In a historic first, a candle-lighting ceremony to observe and commemorate the Buddha’s birth, attainment of enlightenment, and passing into parinirvana was conducted at the White House in celebration of the day of Vesak. Lamps were lit and prayers offered in the presence of Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff and representatives of all three major traditions of Buddhism: Vajrayana, Mahayana, and Theravada.
“On this occasion, we celebrate the invaluable contributions of Buddhist communities the world over. We join these communities in recommitting ourselves to upholding the universal principles of compassion, peace, and respect for human dignity,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken stated for the event. “May this day inspire us all to reflect on our shared values and to collectively work to build a better world for Buddhists and people of all belief traditions.” (The Times of India)
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 between different Buddhist traditions nand national customs, it is most widely observed on or around the date of the full moon in the month of May.
The occasion was accompanied by a statement from US President Joe Biden, who announced in his official message published by the White House on Wednesday:
[First Lady] Jill [Biden] and I extend our warmest wishes to Buddhists in the United States and around the world as they celebrate Vesak, a day honoring the birth, enlightenment, and passing of the Buddha. The ceremonial lighting of a lamp, the symbol of this holiday that has been celebrated for over 2,500 years, reminds us of Buddhism’s teachings of compassion, humility, and selflessness that endure today. On this day, we also commemorate the many contributions of Buddhists in America who enrich our communities and our country as we all work together toward brighter days ahead. (The White House)
“Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche lit a lamp at the White House as the representative of Vajrayana Buddhism in the very first Vesak Day celebration ever held there!” explained Prashant V, projects director for Siddhartha’s Intent India, part of an international collective of Buddhist groups supporting the Buddhadharma activities of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. “Rinpoche’s daughter, Semo Wangmo Dixey, president of the International Buddhist Association of America, coordinated the event, attended by Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, Rev. Marvin Harada, who was representing Mahayana Buddhism, and the Most Venerable Uparatana, representing Theravada Buddhism.”
In a separate message shared over social media, US Vice President Kamala Harris observed:
Today Buddhists in the US and across the world honor Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing with the celebration of Vesak — a symbol of compassion, unity and care for each other. These lessons couldn’t be more important today. Doug [Emhoff] and I wish a Happy Vesak to all who celebrate!
Secretary Blinken also shared his own social media message for Vesak:
On #VesakDay, we celebrate the invaluable contributions of Buddhist communities the world over, inspiring us all to compassion, peace, and respect for human dignity.
The ceremony at the White House was reported to have been facilitated by Shekar Narasimhan, president of the Dharma Into Action Foundation.
“It is wonderful that prayers were offered from all three great traditions of Buddhist practice here, at the heart of American democracy,” said Dixey. “It is so auspicious that this should happen on this day of celebration of the life and teachings of the Buddha. May the prayers we offer today to bring peace and healing to all peoples, particularly to our brothers and sisters in India, the heartland of the Dharma, and may the light that radiates from here, the White House of America, bring wisdom and harmony to the whole world. We are lighting a million camps today to honor this historical moment in our Buddhist history in America.”
According to data from the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, Buddhists represent 1.2 per cent of the US population, or roughly 3.7 million people, making it the third-largest religion in the nation. Although the majority of American Buddhists are of Asian heritage, the spiritual tradition is represented among all ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Statement by President Biden on Vesak (The White House)
Joe Biden sends greetings to Buddhists on Vesak (The Times of India)
International Buddhist Association of America
Dharma Into Action Foundation