‘Wesak’, is celebrated on the full moon of the ancient Indian month called Wesak. In the western calendar, this usually falls in May or early in June. In the Theravada tradition, Wesak celebrates the birth, life and enlightenment of the Buddha. The festival is sometimes called ‘Buddha’s Birthday’, although it commemorates the Buddha’s whole life and eventual passing into nirvana.
Wesak is a joyous time. Buddhists chant and meditate in the temple, focusing on the Three Jewels (also called the Triratna), which are the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Buddhists also make offerings symbolising impermanence, such as flowers or incense sticks.
During Wesak, Buddhists make an effort to refrain from conflict and violence and they try to bring joy to others. Vegetarian food is eaten and in some countries birds or animals are released from cages to symbolise liberation. Donations are made to the poor and needy as well as to monasteries and temples.
Mahayana Buddhists celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha on three different days throughout the year. However, the Mahayana celebration of the Buddha’s birth usually falls on the same day as Theravadin Wesak.
Buddhism in Japan mainly follows the Mahayana tradition. Japanese Buddhists celebrate Buddha’s birthday at a spring festival called Hanamatsuri or the Flower Festival. Streets, shops, houses and temples are decorated with flowers. Children wear flower decorations and traditional Japanese clothing. Models of the Buddha surrounded with flowers sit in Buddhist temples. The festival celebrates both the Buddha and the coming of spring and new life.
In Mahayana tradition, the death of the Buddha is marked by Parinirvana Day. The word ‘parinirvana’ refers to the Buddha’s ‘complete nirvana’, or complete liberation from samsara. According to Buddhist belief, the Buddha achieved enlightenment and remained on Earth to teach and guide others for a further 40 years. He died aged 80, and achieved complete nirvana.
On Parinirvana Day, Mahayana Buddhists attend the temple and may listen to readings about the Buddha’s final days. People bring gifts to their local monastery or temple to support it. They may also offer chanting, meditation and devotions. Some Buddhists go on a Parinirvana retreat.
The tone is sombre and reflective. As he was dying, the Buddha told his followers not to cry, as all things pass away. However, Buddhist think about death and impermanence on this day, as well as the souls of the deceased.
What was the Buddha’s ‘parinirvana’?
His complete liberation from samsara, when he achieved nirvana.