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2010-08 ** Significance of Vesak

Significance of Vesak Day

Adapted from the book "Be a Lamp Upon Yourself"
Kong Meng San Phor Kark See

Vesak Day, which falls on the full moon day of the fifth month of the year, is the most important event for the Buddhist community. It commemorates the Birth, Enlightenment and Final Nirvana of the Buddha.

For some Buddhists, the observance of Vesak begins early in the morning when they assemble at temples to observe the Eight Precepts. Others may join the communal observance by going through the ceremony of taking the Threefold Refuge (expression through faith and commitment to the Buddha, His teaching and the Holy Community), observing the Five Precepts, making offerings at shrines and by chanting and recitation. They may also participate in processions and circumambulation, and listening to sermons of the Buddha's Teaching.

In some temples, Buddhists take part in the ceremonial bathing of the statue of baby Prince Siddhartha (before he became the Buddha) A small standing statue of the prince is placed in a basin of perfumed water strewn with flowers. The Buddhists scoop the perfumed water with a ladle and pour it over the statue. This act of bathing symbolises the purification of one's unwholesome actions.

Many Buddhists also take vegetarian meals on this day as they recall the teaching of universal compassion. The temples are often colourfully decorated with Buddhist flags and lights. The shrines are also filled with flowers, fruits and other offerings.

Significance of Buddhist Observations

Buddhism in practice is more than just learning about the life of Buddha and His Teachings. It includes many observances, some of which are common to all Buddhists while others are characteristics of a particular culture or country. The significance of some common observances is as follows:
Buddhist Shrines and Images

The Buddha image in the centre of shrine represents and reminds us of the Buddha and the ideal of Buddhahood with its perfect qualities of Wisdom and compassion. It serves to inspire us when we see it as we recall the greatness of the Buddha and His Teaching.

Folded Palms

Placing the palms together and raising them to the level of the chest is a traditional gesture to express deep reverence to the triple Gem -the Buddha, His Teaching and the Sangha (followers of his Teaching).


Prostrating before an image of the Buddha or members of the Sangha is an expression of deep veneration. It also acknowledges that the Buddha has attained the perfect and supreme Enlightenment. Such an act helps the Buddhist to overcome egoistic feelings to become more ready to listen to the Teaching of the Buddha.

Offerings Making the following shrine

Offerings expresses appreciation and veneration to the Triple Gem:

  • Light symbolises the brightness of wisdom attained on the path towards Enlightenment which drives away the darkness of ignorance.
  • Fresh and beautiful flowers which soon becomes withered, scentless and discoloured serves as a reminder of the impermanence of all things.
  • Fragrant incense which fills the air symbolises the purifying effect of wholesome conduct.
  • Water symbolises purity, clarity and calmness.
  • Fruit symbolises the ultimate fruit of Enlightenment which is the goal of Buddhists.

Chanting and recitation

Verses may be recited in praise of the Triple Gem. Sermons of the Buddha can also be recited. Short phrases or syllables (mantras) that symbolises certain teachings or qualities of the Buddha may also be chanted. Chanting and recitation, like meditation, also helps one to concentrate and develop a calm and peaceful state of mind.

The 3 step 1 Bow Ceremony

On this occasion, devotees line up in a procession before sunrise to meditatively circumambulate around the perimeter of the temple- bowing once every three steps while chanting " Homage to the Original Teacher (Founder of Buddhism) Shakyamuni Buddha (Na Mo Ben Shi Shi Jia Mou Ni Fo).


Upon every prostration, the Buddha can be visualized standing upon one's open palm which symbolise lotuses (that denote purity). Every prostration is thus paying respects to the Buddha or the countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of every direction. This practice helps to purify the mind, humble the ego, and lessen obstacles along the spiritual path as one repents past misdeeds of body, speech and mind and aspires towards spiritual improvement. It is also an occasion to express gratitude to the Buddha for His compassion.
Concentration and calmness achieved as one become constantly mindful of the processes of the body, speech and mind during the practice. Unanswered spiritual questions are sometimes answered as one enters deep concentration and realises the roots of the problems.


As the ceremony is lengthy and over undulating land, it reminds one of the long and difficult journeys towards Enlightenment. But it also serves to remind us that as long as one has determination, all difficulties can be overcome. Persistence in completing the journey despite its difficulties also strengthens one's faith in the Buddha and His Teaching to lead us towards Enlightenment.


The break of dawn at the end of the ceremony represents the light of wisdom dispelling the darkness of ignorance as one advances on the spiritual path towards Enlightenment. Participating in this special event, among others, on Vesak Day is considered very meritorious. It is extremely difficult to describe the spiritual joy one feels upon completion of the ceremony and is definitely something one has to experience for oneself.

The night of infinite light

This practice has similar significance to the 3-step-1-bow Ceremony. Instead of prostration, devotees each hold a lotus-shaped candle to their chest level as they pave around the perimeter of the temple in walking meditation while chanting " Na Mo Ben Shi Shi Jia Mou Ni Fo."


The "light passing" ceremony is symbolic of the passing of the light of wisdom to every direction of the world to dispel the darkness of ignorance. It also refers to the offering and sharing of the Truth with others. On a personal level, it has the significance of lighting up one's inner lamp of wisdom. The passing on of the light indefinitely to countless others without one's own flame dying out illustrates the fact that wisdom can be shared indefinitely without any loss on one's part, i.e. only goodness can come from such an act.


The burning of the wick and the melting of the candle also serves to remind us of the impermanence and transience of all conditioned things - which include our own bodies and lives. Reflecting so helps us to treasure every moment alive without attachment. The candles also symbolise Bodhisattvas who sacrifice themselves to light up the lives of suffering sentient beings.


As the procession goes on, mindfulness has to be practised to not let the flame be extinguished. This is symbolic of the importance of constantly guarding one's mind against any negative factors detrimental to the spiritual life. It is most inspiring and moving to see a single flame light up to a sea of darkness into countless lamps which bring further brightness to each other.