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Today is an important holiday for Buddhists all over the world, marking the birth, enlightenment, and death of Guatama Buddha. This day goes by many names – Vesak, Vesākha, and Buddha Purnima to name a few – and in Thailand it’s called Visakha Bucha (วิสาขบูชา). The date varies from country to country depending on what calendar they use; according the the Thai calendar, this year it falls on June 1st 2558 BE. Interestingly enough, it’s also celebrated as National Tree Day in Thailand.
People dress up for this important occasion – many of them in all white – and head to a temple before dawn for the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag. Another important aspect of the morning’s festivities is giving alms to the monks. Worshippers also make offerings of flowers and burn incense, which both have a symbolic meaning – just as flowers eventually wither and die and the incense eventually burn out, life too is fleeting.
Check out some highlights of this festival in Chiang Mai.
During Visakha Bucha, people will take care to observe the Five Precepts of Buddhism:
1. I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.
2. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
3. I undertake the training rule to avoid sensual misconduct.
4. I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
5. I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.
Learn more about the Five Precepts from a monk.
Some will even go the extra mile and follow an additional three:
6. I undertake to abstain from eating at the wrong time (the right time is after sunrise, before noon).
7. I undertake to abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories).
8. I undertake to abstain from luxurious places for sitting or sleeping, and overindulging in sleep.
Many birds and animals are also released into the wild as a symbol of giving freedom to those who are held against their will. In many temples, a small statue of Buddha will be placed in a water basin so devotees can pour water over it; this symbolizes the washing away of bad karma. In the evening, there will be a candlelit procession where people walk around the main shrine of a temple three times to honor the three jewels of Buddhism – Buddha, his teachings, and the monkhood.
A short news clip of Vesak in Thailand.
While all of these rituals serve a purpose related to the holiday, the most important thing to do is follow the Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma) sincerely. In order to help people better understand the Dhamma, monks all across the country will give lectures where people are expected to listen intently.
In a country that’s over 90% Buddhist, this is an incredibly important holiday. If you should find yourself in Thailand over Visakha Bucha, do your best to observe and respect the customs – put down that bottle of Chang, swap chicken for veggies, and head to a temple to partake in this very spiritual day. Buddhists are some of the most understanding and welcoming people in the world, so you’ll be welcomed in with open arms.