As many Buddhists around the world have celebrated Vesak, the festival honoring the birth, awakening and death of the Buddha or Paranirvana— On May 5, sangha members from several traditions gathered at the White House in Washington, DC, for prayers and offerings. Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, husband of Kamala Harris, hosted the ceremony. Ambassadors from Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand were present, as well as Buddhists from India, Indonesia and Mongolia.
This is the third time White House officials have invited Buddhists to celebrate the holiday. The tradition began in 2021, when President Joe Biden became the first U.S. President to hold an official Vesak celebration at his official residence and workplace.* This year marks the first time that a large number of guests could be welcomed at the White House. after the previous two years were reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a White House official, staff "for whom this party has meaning" were also invited to participate. The official also said the Biden administration hopes to send the message to Buddhists "that the White House sees, hears and values them during their holy feast." (Religious News Service)
The International Buddhist Association of America (IBAA), which was a partner in the celebration, highlighted the significance of the event for Buddhists in the United States, stating, "According to the Pew Research Center, there are more of 3,5 million Buddhists with more than 2 organizations in the United States, making it the third largest religious tradition in our country. Vesak, in various national forms, has been observed by millions of Buddhists around the world for millennia. (International Buddhist Association of America)
The IBAA added: “In 1999 the United Nations recognized (Vesak) as a major worldwide religious holiday. (International Buddhist Association of America)
Wangmo Dixey, President of the IBAA, said in the association's press release:
With between 700 million and a billion followers, Buddhism is the third of the great missionary religions, along with Christianity and Islam, and brings a message of perhaps unique importance to the cultural conditions we find today . The International Buddhist Association of America was founded to meet this challenge, the challenge of bringing together all the different Buddhist voices found in America and promoting the civilized and reasoned discourse that is so characteristic of our great tradition.
(International Buddhist Association of America)
Additionally, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinkin wrote in a press release:
Happy Buddha Purnima. We send our best wishes to Buddhists around the world as they commemorate Vesak.
Vesak marks the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. The occasion gives us all an opportunity to reflect on his teachings and renew our commitment to universal values such as compassion, tolerance and human dignity.
On this occasion, we celebrate the rich contributions of diverse Buddhist communities around the world and pledge to work together across belief traditions to build a better world for all.
(U.S. Department of State)
* Making History: Vesak celebrated at the White House with candle offerings (BDG)