The Big Buddha situated on Lantau Island is perhaps one of Hong Kong’s most iconic attractions dedicated to a humble being filled with gratitude who was born privileged – Buddha. Being widely respected, Buddha’s Birthday (佛誕 – fat daan in Cantonese and 佛诞 – fo dan in Mandarin) on May 26, 2023 is a time-honoured celebration across Asia in remembrance of his life. Read on to understand why Buddha remains so significant a figure in Asian cultural values to this day.

What is Buddha’s Birthday celebration?

Celebrated on May 26, 2023 in Hong Kong and other Asian countries, Buddha’s Birthday celebrates the birthday of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism in the fifth century BCE. His birthday was contested by different groups of followers, but it’s now recognised to fall on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar.

Legend says that he was born as the son of the monarch of present-day Nepal, who brought great blessings to India and then beyond. Growing up, he saw how the destitute lived, which shed light on the suffering in life. He soon realised money and fame can’t provide happiness. Thus, he renounced his fortune and royal title to live humbly with the bare minimum. It was through a quiet period of meditation that he reached enlightenment, hence his name Buddha meaning ‘Enlightened One’.

devotee pouring water over buddha statue
Buddha statue being bathed in Myanmar (© coffeeyu via Canva)

During his time spent travelling alone and living life as a beggar, he sat perched under the Bodhi tree, or tree of awakening, deep in meditation where he reflected on his life experiences and reached “nirvana,” or awakening. This meditative state propelled him forward in life as a guide to help others reach spiritual awakening.

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Buddha’s Birthday is sometimes referred to as the Bathing of Buddha Festival because the main ritual on his birthday is for people to pour water over a statue of Buddha, symbolising the purification of one’s soul.

Why do people in Hong Kong observe Buddha’s birthday?

buddhist monk in hong kong
Hong Kong’s population is around 21% Buddhist, with a plethora of devout monks (© Teddy Nguyen via WikiCommons)

Hong Kong is made up of approximately 21% devout Buddhist followers. Buddhism sprouted in Hong Kong as more schools, organisations, and elderly homes operated under the Hong Kong Buddhist Association, which has roughly 10,000 members. Though devout Buddhists celebrated Gautama Buddha’s birthday for many years, it only became a holiday in 1998, a year after the British ceded control of Hong Kong to China. It falls on the same day as Tam Kung’s Birthday (the young sea god) and Cheung Chau Bun Festival, but is not related to them.

How to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday?

buddha statues in po lin monastery hong kong
Buddha statues at Po Lin Monastery, Ngong Ping (© Lip Jin Lee via Flickr)

Hong Kong hosts celebrations across town, particularly at Buddhist monasteries, to honour Buddha on his special day. Lighting of lanterns to symbolise enlightenment, making offerings, group chanting and meditating, as well as bathing a statue of Buddha with water, are notable acts that occur to pay Buddha with respect. One might spot monks holding cultural performances, too. A vegetarian diet is followed on this day to uphold one of Buddha’s teachings that the flesh of consciously living beings shouldn’t be consumed.

Famous Buddhist monasteries

tian tan buddha hong kong
The ‘Big Buddha’ makes nearby Buddhist monastery the most famous in Hong Kong (© Gelia via Canva)

Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island is perhaps the most recognised place to visit the grand Tian Tan Buddha statue after climbing 268 steps. Buddha’s sat in the purest form, representing the wisdom he spreads to people. It’s a tourist hub, but it’s still a sacred place.

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Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Shatin has thousands of Buddha statues, 13,000 statues despite its name, lined up along a paved path ascending roughly 430 steps and also found in five temples, four pavilions and one nine-story pagoda.

Tsz Shan Monastery in Tai Po is a tranquil place known for its whopping 76m-tall statue of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. It’s home to a Buddhist art museum, but it’s also a place to educate and practice Buddhism.

Chi Lin Nunnery in Diamond Hill is a lovely little sanctuary that brings peace and serenity to visitors. It was built as a retreat for Buddhist nuns where one will see Tang Dynasty influences, a beautiful courtyard, and lotus ponds.

Celebrations of Buddha’s Birthday throughout Asia

lotus lanterns for vesak day
Thai Buddhists hold lotus lanterns on Vesak Day (© vinhdav via Canva)

Countries in Southeast and East Asia celebrate Buddha’s Birthday in slightly different ways given the various branches of Buddhism.

Vesak Day, another name for Buddha’s Birthday, is observed by Buddhists throughout South Asia and Southeast Asia, including mainland China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, and Tibet. Adding to the list of aforementioned celebrations in Hong Kong, people in these places gather to light lanterns at home or temples and wear simple white clothes.

In South Korea, Buddhists would hold parades with lanterns of a magnificent dragon on display. Lanterns would also fill homes and temples with wishes sometimes written on them.

lantern lighting ceremony south korea
Buddhist monks gather for a lantern lighting ceremony in Seoul (© Republic of Korea via Canva)
Buddhist monks in a Birthday of Buddha march in downtown Seoul (© Spc. Daniel Love via WikiCommons)

In India, closest to Buddha’s birthplace, Buddhists light candles, offer prayers, and express their gratitude at temples.

In Taiwan, thousands of people would gather at the temples to watch a monk decorate Buddha’s shrine with flowers, as well as chant prayers.

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Other traditional Chinese festivals: Lunar New YearLunar New Year Fair — Birthday of Che KungChinese Lantern FestivalKwun Yum Treasury Opening FestivalChing Ming FestivalTin Hau FestivalCheung Chau Bun FestivalBuddha’s BirthdayBirthday of Tam KungDragon Boat FestivalBirthday of Kwan TaiQixi FestivalHung Shing FestivalHungry Ghost FestivalMid-Autumn FestivalMonkey King FestivalBirthday of ConfuciusChung Yeung FestivalWinter Solstice Festival.

Header image credits: Iacgojheud via WikiCommons

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A hermit at heart, Agnes likes to connect with the world across various platforms that share a wealth of content on beauty, culture, lifestyle, and travel. She loves using the art of language to portray her voice and poor sense of humour whenever possible. When she’s not nerding around or head deep into a piece, you’re sure to find her spending time outdoors with friends and family or going down the Pinterest rabbit hole to find all sorts of inspiration she can!

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