Buddha’s birthday is an informal name for Wesak Day, a holiday which encompasses the birth, enlightenment and passing of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. The decision among Buddhist leaders to celebrate Wesak as Buddhaâ€™s birthday was formalized at the first Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950. Wesak is the highlight of the Buddhist year and is officially observed in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries. Malaysia, in particular, has declared Wesak a national holiday since 1962, in strong effort by the Chinese community to uphold the universal virtues of their religion. Each temple in the country has its own traditions in celebrating the holiday, though there is a spirit of unity among all Buddhists (almost all of which are overseas Chinese). Joss sticks and candles are lit by the thousands, for example,Â and many burn oil lamps as a symbol of lighting their lives and avoiding problems and disease. The Mahindarama Temple in Kampar Road, Penang, in particular, lit 2,550 yellow lotus candles during the 2,550th anniversary of Wesak last 2006. Flowers are also laid at the feet of their teacher, an act which reminds devotees of the brevity of material things as symbolized by the eventual decay of these beautiful blooms. Some temples display a small figurine of the baby Buddha in front of their altar in a small basin of water that is adorned with flowers.
Wesak is also a time for increased observance of the eight precepts of Buddhism, as people believe that gaining merits on this day counts more than any other day. Many stay within the temples for the entire day, practicing meditation, listening and chanting to suttas, and cleaning the temple grounds. Monks will recite verses uttered by Buddha centuries ago to invoke peace and prosperity for the government and the people. Many Buddhists give up eating meat on this day as a temporary act of purification, and followers are instructed to avoid killing in any form; vegetarian cuisine is served among followers as well as beggars. One important element during this day is the distribution of gifts to the less fortunate in practice of the virtue of generosity. These gifts may be in cash or in kind; even blood donation is encouraged. Orphanages, welfare homes, retirement communities, and charitable institutions are the most common places visited by devotees during this holiday. Hymns are sung in praise of the holy triple gem: the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (his disciples). Birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands to represent the liberation of those who are in captivity, imprisoned or tortured.
Many Buddhist communities host candle-light processions which are centered on a large image of Buddha. Worshipers follow the entire route of the procession, believing that great merits are obtained upon doing so. Even the elderly and infirm will join in despite their aches and pains, having faith that the act will alleviate their suffering. A special effort is made in Georgetown, Penang, where a float procession stretching for several kilometers entertain the thousands of people who line the streets to witness it. Even Kuala Lumpur has a special event made for the holiday called the Wesak Film Festival, which is held every year and features Buddhist-themed movies, documentaries, animated features and children’s films, all of which are free to the public.
Wesak Day falls on different dates every year based on various lunar calendars as used by different countries; in Malaysia, the holiday falls around April or May. A very good temple to visit during this holiday is Dhammikarama Temple in Georgetown, acknowledged by many as the most famous Buddhist Temple for worship. As the first Burmese temple to be built in Penang, Dhammikarama has two huge chi lings (lion-looking statues) guarding the entrance of the main hall, while a tall standing statue of Buddha stands at its center. There is also the Wat Chayamangkalaram (Recling Buddha Temple) located opposite the Dhammikarama, which possesses the third largest reclining Buddha statue in the world. The temple grounds is decorated with many intricately carved and colored statues of devas and other mythical creatures.Â If you want to visit Malaysia during Wesak, it is suggested that you wear easily removable footwear as these items are not allowed on temple grounds. You should also respect the devotees by not using your camera indiscriminately or acting rudely in their places of worship.