Each year, hundreds of beautiful red Chinese lanterns light up the night sky over Southbank with their fiery glow. Their appearance signifies the start of the annual Buddha Birth Day Festival, a 3-day event celebrating the birth of the Lord Buddha. Now in it’s 20th year, BBDF has grown to become the largest festival of it’s kind in the world.
The festival is held in early May, and open to people from all faiths and religions. Visitors can take part in many activities that are important in Buddhism such as observing the blessing of the Bodhi tree (a sapling derived from the original Bodhi tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment), Bathing the Buddha (designed to purify the mind), offering Alms to monks, and the lighting of candles and lamps. There are also guided meditation sessions and talks on Buddhism. Kids will enjoy a visit to the Lumbini Garden where they can learn the story of Lord Buddha, and take part in a children’s edition of Bathing the Buddha. You’ll also find market stalls under the Wheel of Brisbane where you can watch cooking demonstrations and indulge in some delicious vegetarian fare. The festival closes with a firework display on the final night.
In traditional Buddhism, the birth day of Lord Buddha is known as Vesãka Day (Vesak) and and is held on a full-moon day in May. The word Vesãka is derived from the Pali and Sanskrit word for the month of Vaisakha, which corresponds to May in the Gregorian calendar. On this day, we commemorate the birth, enlightenment and passing of Lord Buddha. Every Buddhist nation has it’s own unique way of celebrating the day but common themes include paying homage to the teachings of Lord Buddha and bringing happiness to others. In our native Sri Lanka, Vesak is both a religious and cultural festival. The celebrations begin about a week before the actual Vesak Day. Light plays a very important role in Buddhism as it signifies the light of the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (his disciples). In keeping with this, large electrically lit thoranas can be found in public spaces, roundabouts and inside large temple complexes. They are lavishly decorated with scenes from Lord Buddha’s life.
Home-made lanterns (called vesak kuudu) are hung outside people’s homes, along the streets and in local temples. Constructed from bamboo poles and coloured tissue paper, they come in a variety of shapes and are truly a sight to behold. One of my fondest memories of growing up in Sri Lanka was watching my dad expertly create these lanterns, with my sister and I “helping” to decorate them. We would then hang them around our garden and watch on in amazement as they were lit. After trying my hand at making one this year, all I have to say is this: Respect.
Another important component of Vesak is bringing happiness to others. During the Vesak festival, Buddhists give charitable donations of food, clothing and money to those less fortunate than themselves. Some even set up dansalla stalls near temples, where food and drinks are offered to fellow pilgrims. Personally, I believe that we should practice kindness and compassion towards others every day and not just on religious holidays. On Vesak Day itself, Buddhists across the country flock to their local temples at dawn. Dressed in white, they bring offerings of flowers, candles and incense sticks with them before paying homage to the Lord Buddha with prayers. Following this, everyone takes part in a dana (alms giving) where they share a vegetarian meal with other attendees.
Vesak remains my favourite Buddhist holiday. This year, it is scheduled to fall on May 21st. If you would like to see some vesak lanterns in Brisbane, head to the Sri Lankan Buddhist Monastery (114 Considine St, Ellen Grove QLD 4078) or the Goodna Temple (108 Eric St, Goodna QLD 4300).
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