On Thursday, May 23, for the fourth year in a row, the White House celebrated Vesak, the holiday that commemorates the Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment. The United Nations General Assembly recognized Vesak as a holiday in 1999, and the White House held its first Vesak ceremony in 2021. This year’s celebration marks the continued embrace of the more than three million Buddhists in the United States, and more than 488 million worldwide. 

Vesak, also known as Buddha Day, Visakha Puja, or Wesak, falls on the full moon of the Indian calendar’s month of Vesakha, and different communities have celebrated on different days over the course of the last few weeks. Buddhists decorate homes and streets with lanterns, and gather at temples to chant, meditate, or feast together on Vesak. On May 15, in Beijing, the Buddhist Association of China celebrated at Guangji Temple with a ceremony bathing a statue of an infant representing newborn Siddhartha. On May 19, in Thailand, monks, scholars, and Buddhist leaders convened to honor Vesak and the king’s 72nd birthday. On May 27, the Young Buddhist Association of Indonesia, a youth organization that focuses on leadership development and dharma studies, constructed an almost-twenty-foot Buddha sculpture surrounded by animatronic sculptures of monks to honor the occasion.

Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama released a Vesak message, saying, “On this auspicious occasion, I offer fellow Buddhists everywhere my good wishes in leading meaningful lives filled with warmheartedness and compassion.”

Thaye Dorje, one of two claimants to the throne of the 17th Karmapa, also released a message, this one acknowledging Vesak as a special day to recall the activity and the blessings of the Buddha Shakyamuni and all Buddhas, and to focus on generating bodhicitta.  

Cardinal Ayuso, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican, sent out Vesak greetings and a message about working for peace together

This year at the White House, on May 23, the Second Gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, hosted the event with Wangmo Dixey, executive director of Dharma College and president of the International Buddhist Association of America. Buddhist leaders from different traditions, embassy leaders, and lay community members came together to light lamps and recite prayers. Kota Mizutani, a senior advisor for AA and NHPI engagement, introduced the event as an annual gathering. Emhoff opened by welcoming all attendees and noting how much the gathering has grown since it started in 2021. He also spoke about the importance of coming together to combat hate, saying, “There’s so much more that unites us than divides us.” He called upon the principles of compassion, humility, and peace in our task for building a better future.

Wangmo Dixey also acknowledged how much the celebration has grown over the years. “The first year we had just a handful, maybe under ten [people], and this year we had close to eighty people, including quite a few Buddhists in the administration who feel like this is something they want to be a part of,” she later told Tricycle. She also thanked the Biden administration for its support. “We’ve been seen and heard by the Biden administration, and we wish to express our deepest appreciation,” she said. 

In a new addition to the program, Dixey invited two young Americans to light lamps on behalf of the youth in the United States, and also invited Tricycle board member Roger Rosner to speak on behalf of the lay community. “I’m heartened today to see how the wisdom, ethics, and practices of the Buddha have spread throughout America,” Rosner said. “The Buddhist teachings are being embraced in schools, households, and meditation centers, benefiting many, many people. And it is my hope and aspiration that this event will inspire still more.” 

Watch the full ceremony here.

President Biden also released a statement, saying:

Jill and I extend warm wishes to Buddhists in the United States and around the world as they celebrate Vesak. As we honor the birth, passing, and enlightenment of Buddha, we recognize the American Buddhists who contribute so much to our communities and our country. For over 2,500 years, those who adhere to the Buddha’s teachings have enriched and strengthened this world we share. Vesak is a time to reflect on the Buddha’s teachings, including the need to work for peace and justice, and cultivate humility and compassion as we work together towards a brighter future.

After the White House ceremony, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and the International Buddhist Association of America hosted “Light Up Peace: A Vesak Celebration” at the Washington National Monument. In the spirit of the Buddhist ritual of circumambulating a stupa, participants walked around the monument three times, praying for all sentient beings. The walk was long enough that participants had time to do some mindfulness meditation, Dixey laughed as she spoke to Tricycle about the event. But above all she was moved by the participation of Buddhists from various countries, including those from the United States.We saw a really beautiful beginning of over 200 Buddhist monastics, laypeople and the general public who happened to be [there] at the moment. I think it’s going to grow and think it’s a great public event,” she said. 

Courtesy of Wangmo Dixey

Recalling the work she does in India, gathering Buddhists from different countries to chant the Tipitaka, or the Pali canon, Dixey said that bringing together Buddhists from different traditions for the monument walk felt similarly celebratory. “You feel this international sense of brotherhood and sisterhood.”

“By hosting this event at the Washington Monument, we extend an invitation to people of all faiths and spiritual backgrounds to join us in appreciating cultural diversity and nurturing mutual respect and understanding,” Dixey shared in a press release. “The theme of light serves as a poignant metaphor, reminding us that the illumination of our inner beings begins with a single spark.”

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