April 8, 563 B.C.E. (?)

Colored lanterns in S. Korea at the Lotus Lantern Festival celebrating Buddha’s birthday.

Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism, was born Prince Siddhartha Gotama in the foothills of the Himalayas over 2,500 years ago. His birthday is traditionally celebrated on the first full moon day of the sixth month (Vesakha) of the Indian lunar calendar (which would be the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar) except in years in which there’s an extra full moon, and then Buddha’s birthday falls in the seventh month. Well, except where it starts a week earlier. And in Tibet it’s usually a month later…….

Oh, and in Japan, Buddha’s Birthday is always celebrated on April 8.

Confused?

Since the occurrence of the full moon varies from year to year, naturally the actual date varies from year to year (except in Japan).  In Southeast Asia, the day is called Vesak Puja or Visakha or Wesak.   “Puja” means “religious service,” so “Vesak Puja” can be translated “the religious service for the month of Visakha.”  This full moon day is the most commonly observed date for Buddha’s birthday.  Upcoming dates for Vesak Puja include:

  • 2010: May 21
  • 2011: May 10
  • 2012: May 28
  • 2013: May 17
  • 2014: May 6
  • 2015: May 25

In South Korea, Buddha’s birthday is a gala week-long celebration that ends on the first full moon day of the lunar month Vesakha.  Throughout Korea, city streets and temples are decorated with lanterns. At Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, the first day begins with religious ceremonies, followed by a street fair near the temple. In the evening a gala lantern parade stretches for miles through the heart of Seoul.  Here are upcoming dates for the celebration in South Korea:

  • 2010: May 15-May 21
  • 2011: May 4-May 10

Buddha’s birthday in Japan.

In Japan, Buddha’s birthday is always celebrated on April 8, although it is not a national holiday.  This day is called Hana Matsuri or “Flower Festival.” In China, the first celebration of the Buddha’s birth is said to have taken place on April 8 in the latter Chao dynasty (C.E. 319–355) and in Japan it was first held in 660 at the Ganko-ji temple near Nara by order of Empress Suiko. On this day, the statue of the infant Buddha is placed in a flower-decorated shrine symbolizing the beautiful Lumbini garden where the Buddha was born. Sometimes it is carried on a white elephant in a parade, recalling the legendary elephant that brought the Buddha from heaven to the womb of his mother, Queen Maya. People gather around the shrine and pour sweet tea on the statue of the infant Buddha as a substitute for the nectar which is said to have been sprinkled by celestial beings at the time of his birth. The service is therefore called the Kambutsu (Anointing the Buddha) Service.

Celebrating in Tibet.

The entire fourth month of the Tibetan calendar, which usually begins in May and ends in June, is called Saga Dawa (meaning “fourth month”). The seventh day of Saga Dawa is the date of the historical Buddha’s birth for Tibetans. However, the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and entry into Nirvana at his death are observed together on the 15th day of Saga Dawa, called Saga Dawa Duchen. This is the single most important holiday for Tibetan Buddhism, usually observed with pilgrimages and other visits to temples and shrines. The highlight of Saga Dawa Duchen is the raising of a huge pole which is festooned with prayer flags galore, as pilgrims circumambulate the central ring area with prayer wheels in motion.

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