Vesak: A festival of new beginnings

Monks praying before Buddha bathing. | Photo courtesy of Buddhist Vihara Society in BC

Buddhists all over the world are celebrating the Vesak festival this month, in which they commemorate the Buddha’s birth and passing into Nirvana. Vancouver’s Tisdall Park will be the stage of the third BC Vesak Festival on May 28, organized by a joint committee of representatives from 50 Buddhist temples across the world.

Surrey-based Buddhist Vihara Society is one of the participating groups.

“Vesak is a very important day for us,” says resident monk Ven. Kumbalgoda Siriniwasa Thero. “We celebrate the birth of Buddha, and at the same time his enlightenment, by performing devotional songs and special ritual offerings.”

Family origins

Siriniwasa was born into a Buddhist family and became a monk when he was only nine-years- old. He is now one of the two leading resident monks of the Buddhist Vihara Society. The monks are the center figures of the community.

“We started 25 years ago with 32 families, and now 500 families belong to our Buddhist society. So besides performing devotional activities, I also have an important role as a family counselor,” he says.

Officially, Vesak is set to be celebrated this year on May 10, the full moon of the ancient lunar month of Vesakha.

“In countries like Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia this day is a holiday; but here in Canada, people are working during the weekdays and so we organize it on a Saturday,” says Siriniwasa.

Rituals of enlightenment

The special title of the festival, One Buddha, Many Traditions, fits the aims of its founder Tsengdok Rinpoche.

“The founder of the B.C. celebration wants to bring the whole Buddhist community together at Vesak,” says Gigi Ng, organizer of the festival.

All traditions pay respect to Buddha in different ways. Although there is no hierarchy between Buddhist temples, they mostly work independently.

“But on this day, the various groups make a collective effort because they all share the same goals of contributing to society by spreading the teaching of Buddha and the associated lifestyle,” says Ng.

The festival has been a success since it was first launched in 2015, with approximately 10,000 people in attendance the first year, and has been increasing each year.

“A festival of this size takes a lot of planning, organizing and hard work. Although the idea was conceived a long time ago, it wasn’t until recently before all the necessary elements could come together,” says Ng.

Hundreds of local monks and nuns in Vancouver will participate in the different rituals. Buddha bathing is the key ceremony of the festival, where water is poured over the statue of a young enlightened Buddha to thank him for coming into this world. The festival, which is family-friendly, will have a meditation area, a Dharma conference area and many cultural performances such as Tibetan Buddhist dancing.

“For cultural lovers, this is a great opportunity to experience all kinds of Buddhist schools and culture,” says Ng. “Vesak promotes peace and harmony and encourages people to provide charity to the less fortunate among us.”

For the third year in a row, a big part of the charity will be donated to the Vancouver General Hospital and the Children’s Hospital.

“Vesak has a long history commemorating the birth, passing away and the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha. Different traditions pay respect to the Buddha, in different ways, but Vesak always promotes world peace and for everyone to take direct action and contribute to the society,” says Ng. “It has been a long tradition in Vesak history that individuals are encouraged to care about the poor and the unfortunate.”

The Buddhist committee tries to achieve long-term charitable projects, like arrangements to provide meditation workshops to police forces to help them decrease stress levels. This is part of the bigger aim of Buddhism, namely contributing to society.

“Vesak is not just a religious day for Buddhists, but it is also a celebration for non-Buddhists by encouraging everyone to make a personal contribution to improve society,” says Ng.

For more information, please visit www.bvs.org.

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