There are a number of important Buddhist holidays throughout the year, but the most significant in Thailand is Visakha Bucha Day. This day commemorates three defining events in the life of the Lord Buddha which all occurred on the full-moon day of the sixth lunar month (known as the Visakha month). The Visakha full moon marks the day on which Buddha was born, reached his enlightenment 35 years later and the day he died and entered Nirvana 45 years after that.
Visakha Bucha Day is a public holiday in Thailand. The date isn’t fixed because it depends on the lunar calendar, but usually falls in May or June. It’s a day when most Thai Buddhists will visit their local temple to make merit. Because it’s such an important Buddhist day in Thailand there are also restrictions on alcohol sales which means that some bars and clubs close for the day.
The decision to agree to celebrate Vesākha as the Buddha’s birthday was formalized at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950, although festivals at this time in the Buddhist world are a centuries-old tradition. The resolution that was adopted at the World Conference reads as follows:
That this Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, while recording its appreciation of the gracious act of His Majesty, the Maharaja of Nepal in making the full-moon day of Vesak a Public Holiday in Nepal, earnestly requests the Heads of Governments of all countries in which large or small number of Buddhists are to be found, to take steps to make the full-moon day in the month of May a Public Holiday in honour of the Buddha, who is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest benefactors of Humanity.
On Vesākha Day, Buddhists all over the world commemorate events of significance to Buddhists of all traditions: The birth, enlightenment and the passing away of Gautama Buddha. As Buddhism spread from India it was assimilated into many foreign cultures, and consequently Vesākha is celebrated in many different ways all over the world. In India, Vaishakh Purnima day is also known as Buddha Jayanti day and has been traditionally accepted as Buddha’s birth day.
In 1999, the United Nations resolved to internationally observe the day of Vesak at its headquarters and offices.
The name of the observance is derived from the Pali term vesākha or Sanskrit vaiśākha, which is the name of the lunar month in the Hindu calendar falling in April–May (see Vaisakha). In Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the holiday is known by its Sanskrit name (Vaiśākha) and derived variants of it.
Prohibition of alcohol sales
Thai law prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages on Visakha Bucha Day, which causes many bars to close temporarily. Many of celebrations are private and religious, but tourists are allowed to visit most of the many temples of Thailand.
Three of the most important Bangkok temples to see on Visakha Bucha Day are:
- Wat Pho, which is the oldest Buddhist temple in Bangkok. It dates from the 7th Century A.D., but it was rebuilt and expanded in 1801 by King Rama I. The ashes of King Rama I are enshrined inside the temple, along with the famed Reclining Buddha, which is meant to symbolise Buddha’s entrance into nirvana at his death. The architecture is extremely ornate, colourful, and complex.
- Wat Phrathart Doi Suthep. Here, a large Visakha Bucha Day pilgrimage and procession takes place every year. Led by candlelight, devotees circle the temple’s “Bhote” chapel. They move clockwise, carrying incense sticks and lotus buds. The temple overlooks the city, giving a panoramic view, and it contains relics of Buddha that have been housed there for four centuries.
- Wat Phra Kaew, which is considered to be the most sacred of all the numerous Buddhist temples in Thailand. Here is housed the “Emerald Buddha,” which is only about two feet tall and is made out of jade instead of emerald. “Emerald,” in the Thai language, simply refers to a dark green colour and not to a particular gem stone. The statue is in a meditating pose but is standing up straight. The Emerald Buddha is considered to be a symbol of Thailand besides being a religious symbol. You will find the Wat Phra Kaew temple in Bangkok’s historic centre, not far from the famous Grand Palace, which is now a popular museum.
If you are in Chiang Mai, go to Doi Suthep. There, big offering ceremony to monks and many, many faithful praying and walking around the chedi. There will also be a procession by night ascending the Doi Suthep Mount the day before Visakha Buja. This ascension to the temple that dominates the northern capital will also be organized on the next day and takes about 3 hours. If you are there, we strongly advise you to attend to this exceptional event! And on the evening of the same day, at Wat Pan Tao in Chiang Mai city, the monks will place candles around the pond and chant prayers. These celebrations are a great opportunity to discover Buddhist rites and make great pictures.
Activities to be observed on Visakha Bucha Day
On Visakha Bucha Day, Buddhists all over the world celebrate the great day in commemorating of Buddha’s kindness and compassion to the world. These are some aspects of the activities they observe, namely:
- Offering foods to the monks and novices
- Observing the Five Precepts or the Eight Precepts (depending on which ones they observe)
- Practicing Meditation
- Listening to the Dhamma preaching
- Attending the Candle Light Procession around the Buddha’s Shrines
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