Friday, May 5, is a holiday this year in Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, but for very different reasons. The Mexicans will celebrate Cinco de Mayo, the date when Mexican forces defeated a much larger invading French army at Puebla in 1862. Also tomorrow, South Korea and other parts of East Asia will celebrate the peaceful implications of the Buddha’s birthday, a holiday known as Vesak. In those areas, the holiday is celebrated on the 8th day of the fourth moon of the Chinese calendar—this year on May 5.
Other Buddhist countries differ. Many celebrate Vesak on the full moon of May, this year occurring on May 13. Whichever date is chosen, the purpose of the Vesak celebration is religious, not festive: a day when Buddhists reaffirm their belief in the Dharma and their intention to meditate on the love and peace that the Buddha revealed. Buddhanet explains that “the significance of Vesak lies with the Buddha and his universal peace message to mankind.”
Perhaps even more interesting than the convergence of major holidays celebrating warfare in one country and peace in others are the reactions of the Catholic Church and the Buddhist leaders of South Korea to Buddha’s birthday. On April 28, Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk in Seoul issued a warm message of solidarity between his church and the Buddhists of South Korea.
Cardinal Cheong clearly has picked up on the message of Buddhism. Decrying discrimination, hostility, conflict, and hate in the world, he said, “that is why we need Buddha’s teaching more and more. We believe that we can solve the problems by following Buddha’s compassion and practicing love, which is the fundamental teaching of all religions.” The cardinal indicated in his statement that he intends to build a more peaceful society through interfaith dialogues.
The Venerable Beopjeon, patriarch of the Jogye Buddhist Order in South Korea, said in an April 25 statement about Vesak, “those who open the sharp eye of discernment in anguish will see the Buddha. Those who are awakened to redemption in love will see Jesus.”
These words of interfaith harmony and peace from major religious leaders in South Korea match the multiple religious beliefs and practices of the country, in which about 25.3 percent are Buddhists, 19.8 percent Protestants, and 7.3 percent Catholics, among numerous other faiths.
While statements about “peaceful societies” from political leaders may be suspected for serving national interests, comparable statements from religious leaders may advance the broader cause of bringing peace to humanity.