Vesak (pronounced Wee-sock I think) is a Buddhist holiday marking the Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment — all in the same month of Vesak. Just so you know — I don’t know much more about Vesak than that. Nonetheless, I decided to go to the local South East Asian temple, Wat Buddabhavana (http://www.greatwisdomcenter.org) on the most recent Vesak celebration, on May 18th, to see what it was like.
The word that comes to mind is ‘sweet’. It was almost entirely Laotian people, and they were very welcoming. I sat next to a Laotian woman who coached me on what to do, throughout. The hall was very beautifully decorated — mostly bright reds and golds. Children ran in and out at will. There was a row of monks sitting at the front with many beautiful golden buddhas behind them. The monks spoke and chanted, mostly in Lao, but sometimes in English for the benefit of the visitors.
A man walked by with long flexible candles. He pinched off a piece the length of the circumference of my head, and another the length of my hand, and another the length of my forearm. But the pieces stayed with the man and I gave a small donation. At the appropriate point in the ceremony, all the candles were burned in one glorious flame, as a blessing to all the participants.
At times during the chanting, familiar phrases would pop out from the chanting we do in our group — but so different! Differently pronounced and accented — but it made me feel connected. Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa…. There were times when the people chanted along with the monks, and it made me happy to be able to join in for parts of it, although I don’t know if anyone else noticed…
Then the monks went on an alms round to the people, and people presented food that they had brought for the monks — lots of fruit and balls of sticky rice, but also favorite crackers and snacks for the monks. Luckily I had been forewarned, so I had oranges to present. But my guide also invited me to offer some of her sticky rice, so I was able to offer an orange and a ball of sticky rice to each of the 8 monks, ranging in age from very young to ancient.
As I stood up, I touched the arm of my guide and gave her my thanks for sharing and helping me. She seemed so pleased. She thanked me for coming and gave me a hug, and said ‘I love you’. ‘And I love you’ I replied. As I said — sweet, very sweet…)
Then we feasted on Laotian food brought by the women of the temple — all wonderful. Like any church pot luck there was way too much — but I completely trust that it wasn’t wasted.
I had to leave before the procession to the water, and the honoring of the Buddha relics at the temple. Next year I will plan better. But it was a wonderful and sweet glimpse into the local Laotian community and their practice of Buddhism. If you’re tempted to celebrate during the next new moon during the month of Vesak, I highly recommend it.