Buddhists around the world are honoring the birth, enlightenment, and death of their spiritual leader with a bright, colorful festival called Vesak Day.
Vesak Day (also known as Waisak, Wesak, or Buddha Day), is one of the most important dates on the Buddhist calendar. It is believed to be the day in 567 BC that Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in Nepal.
The prince lived in luxury and opulence behind his father’s palace walls until his late 20s, when he ventured outside and was confronted with the reality of suffering in the world. The prince, overwhelmed after witnessing poverty, disease, and death, decided to leave his life of luxury and become an ascetic.
Unsatisfied with the guidance of various religious teachers he met along his way, the prince decided to sit underneath a Bodhi tree until he discovered the truth that he was seeking about suffering. He sat there for days, facing various challenges and sinking deeper into meditation, until he finally understood the answer ― in that moment becoming the Buddha, or the enlightened one.
For the rest of his life, the Buddha sought to lead others to the path of enlightenment. He died peacefully at the age of 80.
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Vesak celebrates all three of these important events in the Buddha’s life ― his birth, enlightenment, and death. Buddhist scriptures claim all three happened on the full moon of the Indian lunar month, Vesakha.
According to the Pew Research Center, Buddhists account for 7 percent of the world’s total population. The overwhelming majority of Buddhists (almost 99 percent) live in the Asia-Pacific region.
The United Nations marks Vesak Day on May 10, but the festivities, and the exact date of Vesak, vary greatly according to culture and region. In many regions, the celebrations center around Buddhist temples, where people gather to meditate and light lanterns.
In Indonesia, thousands of monks and pilgrims will gather at the Borobodur Temple in Java between May 9 and May 11. They will light candles, chant, and circle three times around the ancient temple, then release some 1,000 lanterns into the sky symbolizing enlightenment for the entire universe.
In South Korea, people celebrate with a month-long Lotus Lantern Festival, which includes parades, performances, and thousands of colorful, glowing lanterns. Many devotees will gather to celebrate at the Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, the center of Korean Buddhism.
In India, pilgrims flock to Sarnath, a city in Uttar Pradesh, India, where the Buddha is believed to have given his first public sermon after attaining enlightenment. Here, devotees wear white clothes, meditate, and leave offerings for Vesak.
Celebrations also take place in Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Malaysia, and a number of other Asian countries.
Scroll down to see images of Buddha Day throughout Asia.