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Buddha Purnima celebration around the globe: Origin and differences

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Buddha Purnima is the main religious festival of the Buddhist community, observed on Baishakhi Purnima, the day of the full moon in Baishakh (mid-April to mid-May). 

Three important events in the life of Buddha are believed to have occurred on this day - his birth in around 623 BC, his gaining enlightenment (Nirvana) in around 588 BC, and his death (Mahaparinirvana) in around 543 BC. 

This year Buddha Purnima has been celebrated on the 16th of May. In order to get a better understanding of the significance and celebrations of the event, the scribe had a conversation with Md Abu Taher, Interfaith Relations Researcher and Faculty of Department of World Religions and Culture, University of Dhaka. 

"Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Gautama Buddha, was the founder of Buddhism. His birthday is a holiday that is traditionally celebrated in many countries as per their own traditions," said Mr Taher. 

Celebration across countries

Buddha Purnima is celebrated auspiciously in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.  

In Bangladesh, Buddhist monks and priests adorn the temple with colourful decorations and candles on this auspicious occasion. 

In Cambodia, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated as Visak Bochea and is also a public holiday where monks carry flags, lotus, incense and candles to commemorate the occasion around the country. 

Known as Waisak, the birthday of Buddha is celebrated with a large procession in Indonesia. It begins at the Mendut in Java and ends at Borobudur, which is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. 

The people in Japan call the celebration Kanbutsu-e or Hanamatsuri and it is commemorated on April 8 as the birth of Buddha is noted according to the Buddhist calendar. 

Buddha’s birthday, which is celebrated as Wesak Day in Malaysia, is also a public holiday. On the day, not only are the temples decorated across the country but there is also a ritual of setting caged animals free. 

Celebrated as Ikh Duichen, the birthday of Buddha is determined by the Mongolian lunar calendar in the country. 

People in North Korea honour the birthday of Buddha as a traditional holiday. Known as Chopail, it is a festival that celebrates the culture of the Buddhist population. 

Celebrated according to the Korean lunar calendar, the birthday of Buddha is known as Seokga Tankini. For the occasion, people hang lotus lanterns in temples as well as homes and streets. 

Known as Visakha Puja, Buddha’s birthday is a public holiday in Thailand to commemorate the occasion. On the day, people gather to hear sermons and give donations. 

Thus, despite the differences in rituals and practices, the joy and spirituality of the celebration are prominent in every country.

Belief too changes with geography

It is interesting to note that just like celebrations, the beliefs of Buddhists vary across countries. 

"Since the death of the Buddha in present-day India in the 5th century B.C., Buddhism has spread around the world. It is not surprising that it has changed over time by coming into contact with all kinds of people and cultures. As the Buddha teaches, everything is subject to change," explains Mr Taher. 

After 2500 years of Buddha's death, three main schools can be discerned within Buddhism - Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna. 

Sectarian differences began to develop within Buddhism very early, probably within a few years of the historical Buddha's death. 

Theravada is believed to be the oldest form of Buddhism and adheres to the oldest surviving recorded sayings of the Buddha, collectively called the Pali canon. Theravada recognises the primacy and humanity of the historical Buddha. Its doctrines are taken from the Pali Tipitaka or Pali Canon and its basic teachings begin with the Four Noble Truths. 

It is the dominant form of Buddhism today in Sri Lanka as well as Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. It claims about 100 million adherents worldwide. 

Mahayana is prominent in the East Asian nations. East Asian Buddhism or East Asian Mahayana is a collective term for the schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism that developed in East and Southeast Asia and follow the Chinese Buddhist canon. These include the various forms of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Singaporean and Vietnamese Buddhism. 

Besides being a major religion in these regions, it is also a significant religion in Malaysia. East Asian Buddhists constitute the numerically largest body of Buddhist traditions in the world, numbering over half of the world's Buddhists. 

Tantric Buddhism can be identified as a further evolution of Mahayana Buddhism. Its origins can be traced to ancient Hindu and Vedic practices as well, including esoteric ritual texts designed to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual breakthroughs. 

Because some practices subverted mainstream Buddhism and Hinduism, engaging in acts otherwise considered taboo, its practitioners were secretive. Initiates worked closely with a spiritual guide or guru.

Vajrayana Buddhism is most closely identified with Tibetan Buddhism, however, it also influenced parts of Southeast Asia and East Asia. 

Buddhism's journey through India

Mr Taher proceeded to explain the evolution and spread of Buddhism. He said that Buddhism thrived in India for more than a millennium, reaching an expansive culmination in the Pala period in eastern India. 

By the 1100s C.E., Buddhism had declined mainly as a result of Muslim incursions. Before this time, however, Buddhist doctrine had been transmitted to Sri Lanka, which became a further point of reference for the spread of Buddhism to Southeast Asia. 

Travellers and missionaries carried the message of Buddhism by sea and land routes through Central Asia into China by the first century C.E.

Throughout its history and transmission, Buddhism has been adaptable to local beliefs and customs, and the combination of these local forms with imported beliefs and symbols is a characteristic of Buddhist art throughout Asia.

When asked if Buddhist minorities are safe and if the Rohingya crisis influenced their safety, Abu Taher claimed that the crisis is only based on economic and geo-poetical issues and will not have an impact on Buddhists' safety in another country. 

He believes that the violence Buddhists faced in 2012 was an anomaly and the Bangladesh government has taken numerous steps to safeguard the safety of Buddhists. 

Hence, with spirituality in mind and glimmering hope in their eyes, Buddhists across countries have celebrated Buddha Purnima with grace and peace while others joined them in harmony.

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