What do you do on Buddha's birthday? How different countries celebrate

  • The holiday falls on May 19 in Hong Kong this year, but people in Japan held their celebration in April, along with the cherry blossom festival
  • South Korea holds a parade with colourful lanterns, while in Nepal - thought to be Buddha’s birthplace - people offer prayers at the temple
Esther Cheung |

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Many different countries celebrate the birth of the Buddha, but the exact day changes depending on tradition and which calendar they use.

If you search online for when Buddha’s birthday is celebrated, you’ll get a different answer for different places – this year, it’s May 19 in Hong Kong, and May 26 in Sri Lanka. And in Japan, people already held the festival on April 8.

This holiday is meant to celebrate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. But since Buddhism spread from the Indian subcontinent more than 2,000 years ago, there are now about 500 million Buddhists around the world. This means there are many different lunar calendars and traditions that decide the date.

Although there are similarities between each country’s traditions – flowers, candles, lanterns, and good deeds – each country has its own spin on the holiday.

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Japan: Hana-matsuri

The Japanese name for Buddha’s birthday means “flower festival”. It is held at the same time that cherry blossoms bloom, as flowers play an important role in celebrating the day.

People in Tokyo celebrate Buddha's birthday.

In temples, people pour ama-cha, a sweet tea made with flowers, on statues of Buddha, and they drape lotuses around his neck. This symbolises how blossoms and water fell from the heavens (according to the stories) when Buddha was born.

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South Korea: Seokga tansinil

Lanterns are one of the key features of South Korea’s version of the holiday. As early as a month beforehand, people hang brightly coloured, lotus-shaped lanterns in all over temples and streets. For a small donation, people can hang their own lanterns in the temple with their name and a wish.

Performers in Seoul, South Korea take part in a lantern festival for Buddha's birthday.

An annual parade shows off lanterns in the shape of magnificent dragons and replicas of Buddha.

Aside from the lanterns, many temples provide free meals, such as a rice dish with many different vegetables known as bibimbap. Traditional games, mask dances, and acrobatic shows also take place outside temples.

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Thailand: Visakha Puja

Thailand’s traditions revolve mostly around the temples, where Buddhists gather to hear sermons and to chant prayers. They bring food, flowers, and candles to donate, which symbolise the importance of letting go of material things.

For people in Thailand, Buddha's birthday is a day to let go of material things.

At night, worshippers hold candles, flowers and incense as they walk around the temple. Many people also release pet birds or fish, believing it will cleanse their souls of anything bad they did.

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Indonesia: Waisak

Indonesia has the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur. On the day, people take part in a huge procession that starts at the Mendut Temple, the country's oldest Buddhist temple, and ends at Borobudur.

People in Indonesia release lanterns at the end of the day's celebrations.

Before heading to the temple, some people also clean their statues of Buddha, visit the elderly, and give donations to the needy.

At night, they release lanterns into the sky, and light candles.

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Sri Lanka: Vesak

Vesak typically lasts a week. Along with prayers at temples, people will also create pandols, large illuminated depictions of Buddha’s life. Houses and streets are decorated with candles and colourful lanterns.

Celebrations in Sri Lanka can last for a week.

People everywhere – families, restaurants, whoever can afford to – set up stalls called dansalas that offer free food and drinks. As there should be no death during the celebrations, all places where animals are killed for meat must close.

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Nepal: Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanthi

Buddha is thought to have been born in the Lumbini province of Nepal. To celebrate, people light candles and offer prayers at temples.

Buddha's birthday is a time for people in Nepal to practise kindness for all living beings. Pictured is a Buddhist mandala made of colourful sand.

To practise kindness for all living beings, people will not eat any meat, and will give donations to the poor.

Volunteers pass out a dessert known as kheer, a sweet rice pudding that symbolises what was offered to Buddha when he was fasting.

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