Part 1: A Brief History of Buddha and Vesak
At the time of his enlightenment 2600 years ago, Prince Siddharta Gautama became Buddha. The simultaneous celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death has different titles according to the language of each country, but can easily be recognized by one title: Vesak, translated from Sinhalese Wesak as the festival and name of the month. (International list at article end).
At birth, the young prince was given the name Siddhartha/Siddhattha (“one who achieves his purpose”). Kaundinya/Kondanna, the youngest of eight Brahmin scholars who read his future, “predicted that Siddhartha would become a Buddha.”
When he was 29, Siddhartha left the shelter of his palace home to be among his people and for the first time saw old age, sickness, death and an ascetic. As he realized the three truths of life and death, Siddhartha chose the life of an ascetic. Along with five other ascetics he deprived himself of all worldliness in seeking the path to enlightenment.
Facing death after near starvation, Siddhartha saw that awakening would come about by meditation and not austere measures of asceticism. Under a papal tree/Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, Siddhartha vowed to remain seated there until he would see the truth. He sat for forty-nine days, reached true enlightenment and was Buddha at the age of thirty-five.
During the time just before his death at age eighty, Buddha encouraged his followers not to cry for his passing on as the physical body must eventually deteriorate, but Dharma/Dhamma will always remain as the teacher. On this 2600th anniversary honoring Buddha, the legacy from his presence on earth continues through his pure and fundamental teachings for all sentient beings: The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
Each May-June, the celebration of Vesak is observed with festivals in homage to Buddha in countries throughout the world. This is a time for all who realize Buddha’s wise and compassionate guidance to honor him with respect and joy. In some countries a varied number of Buddhists also practice the Eight Precepts Meditation/moral guidelines during this time, with self-discipline and commitment under the guidance of a Buddhist master. Along with being a time to practice and meditate, it’s a time to share happiness with others.
Vesak is the most important Buddhist holiday period of the year and is celebrated on varying dates according to the calendar used relative to each culture. For example Vesak is celebrated “at the full moon in the Indian month of Vaishaka (May-June);” In Thailand, Visakha Bucha is during the full moon of the sixth month of the lunar year; according to the Chinese lunar calendar, Vesak is celebrated on the 15th day of the 4th month; and in the United States the date coincided this year on Tuesday, May 17th by the Gregorian or Western calendar. However, alternate dates within a time period may be elected to observe this important occasion.
Buddhism’s twenty-six hundred year history has spanned the Asian continent and become integral to life and culture for the majority of Asian people. Long ago, intermittent encounters between east and west resulted in limited faith-based interactions, and westerners had rare to no exposure to Buddhist philosophies. Gradually, that changed.
The sacred teachings of Buddhism had been transmitted over time to peoples of all nations, and have evolved with adaptation and regard for the cultures that welcomed them. As Buddhism moved gently into western societies, often the practices and teachings of Buddha proceeded with cultural accompaniment such as with Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and Laotian traditions, to name a few. Always respectfully maintaining the historical Buddha’s important teachings, Buddhism has generally integrated well with each new nation home where it was introduced, blending harmonically with the traditions and mores of the people.
Around 1820 Chinese immigrants came to California, with greater numbers entering in 1849 after the gold rush, and many continued their Buddhist practices and traditions in the United States. The first Buddhist temple in America was built in San Francisco in 1853. Since that time, Buddhism grew to be recognized as the fourth largest faith-based community in the U.S.; to a great degree attributable to ‘native-born’ Americans, in the westerly regions of the country. Exact numbers and statistics, although inconclusive as with all faith-based communities, are complex in estimations. Varied sources offer a considerable range between 2 to 10 million people in the United States who are practicing Buddhists, believe Buddhist philosophy without formal practice, or integrate Buddhist beliefs and/or practices with other religions. Many faiths accept Buddhist philosophy and Buddhism welcomes all faiths.
Buddhism’s continuing expansion in America is evolving into tradition that is for, about and by American people, while guided and progressing in conjunction with internationally established Buddhist praxis. By its great diversity of cultures, America is heterogeneous in customs and traditions, and by the expanding presence of Buddhism throughout the U.S. what may have been a foreign practice, agreeably meshes well into the American way of life. Concurrently, international Buddhist guidance adapts in some ways to the needs of American practitioners.
The oldest Buddhist church in Sacramento was built in 1899, The Buddhist Church of Sacramento on Riverside Blvd., and continues as a vibrant and flourishing Sangha (Buddhist community) today. From that time to the present and into the future, Buddhism continues to evolve as an exceptional and significant region for Buddhism. There are many Buddhist temples, centers, organizations, churches, and groups in and around Sacramento; and as understanding and realization about the truth of Buddhism grows, there will be many more. From large, elaborate temples and churches with eastern architectural designs and ornate altars, to simple monasteries, to centers and groups meeting in alternative facilities, and even to small home practice groups; the diversity of Buddhism in Sacramento mirrors the extensive diversity of the capitol of California.
During the months of May and June, Buddhists in and around Sacramento celebrate the wonderful heritage and the pure legacy of Buddhism in both traditional and progressive form by paying homage to Buddha on Vesak.
International Names for Vesak-Buddha Day
Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanti: India, Bangladesh and Nepal
Seokka Tanshin-il: Korea
Fodan/Fatdaahn or Buddha Birthday: China, Singapore, Taiwan
Phat Dan: Vietnam
Saga Dawa: Tibet
Visak Bochea: Khmer (Cambodia)
Vixakha Bouxa: Laos
Visakha Bucha: Thailand
Vesak/Wesak: Sri Lanka and Malaysia