If you can bring yourself to face the sweltering outdoors this Saturday, you will witness something remarkable in the Buddhist temples, pagodas and holy places of Yangon. The 14th marks the most sacred full moon of the Buddhist calendar – the Full Moon Day of Kasone. While every full moon is sacred to Buddhists, Kasone is exceptional; it is not only the day the Shakyamuni Buddha was born, it is also the day he attained Nirvana and Parinirvana (nirvana-after-death) and the day Buddha gave his first sermon, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which is a big deal for Buddhists.
The day of Kasone is celebrated across South Asia and the Indian sub-continent, although the name and actual date celebrated varies according to the lunar calendars used in each country. It is known as Vesak Day in Singapore, Waisak in Indonesia and Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanti in India.
Here in Myanmar, the Day of Kasone celebrations haven’t changed much despite the nation’s recent development. It is still primarily celebrated in two ways: by pouring water on the Maha-Bodhi tree – the sacred Bayan tree under which Buddha reached enlightenment – and by releasing fish into lakes and streams. Pouring water onto an object (typically a Buddha statue) as a blessing is an ancient tradition in Myanmar, and signifies goodwill, good luck and cleansing both of oneself and the object. It’s common at religious sites across the nation throughout the year, as Myanmar people typically practice it on their birthday. Pouring water onto the Banyan tree on the Day of Kasone has a different significance; as it always falls in dry season, it is a way of ensuring the mystical tree’s survival through the drought. Releasing fish into lakes and rivers, on the other hand, is a sign of merit for Buddhists; much in the same way as releasing birds at pagodas (Sule Pagoda is famous for this). Releasing the fish into bigger, cooler bodies of water in dry season is particularly meritous. Both acts are accompanied by great ceremony with many Myanmar people dressed in traditional costumes, while the water offerings are gathered and poured from ornamental clay pots. Great processions leading along roads to the rituals at the Banyan trees across Myanmar are also a common sight.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the centre of the Banyan tree Kasone Day celebrations in Yangon, and there will be significant crowds making offerings throughout the day. Expect it to be very busy – heading to some of the smaller sites in the city like Shwe Phone Pwint Pagoda might offer a more sedate and authentic experience. Fish releases will take place in pools of water around the city, but Kandawgyi Lake and Inya Lake will see the most offerings.
As with any religious ceremonies in Myanmar, it is important that observers are appropriately dressed (knees and shoulders covered), respectful and don’t get in the way. Intrusive selfies with those making offerings will not be welcome! You may however be approached by fish sellers and given the opportunity to release some fish yourself. If this appeals to you then go ahead, but as always, be respectful and don’t harm the animals. The Day of Kasone is a very special day in Myanmar, and a unique experience as a visitor to the country.