White House hosts fourth annual Vesak celebration

(RNS) — The White House will play host to a Vesak ceremony on Thursday afternoon (May 23), the fourth time President Joe Biden’s administration has marked the annual Buddhist holiday celebrating the Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment.

Second gentleman Douglas Emhoff will once again host the ceremony commemorating the holiday, which had never been celebrated by the White House until Biden came into office in 2021. According to a White House official, the event, which coincides with the full moon, will include the lighting of lamps and feature ambassadors and representatives from the embassies of Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Mongolia and Laos.

“We are very grateful to the Second Gentleman for his leadership and vision for our communities in hosting the fourth ever Vesak ceremony at the White House — this is a tradition that he established in the very first year of our first term to celebrate the most sacred day for Buddhists in America and around the world,” Erika Moritsugu, deputy assistant to the president and Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander senior liaison, said in a statement.

“As President Biden has said: ‘Vesak is a time to reflect on the Buddha’s teachings, including the need to work for peace and justice, and cultivate humility and compassion as we work together towards a brighter future.’ Lord Buddha’s lessons of harmony and care are timeless, and reminder every day of what we can do to advance our common values.”

As in the past, the event will take place at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and is part of a partnership with the International Buddhist Association of America. Wangmo Dixey, IBAA’s executive director, told Religion News Service this year’s celebration will again include leaders from Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, as well as young lay Buddhist leaders from the Tibetan American and Khmer Krom communities.

According to Pew Research, Buddhists make up around 1.2% of the U.S. population as of 2010.

Dixey said Roger Rosner, who is vice president of applications at Apple Computer and founded a Buddhist group within the company, will also be in attendance, and she expects Biden to issue a statement marking the holiday as he has in previous years. 

“Under the second gentleman’s office, we’ve been able to symbolically light this lamp for inner harmony and world peace,” Dixey said. She added that the event has grown as the years have gone by and that she expects a “much larger turnout” this go-round.

In addition, Dixey noted the IBAA is partnering with Tzu Chi USA to host a separate “Light Up Peace” Vesak event at the Washington Monument on Thursday evening featuring prayers and remarks from interfaith leaders. Participants are expected to circumambulate around the monument three times.

“It’s going to be quite scenic to see traditional Buddhist dress, laypeople, monks all coming together,” Dixey said.

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