Vesak Day is a Singapore Public Holiday and an important holy day in the Buddhist faith, on which Buddhists commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha. It is also known as “Buddha’s Birthday.”
Gautama Buddha, often simply called Buddha, was a wise Indian man whose teachings formed the base of the religion of Buddhism. He is believed to have lived at some time between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. His philosophy is known as the Middle Way, as he found a way to combine sensual indulgence with the abstinence from worldly pleasures that were valued at the time he lived. His beliefs were passed down through oral tradition, and later in writing.
Vesak Day is celebrated with a public holiday in Singapore, where Buddhism is the most popular religion. 33.3% of people in Singapore identify themselves as Buddhists, which is a high number in a country with such a diverse culture and history. The date of Vesak Day varies from year to year, and even country to country, due to the different calendars followed. It takes place on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. This date is usually in May.
On Vesak Day, Buddhists visit their local temple before dawn. They attend a ceremony where they sing hymns and hoist the Buddhist flag. They usually bring offerings such as flowers and candles, which symbolise the fragility of life, and lay them at the feet of their spiritual leader. In Singapore, some of the major Buddhist temples include Lian Shan Shuang Lin Temple, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple. Lian Shan Shuang Lin Temple is particularly well known as it is the oldest temple in Singapore, and the second largest in all of Asia.
During the day, Buddhists aim to do as many good deeds as possible, as they believe that they are worth more on Vesak Day. Some typical examples include giving blood, donating gifts to charities and those in need, and buying caged birds and animals to set them free. It is traditional to eat only vegetarian meals on Vesak Day. These good deeds and generous acts are known as Dana.
Buddhists also take part in rituals such as chanting mantras and the ceremonial bathing of statues of the baby Buddha, to symbolise a fresh start and cleaning away the bad deeds to replace them with good deeds. In the evening, Buddha statues are illuminated, and there is a candlelit street procession.
Some of the Vesak Day traditions differ depending on the heritage of each follower, which varies due to the diverse backgrounds of the residents of Singapore. Most Chinese Singaporean Buddhists follow the Mahayana strand of Buddhism, while those with a Sri Lankan or Burmese background are more likely to follow Theravada Buddhism. Their rituals include cooking a pot of rice and milk, which commemorates Buddha’s last meal before he began to fast to achieve enlightenment.
Image used with permission from viktor hanacek