Vesak
The Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple is lit during the annual Buddhist festival of Vesak in Colombo, Sri LankaGetty Images

Buddhists around the world are celebrating Vesak, one of the most important days in the Buddhist calendar that is observed in May or early June. Also known as "Buddha Day", it commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama. Buddhist scriptures state that each of these significant events occurred on the full moon of the Indian lunar month of Vesakha.

This year, the United Nations is observing the day of Vesak on 1 June, but the date differs depending on the country or culture. The exact date of Vesak is based on the Asian lunisolar calendars and is normally celebrated in Vaisakha month of the Buddhist and Hindu calendars, hence the name Vesak. The older tradition of Vesak is to celebrate all three events, but some modern Buddhist groups celebrate just the birth, and others, the enlightenment.

What is the significance of Vesak?

The term Buddha is not a name but a title, which can be translated as the "Enlightened One". He became the Buddha through his realisation of full enlightenment, a state also known as nirvana in Sanskrit, or nibbana in Pali – the language of many of the earlier extant Buddhist scriptures.

As a result of enlightenment, all hatred and greed is extinguished, so there is no more rebirth. The Buddha achieved the state of nirvana and this is celebrated on Vesak, so Buddhists don't usually refer to the Buddha's death but to his passing into nirvana or nibbana.

Vesak
A Buddhist monk releases a lantern at Borobudur temple during celebrations for Vesak Day in Magelang, JavaGetty Images

In Buddhism, death means rebirth rather than signifying the end of life. However, it differentiates it from reincarnation because Buddhism does not recognise a self or soul that is continually reappearing in a new form.

Tradition states the Buddha himself guided his followers on how to pay homage to Vesak. Before he died, he saw his faithful attendant Ananda weeping. He advised him not to cry, but to understand the universal law that all compounded things – including his body – must disintegrate. He advised his followers to regard his teachings, The Dhamma, as their teacher from then on and to celebrate Vesak by leading noble lives, showing kindness and bringing peace and harmony to humanity.

How is Vesak observed?

Each Buddhist culture has its own traditions for celebrating Vesak. In Sri Lanka, colourful lanterns are lit and light displays depict the life of the Buddha, while in Taiwan, fragrant water is poured over statues of Buddha. In Singapore, caged birds are set free.

Celebrating Vesak means making an effort to bring happiness to the unfortunate, including the aged, the handicapped and the sick. Temples are adorned with flowers and decorations and some devotees perform charitable acts – such as donating money or gifts to the poor.

Devout Buddhists will try to attend their local temple for part of the day, although some attend for the full day. Some bring supplies for the temple and symbolic offerings for the shrine. Meditation, chanting and listening to sermons takes place.