Vesak Day lanterns
Photograph: Shutterstock

The ultimate guide to Vesak Day in Singapore

All you need to know about this Buddhist festival on May 22 this year

Cheryl Sekkappan
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Vesak Day, also known as Buddha Day, is one of the most important days on the Buddhist calendar. It commemorates the birth, enlightenment and attainment of nirvana of Gautama Buddha, and is a day for all devotees to reflect on his teachings, cleanse away bad karma, and spread goodwill. In Singapore, Vesak Day was first gazetted as a public holiday in 1956. During this time, devotees flock to temples at dawn to raise the Buddhist flag, sing hymns, and take part in a series of rituals. Here's what you need to know about Vesak Day in Singapore. 

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What is Vesak Day?

Its origins

Vesak Day commemorates the birth, enlightenment and attainment of nirvana of Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha. Born into a noble family 3000 years ago in what's now known as Nepal, Gautama Buddha is said to have laid off his riches to travel for years as a homeless man. Through his travels, meditation and self-restraint, he discovered the way to break the cycle of rebirth and achieve enlightenment. From then, he spread his teachings – and the first seeds of Buddhism – through the Ganges plain. 

How is it celebrated?

Offerings and good deeds

On Vesak Day, devotees gather at the break of dawn to raise the Buddhist flag and sing hymns. They give offerings like flowers, candles and joss sticks, which through their withering and burning, symbolise the decay and destruction that life is subject to. This is a day of goodwill, so Buddhists are encouraged to spread happiness through volunteering, and to refrain from killing of any kind. So, practitioners tend to stick to a meat-free diet on Vesak Day. In other countries, Buddhists may also release caged animals – but that's banned in Singapore to protect the local ecosystem. 

'Bathing' Buddha

When Buddha was born, it's believed that devas and spirits made heavenly offerings by showering him with sacred waters from the sky. On Vesak Day, temples set out altars with small statues of an infant Buddha, as well as small basins filled with water and flowers. Visiting devotees re-enact the events at Buddha's birth by 'bathing' the statue with the scented water as a way to cleanse any bad karma. 

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Three steps, one bow

Under normal circumstances, Vesak Day would end in large candlelight processions where you can witness the 'three steps, one bow' practice. For two hours, devotees shuffle on both knees, bowing at every third step while they pray for blessings and repentance. It is the Mahayana Buddhists (mainly from the Chinese community) that take part in this practice. 

Rice in milk

Theravada Buddhism is practised by Sri Lankan and Burmese Buddhists in Singapore. This division of Buddhism is said to be the oldest, and the more conservative, of the two main strains. It has many differing practices from Mahayana Buddhism, including one ritual on Vesak Day: they cook a pot of rice in milk to create a pudding, reminiscent of the rice milk (called 'kheer') that Buddha accepted from the milkmaid Sujata which gave him the strength to attain enlightenment. 

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