Why can't Vesak have a universal observation day like Diwali, Eid Ul Fitr or Christmas?

The Buddhist Channel, 4 May 2023

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Vesak, or Buddha Day, is celebrated worldwide every year on the day of the full moon in May. The festival commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and the passing of Gautama Buddha in the Theravada or southern tradition.

The name of the observance is derived from the Pali term Vesakha or Sanskrit Vaisakha, which is the name of the lunar month used in ancient India falling in April–May.

In the Indian sub-continent, the land of Buddha's birth, Vesak is called Buddha Purnima, also known as Buddha Jayanti. The word ‘Purnima’ is Sanskrit for ‘full moon’, which explains why it is celebrated on a full moon day, and ‘Jayanti’ means ‘birthday’.

However, Buddha’s followers never officially celebrated his birthday, though, for many centuries, festivals to honor Buddha were held. In fact, the celebration of Buddha Purnima was not formalized until modern times.

It was only in May 1950, at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, that Buddha Purnima was officiated as a celebration during Vesakha. It was agreed upon that the day of the full moon in May would be auspicious, due to Buddha attaining nirvana on a full moon day. The name "Vesak" was also adopted in the meeting. However, this decision did not establish a universal day for Vesak, as the celebration still depends on the local full moon and the specific traditions of each country.

In 1999, the United Nations (UN) resolved to internationally observe the day of Vesak at its headquarters and offices. This resolution acknowledged the contributions of the Buddha and Buddhism for over two and a half millennia and called for annual commemoration of the day at the UN Headquarters, in New York, UNESCO, and other UN offices around the world. However, this resolution did not establish a universal day for Vesak either, as it only recognized the day of Vesak as an official holiday for UN offices in many of the countries in South-East Asia.

When is Vesak day observed?

Vesak is a holiday traditionally observed by Buddhists in South Asia, East and Southeast Asia, as well as Tibet and Mongolia. Due to different customs, the date of Vesak varies depending on the tradition and country, with some countries celebrating it on the first full moon in May, while others celebrate it on the second full moon.

For example, in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Vesak is celebrated on the full moon day in May, while in others, such as Japan and Korea, it is celebrated on a different day based on a lunar calendar.

Here are the observation dates set for this year 2023 (2567 BE), which are also the respective country's national holiday (unless otherwise stated):

8 April - Japan (Hana Matsuri)*
3 May -- Myanmar
4 May -- Malaysia, Bangladesh, Cambodia
5 May -- India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Laos, Mongolia, United Nations**
26 May -- China*, Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam*, Taiwan*, the Philippines*
2 June -- Singapore
3 June -- Thailand
4 June -- Indonesia, Tibet, Bhutan

* No public holiday
** Public holiday only in some UN offices in Asia

For this year 2023 CE, the date varies even more due to the month of May having two full moon days, and the Buddhist (and Chinese) and Hindu lunar calendars are interpreted differently.

Will Buddhists unite and declare a universal date for Vesak?

It is difficult to predict whether Buddhists will unite and declare a universal date for Vesak, as it ultimately depends on the actions and decisions of Buddhist leaders and communities around the world.

As mentioned earlier, the 1950 World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) conference did pass a resolution to celebrate Vesak on the full moon day in May. However, not all Buddhist communities adopted this resolution and continued to celebrate Vesak on different dates.

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on inter-Buddhist dialogue and cooperation, so it is possible that discussions about standardizing the date of Vesak may arise. However, any decision to do so would likely require widespread agreement and cooperation among Buddhist leaders and communities from various traditions and countries.
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