Summary of Visakha Puja; the function of symbolic gesture.
On the full moon day of May each year Buddhists around the world celebrate Visakha Puja – the day on which, according to legend, the Buddha was born. He also attained enlightenment on his birthday, and later died on his birthday too. So he had mixed luck on his birthdays.
Hence we say that Visakha Puja celebrates the Birth, Death and Enlightenment of the Buddha. Or as the Tanchai Thai-English Dictionary states:
The sixth lunar month – religious observance in commemoration of the Birth, Englishtenment, and Death of Lord Buddha.
It’s nice to know that the Buddha was given honourary credentials as an Englishman.
The day will see celebrations all over Thailand with particularly large festivals at Puttamonthon, just West of Bangkok. Most temples will arrange Dhamma Talks, and accept people as Pa Kao (white clothed laypeople on eight precepts). Mostly in the evening there will be circumambulations of the central chapel (called a bot) with flowers, candles and incense. The following morning, the remainder of those devotees begin the arduous task of scraping all the dripped candle wax from the floor around the bot.
Visakha is one of four majour Buddhist ceremonies that have been conveniently arranged in 3 month intervals : Magha Puja, Pavarana day, Asahla Puja (commemorating the first sermon), and Visakha. The spacing was a deliberate move to mark majour celebrations throughout the year, with minor ceremonies in the intervening months. Naturally though, some of the other festivals like Songkran or Loi Krathong get more attention.
The circumambulation might appear to be somewhat Brahmanistic or superstitious in nature to the average foreigner. But Buddhism makes allowance for ritual and observance. For a start, the Uposatha day – the full and half moon days of each month, were considered particularly auspicious to Indians of the time, and many sects would gather on those dates. The Buddha followed this pre-existing custom with gatherings not only of lay people who would come to undertake precepts and meditation, but also gatherings of the monks who recite their Vinaya – Code of Discipline. Flowers, candles and incense were the traditional ‘holy’ offering that should be made to monks (including from junior monks to senior), cediyas (stupas), teachers, or even to other shrines. In fact, in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta, the Buddha tells the lay people that they should maintain reverence and offerings to the local shrines.
So while people, and westerners in particular, often claim that ‘Buddhism’ is more animist and superstitious than pure Buddhist, in fact these kind of ceremonies and traditions were both encouraged and maintained by the Buddha himself. The transference of merit in the water pouring is a good example of a Brahmic tradition that was upheld by the Buddha. These ceremonies are symbolic it is true, but symbolic of something real – that is ones devotion and commitment to the religion, and to virtue and practice. Perhaps we could compare to a wedding ring – it is only a symbol. But it symbolises something very real; the commitment to marriage of two people. Just because many people cheat on their spouses does not turn the symbol into superstition.
So have a good and peaceful Visakha Puja. If you want to take it beyond the symbolic, use the period for improved morality and renunciation, and for extra meditation practice, which was the intention of the full and half moon day gatherings in the forests along the Ganges 2500 years ago.
Some wrong spellings of Visakha are visakka vesakha vesaka wisaka wisakha