KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (RNS) — Celebrated across the Buddhist world each spring, the holiday Vesak commemorates the three most important events of Gautama Buddha's life: birth, enlightenment and death.
Often called Buddha Day or Buddha's Birthday, Vesak normally falls in late April or May, according to the lunar calendar, but different branches of Buddhism observe it on different dates.
In Malaysia, where Buddhism is the second-largest religion after Islam, Buddha Purnima (as Vesak is called locally) is a national holiday that brings together Buddhist communities from many of the country's widely varying ethnic and social groups.
As Vesak approaches, temples in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, are transformed into hives of activity, with throngs of people volunteering to help with preparations. When the day arrives, families come to the temples seeking Buddha's blessings. They bathe the Buddha statues with tea and water in a ritual of purification and cleansing of the soul. Devotees burn joss sticks and lotus-shaped candles, meditating on Buddha's teachings.
“The reason I go to the temple is to remind myself to practice harder towards enlightenment and to get in touch with the Dharma," said Lee Lee Loh, a Buddhist from Kuala Lumpur. "Vesak is a day for practice, so we do chanting, meditation, we pay respect to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha."
In the Malaysian capital, the highlight and culmination of Vesak is a 7-mile candle and chariot procession through central Kuala Lumpur. All the Buddhist associations from Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas participate with chariots, or parade floats, decorated with statues of the Buddha and flowers, on top of which monks sit and bless the crowds with holy water and flower petals. The theme of this year's procession was “Harmonious Society Through Tolerance and Understanding."
“This year we have 28 chariots participating, representing not only Malaysian Buddhist communities from around Kuala Lumpur, but also the Nepalese, Thai, Bangladeshi, and Taiwanese Buddhists living in Malaysia participate," said Ng Han Kok, head of the Chempaka Buddhist Lodge float team, one of the Buddhist associations near Kuala Lumpur.
More than 25,000 devotees participated in the procession. Some walk along with the chariots, bathe the Buddha statues on the floats, chant mantras, and other attendees watch the procession from the roadside, receiving blessings from the passing floats.
“We designed our own floats," he said. "A team of about ten people worked for two months on building and decorating them. It was all volunteer work and the materials for building the floats were also sponsored by devotees. We volunteer for the benefit of the community and for our devotion to Buddha. Participating in the Vesak procession brings our communities closer, there is a spirit of togetherness and multiracial harmony."