location to location.
Indonesia celebrates Waisak with a grand procession at the iconic Borobudur Temple in Central Java. Thousands of Buddhist monks and pilgrims gather for a day of prayer, meditation, and the release of lanterns into the night sky, symbolizing the enlightenment of Buddha.
Japan – Hanamatsuri, the Flower Festival
In Japan, Buddha’s birthday is known as Hanamatsuri, or the Flower Festival, and is celebrated on April 8th. This joyous occasion is marked by the decoration of temples with colorful flowers, symbolizing the beautiful Lumbini Garden where Buddha was born. A highlight of the celebration is the “Kambutsue” ceremony, where a small statue of the infant Buddha is placed in a miniature shrine adorned with flowers. Devotees then pour sweet tea over the statue, representing the gentle rain that is said to have fallen when Buddha was born. The day is filled with lively parades, music, and cultural performances, offering a vibrant glimpse into Japan’s unique approach to honoring Buddha’s birth.
South Korea – Lotus Lantern Festival
Lanterns of every color are displayed during Buddha’s Birthday in Korea. Photo by Pkh470
In Korea, the birthday of Buddha is celebrated according to the Lunisolar calendar. It has now become one of the country’s biggest cultural festivals. People light lanterns and city streets and temples are covered with them. On the day of Buddha’s birth, many temples provide free meals and tea to all visitors.
In South Korea, the Lotus Lantern Festival or Yeon Deung Hoe is held to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. The streets come alive with vibrant lantern parades, symbolizing the light of Buddha’s teachings. Thousands of colorful lanterns, often in the shape of lotus flowers, are hung in temples and public spaces, creating a mesmerizing display.
Malaysia – Wesak Day Processions and Acts of Charity
In Malaysia, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated as Wesak Day, with festivities taking place throughout the country. The celebrations typically involve processions featuring ornately decorated floats and devotees carrying candles, incense, and flowers. One of the most prominent processions takes place in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, drawing thousands of spectators and participants.
Acts of charity, known as “dana,” are also an essential aspect of the Wesak Day celebrations in Malaysia. Buddhists visit temples to offer alms to monks and donate food, clothing, and other essentials to those in need. Additionally, blood donation drives are often organized, emphasizing the spirit of compassion and generosity that embodies the essence of Buddha’s teachings.
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Thailand – Bathing Buddha Images
In Thailand, Buddha’s birthday is known as Visakha Puja and it is a public holiday.It does not only celebrate the Buddha’s birth, but also hisenlightenment and death. People gather at temples to hear sermons, give donations and chant prayers.
In Thailand, devotees celebrate Vesak by visiting temples and bathing Buddha images with fragrant water, a ritual that symbolizes purification and the washing away of sins. The day is also marked by acts of charity, such as offering food to monks and releasing captive animals.
Experiencing Buddha’s Birthday in Asia
Witnessing the celebrations of Buddha’s birthday in Asia is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These festivities offer unique insights into the region’s rich cultural tapestry, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the local traditions and appreciate the essence of Buddhist teachings. Whether you’re exploring the lantern-filled streets of South Korea or observing the solemn rituals at Borobudur Temple, you’ll be captivated by the beauty and spirituality of these ancient customs.
Which country’s celebration would you like to take part in?
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This article was written by Nella.