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Area Buddhists celebrate their religion's holiest days

By NATASHA ALTAMIRANO, Fredericksburg.com May 13, 2006

Fredericksburg, VA (USA) -- Around dawn today, the 300 or so congregants of Wat Lao Buddhavong will file sleepily into the Buddhist temple in Catlett. They'll sit on cushions on the carpeted floor, facing the temple's 12 monks draped in orange robes.

The monks will lead the congregation in a spiritual chant in Pali, a liturgical language in which Buddhist scriptures are written. Their voices will blend into an unintelligible murmur echoing from the temple's high ceiling.

But their message will be clear. They'll be celebrating Wesak, or the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Wesak, also known as Vesak or Buddha Day, is the holiest time in Buddhism. Founded in 500 B.C., Buddhism today has about 325 million followers worldwide.

"Wesak" comes from the name of the second month of the lunar-based Buddhist calendar. The celebration always falls on the day of the full moon during the month of Wesak, which is usually in May.

Gautama Siddhartha, the Indian spiritual teacher who became Buddha, attained enlightenment, or awakening, when he discovered the Four Noble Truths:

Dukkha, or suffering

The causes of suffering: attachment and desire

The cessation of suffering

The Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

Wesak services revolve around the monks--those who have dedicated their lives to Buddha's teachings--said Tya Sanginthirath, a Spotsylvania County resident who volunteers at Wat Lao Buddhavong off State Route 28 in southern Fauquier County.

"This day is special--everybody tries to get involved with the monks," Sanginthirath said.

Monks divide their days between meditation and study.

They relinquish almost all material possessions except their monastic robes and other necessary items.

"You're not interested in those things anymore," said Harold Ward, an American who gave up a 30-year chiropractic career to become a monk at the Catlett temple about a year ago. "I gave everything away--it's just not necessary.

"I'm here because I believe in the strength of Siddhartha and I believe it's possible for people to do what he did in this time."

Wesak is a time for Buddhists to join monks in that celebration of Buddha's life and teaching.

Wat Lao Buddhavong began its Wesak services last night with chanting and meditation.

Today, the congregation will chant with the monks at 6 a.m. and serve breakfast to them at 7.

The monks will chant again at 10 a.m. and take an offering of food from congregants at 10:30.

The congregation will serve lunch to the monks at 11 a.m. before having a communal lunch at 11:30.

A candlelight procession and sermon will follow at noon.

Wesak celebrations vary from country to country, and even within the same country, said David Ambuel, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Mary Washington.

Buddhist temples in the United States usually hold ceremonies on weekends to accommodate people's work schedules, said Ambuel, who teaches Buddhism courses.

Temples in the same region often will stagger celebrations such as Wesak on different weekends so members can attend nearby events, he said.

Last weekend, monks and congregants from Wat Lao Buddhavong attended a Wesak service at a Sri Lankan temple in Northwest Washington, Sanginthirath said.

The event celebrates the life and teaching of Buddha, Ambuel said. "It's not mournful because we're remembering his death."

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