As Buddhists around the world observe the day of Vesak to commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and mahaparinirvana of the Buddha. Millions of Buddhists, many still living under lockdown conditions or subject to strict social-distancing rules due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, will be observing the sacred day at home or connecting with their communities digitally, by joining online observances of Buddhism’s most auspicious holiday.
As in 2020, Buddhist practitioners across the globe have been urged to focus and reflect on the internal aspects of the occasion and of the teaching, and to attend traditional public festivities only where circumstances safely allow as the world continues to struggle to overcome the pandemic that has affected billions of lives, taken away livelihoods, and stalled national economies.
Vesak, also known as Buddha Purnima (or more informally Buddha’s Birthday), commemorates three key events in the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, that represent the birth of Buddhism: his birth, enlightenment (Skt: sopadhishesa-nirvana), and passing from this world (Skt: mahaparinirvana). The occasion is a public holiday in many countries in Asia and is celebrated by millions of Buddhists across the world. Although the date of the holiday can vary from country to country, and between differrent Buddhist traditions, it is most widely observed on or around the date of the full moon in the month of May.
In a message of hope and compassion shared for the occasion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s statement for Vesak was a reminder of the essential foundation of the Buddhist teaching, and emphasized interconnection and our shared responsibility for the well-being of the Earth and of all sentient beings:
On this auspicious occasion, when we commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and entering into Mahaparinirvana, I offer my greetings to fellow Buddhists all over the world.
Buddha Shakyamuni took birth as a prince of the Shakya clan in ancient India about 2600 years ago. The Pali and Sanskrit Traditions declare that the Buddha attained enlightenment at dawn of the full moon day that we call Buddha Purnima. Both the traditions agree that he was not enlightened from the beginning but became the Buddha through meeting the right conditions and striving to accumulate the two stores of merit and wisdom. According to the Sanskrit Tradition, he had to do that for many aeons and entailed his manifesting the four bodies of a Buddha—the Natural Truth Body, the Wisdom Truth Body, the Complete Enjoyment Body and the Emanation Body.
A Buddha’s complete absorption in meditation on emptiness is the Wisdom Truth Body, from which he manifests in different forms. The Complete Enjoyment Body appears to Arya Bodhisattvas, while the Emanation Body is visible to all. Buddha Shakyamuni was a Supreme Emanation Body, the source of a continuous flow of activities to benefit sentient beings.
The Buddha’s teaching is essentially practical. It is not just for one group of people or one country, but for all sentient beings. People can follow this path according to their ability and inclination. I, for instance, started my Buddhist education as a child and although I am now nearly 86 years old, I am still learning. Therefore, whenever I can, I encourage Buddhists I meet to be 21st century Buddhists, to discover what the teaching really means and to put it into effect. This entails listening and reading, thinking about what you have heard and read and making yourself deeply familiar with it.
Although our world has changed substantially since the time of the Buddha, the essence of his teaching remains as relevant today as it was 2600 years ago. Both the Pali Tradition and Sanskrit Tradition possess methods for attaining liberation from ignorance and suffering. The Buddha’s advice, stated simply, was to avoid harming others and to help them whenever we can and in whatever way possible.
We can begin to do this by recognising that everyone else is just like us in that they want happiness and dislike suffering. Seeking joy and freedom from suffering is the birth-right of all beings. But personal happiness very much depends on how we relate to others. By developing a sense of respect for others and a concern for their welfare, we can reduce our own self centredness, which is the source of many of our own problems, and enhance our feelings of kindness, which are a natural source of joy.
On this auspicious day, Buddhists will be holding prayer services in holy places such as Bodhgaya, Lumbini and Kandy, as well as in other Buddhist lands. Let us all join together in doing whatever we can to overcome the global threats we face, including the Covid-19 pandemic that has brought such pain and hardship across the world.
With my prayers and good wishes,
The Dalai Lama also gave a short talk and teaching, live-streamed from his residence in Dharamsala, for Mongolian Buddhists on Wednesday, on the occasion of the national observance of Saga Dawa in Mongolia. This was followed by a teaching on Je Tsongkhapa’s The Three Principal Aspects of the Path and a conferment of the Ceremony for Generating the Awakening Mind at the request of the Geluk International Foundation and the Drepung Loseling Tulku Association.
On the mornings of 1–2 June (9–10am IST), His Holiness is scheduled to give a follow-up teaching on Je Tsongkhapa’s Destiny Fulfilled. The teachings will be conducted in Tibetan with translations into Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
The UN General Assembly officially recognized Vesak Day as an international observance on 15 December 1999, aiming to honor the Buddhist values of wisdom, compassion, and tolerance as a mean to foster world peace. The first official celebration was held at the UN headquarters in New York in 2000.
Last year, the International Council for the Day of Vesak (ICDV) moved to cancel the 17th United Nations Day of Vesak event, which was scheduled to be held in Thailand, in light of the uncertainties and risks associated with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also no official event this year, although the United Nations streamed a video event titled “Vesak 2021: Virtual commemoration of the International Day.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres also shared a brief Vesak message, urging humility and empathy for the sake of the planet:
I send my warmest greetings to Buddhists all over the world on Vesak, when we honour the birth, enlightenment, and passing of Lord Buddha. Today, we recognize the contributions Buddhism has made to human spirituality and culture for more than two and a half millennia. All of us, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, can find inspiration in the Buddha’s message of honesty, compassion, and respect for all living things. As we face the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clearer than ever that humility and deep empathy are essential to our wellbeing and that of our planet.
On this Day of Vesak, let’s resolve to build lives of peace and dignity for all on a healthy planet. (UN Web TV)
His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Message for Buddha Poornima / Vesak (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)
Live Webcast: Saka Dawa Teachings (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)
Vesak Day 26 May 2021 (United Nations)
António Guterres (UN Secretary-General) on The Day of Vesak (26 May 2021) (UN Web TV)
International Council for the Day of Vesak