Key facts about the Buddhist Wesak festival

Wesak is the most important of all the Buddhist festivals. It honours the Buddha's enlightenment and is celebrated on the full moon in April or May. As well as honouring and reflecting on the Buddha's enlightenment, its value also lies in making suitable gifts to the temple, from the communal celebration, and in the opportunity to learn more about the Buddha's teachings.

For Buddhists in Theravada countries, the festival also marks the Buddha's birthday and the day of his death. Theravada Buddhists believe that all of these events happened on the same day.

To celebrate, they might do some or all of these things:

  • visit the local temple for services and teachings
  • observe extra precepts, ie 8 precepts in total
  • wear white clothing, at least on their upper body and generally look smart
  • give offerings to the monks, eg money, food, candles and flowers
  • take part in processions
  • decorate shrines
  • chant and pray
  • clean and decorate their homes

The 'Bathing the Buddha' ceremony is also often included during Wesak. This involves water being poured over the shoulders of the Buddha. It reminds Buddhists to purify their own minds from greed, hatred and stupidity. Gifts are also taken to an altar to be offered to the Buddha statues. This shows respect to the Buddha for his life and teachings.

Celebrations in different countries vary but these are some other incidental features:

  • China - dancing dragons.
  • Thailand - lanterns made from paper and wood, and the ceremonial release of caged birds, thus giving liberation to caged creatures and wishing that all beings be well and happy.
  • Indonesia – lanterns made from paper and wood.
  • Sri Lanka – Buddhists may take part in parades to the temple.

In all of these countries, some Buddhists donate blood to hospital during Wesak, others give away free dharma books. All over the world, Buddhists decorate monasteries with Buddhist flags, lanterns and flowers.

As Buddhists think about the Buddha and his enlightenment, they are reminded of the knowledge and insight they believe he gained on the night of his enlightenment. They will consider his teaching with reverence, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts.

Wesak is significant today because it reminds Buddhists of the importance of the life of the Buddha. While it is a time of celebration, it is also a time for reflection. Wesak gives Buddhists the opportunity to think about what they can learn from the Buddha's life. They remember his teachings, and spend time celebrating with other Buddhists.