Sacred to millions of Buddhists all over the world, Vesak marks the birth, enlightenment and, in his eightieth year, passing away of the Buddha almost 2,500 years ago. Called Visak Bochea in Cambodia, the festival is celebrated on the full moon day in the month of May, which this year falls on the 7th. In Cambodia, it is one of the most important festivals of the year and, in common with Thailand and Myanmar, will be celebrated on the 6th.
On this day, followers will rise at dawn in order to get to their local pagoda for the hoisting of the Buddhist flag and to sing songs in honour of the Buddha. They will bring offerings of flowers, incense and candles and during the day will hear Dharma teachings, share vegetarian meals and may release birds as an act of symbolic liberation. Finally, at the end of the day, they will release floating lanterns and pray for happiness.
In other Buddhist countries, such as South Korea, the day’s focus is on the Buddha’s birth, but in Southeast Asia, the celebration tends to focus on his enlightenment and death. Notwithstanding that, Visak Bochea is meant to be a day of joyfulness, and monks will recite verses and teaches that invoke peace, happiness and tolerance.
The offerings of flowers and incense serve as a reminder of the Buddha’s words, “the world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realised the nature of the world”.