Last Friday was Visakha Bucha day in Thailand and many other parts of the Buddhist world*. This is the holiest day in Buddhism, commemorating the day when Gautama Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and passed away. On this day, believers gather at temples to worship and recall the wisdom, purity and compassion of the Buddha.
In Thailand, Visakha Bucha observance began during the Sukhothai period (around 700 years ago), because of the close religious relations between Thailand and Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan monks came to propagate Buddhism in Thailand and were highly respected. Thai monks also went to study in Sri Lanka. It’s believed that those monks introduced this ceremony to Thailand around that time
While many people arrive at the temple early in the day to make merit by feeding the monks, many more go in the evening to participate in a ceremony known in Thai as wian tian. (wian = circle, tian = candle)
The core of this ceremony involves a procession three times around the bot, or main sanctuary, of the temple. Depending upon the temple, sometimes you will proceed around a Buddha image or a chedi (a stupa containing relics) instead. Regardless, believers carry the traditional offerings: a candle, three sticks of incense, and a lotus blossom.
The candle represents enlightenment, with knowledge being the source of light in a dark world. The three incense sticks represent the Buddha, the Dhama (his teachings) and the Sangha (the monks). As for the lotus, the roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the flower lies above the water, basking in the sunlight. It is a common symbol in Buddhism because its pattern of growth reflects the progress of the soul from muddy materialism through the waters of experience to the sunlight of enlightenment.
On this day, and especially during this procession around the bot, believers are encouraged to meditate, reflecting on the teachings of the Buddha and how they can better follow the Five Precepts:
- To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards sentient beings)
- To refrain from taking that which is not given (not committing theft)
- To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct
- To refrain from lying (speaking truth always)
- To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol)
We went to Wat Phra Ram IX (King Rama IX Temple), a more modern temple founded by the current King of Thailand. This beautiful temple follows traditional design but features a resplendent all-white exterior, stark compared to the elaborate decorations more common in Thai Buddhist temples.
There were several thousand people present including about two hundred monks and novices. While some people were already making their procession around the bot, most were listening to the abbot’s sermon, a lighthearted parable about the importance of remaining true to Buddhist teachings even in the midst of contemporary life.
After the sermon was over, the monks led the crowd on the procession, a nearly endless stream of believers, some chanting, some walking silently, some chatting pleasantly amongst each other as Thais enjoy doing even at religious events.
I shot some footage after we had made our rounds and have compiled it here for your enjoyment:
Observing various religious ceremonies is interesting because there are some aspects that are very universal (or, at least, common across many faiths and traditions) while other aspects are very characteristic of local culture. I’m not a religious scholar so I won’t expound on those observations. Suffice it to say that it was a beautiful ceremony to participate in.
*because of calendar differences, some countries observe Visakha Bucha on different days, but most of the time it falls in April or May.