As many Buddhists around the world celebrated Vesak—the holiday honoring the Buddha’s birth, awakening, and death or paranirvana—on 5 May, sangha members from a number of traditions gathered at the White House in Washington, DC, for prayers and offerings. Second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, husband of Kamala Harris, hosted the ceremony. Ambassadors from Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailan were present, along with Buddhists from India, Indonesia, and Mongolia.
The occasion is the third time that White House officials have invited Buddhists to celebrate the holiday. The tradition began in 2021, when President Joe Biden became the first US President to organize a formal Vesak celebration at his official residence and place of work.* This year marks the first time that a large number of guests could be welcomed to the White House after the two previous years were kept small due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a White House official, staff “for whom this holiday is meaningful” were also invited to participate. The official also stated that the Biden administration hopes to send the message to Buddhists “that the White House sees, hears and values them on their sacred holiday.” (Religion News Service)
The International Buddhist Association of America (IBAA), which was a partner for the celebration, noted the significance of the event to Buddhists in the US, stating: “According to the Pew Research Center, there are more than 3.5 million Buddhists with over 2,400 organizations in the US, making it our country’s third-largest religious tradition. Vesak—in various national forms—has been observed by millions of Buddhists throughout the world for millennia. (International Buddhist Association of America)
The IBAA added: “In 1999, the United Nations recognized [Vesak] as a major world religious holiday.” (International Buddhist Association of America)
Wangmo Dixey, president of IBAA, stated in the association’s press release:
With between 700 million and a billion followers, Buddhism is the third of the great missionary religions, along with Christianity and Islam, and brings a message of perhaps unique importance to the cultural conditions we find today. The International Buddhist Association of America was founded to rise to this challenge, the challenge of bringing together all the various Buddhist voices found in America, and promoting the civilized and reasoned discourse that is such a feature of our great tradition.(International Buddhist Association of America)
Additionally, US secretary of state Antony J. Blinkin wrote in a press statement:
Happy Buddha Purnima. We send our best wishes to Buddhists around the world as they commemorate Vesak.
Vesak marks the birth, enlightenment, and passing of the Buddha. The occasion provides the chance for us all to reflect on his teachings and renew our commitment to universal values such as compassion, tolerance, and human dignity.
On this occasion, we celebrate the rich contributions of diverse Buddhist communities in every corner of the globe and recommit to working together across belief traditions to build a better world for everyone.(U.S. Department of State)
* Making History: Vesak Celebrated at the White House with Candle Offerings (BDG)
Celebrating Vesak at the White House! (Padmasambhava Buddhist Center)
White House Celebrates Buddhist Vesak (International Buddhist Association of America)
White House to host its third-ever Vesak ceremony (Religion News Service)
The Occasion of Vesak Day (U.S. Department of State)
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Making History: Vesak Celebrated at the White House with Candle Offerings
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