For the First Time Ever, the White House Celebrates Vesak, the Buddha’s Birthday

Representatives from the three major Buddhist traditions gathered for prayers and candle lighting.

By Alison Spiegel

Wednesday, May 26, 2021 marked a historic moment for Buddhists in the US. For the first time ever, the White House celebrated Vesak, the holiday that commemorates the Buddha’s birthday, death, and enlightenment.

Wangmo Dixey, Executive Director of Dharma College and President of the International Buddhist Association of America, coordinated the event with the offices of Mr. Shekar Narasimhan, President of the Dharma Into Action Foundation. The celebration included candle lighting with the Second Gentleman, Mr. Douglas Emhoff, and prayers by leaders from the three major Buddist traditions. The White House also released an official statement by President Biden:

Jill and I extend our warmest wishes to Buddhists in the United States and around the world as they celebrate Vesak, a day honoring the birth, enlightenment, and passing of the Buddha. The ceremonial lighting of a lamp, the symbol of this holiday that has been celebrated for over 2,500 years, reminds us of Buddhism’s teachings of compassion, humility, and selflessness that endure today. On this day, we also commemorate the many contributions of Buddhists in America who enrich our communities and our country as we all work together toward brighter days ahead.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary Antony Blinken shared messages on Twitter honoring the holiday and Buddhists around the world. 

vesak white house
Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith

Dixey told Tricycle that the International Buddhist Association of America had been trying to establish a Vesak celebration in the White House since 2016. President Obama released a statement that year, but this was the first time a ceremony occurred. 

“We hope this is a beginning,” Dixey said, expressing her desire that this happen every year now, and that people around the country pay attention.

“I just think about these early Founding Fathers, who spoke about freedom and freedom of religion. That has such deep meaning. I just feel like this needs to be heard.”

Vesak is celebrated on different dates according to the country or Buddhist tradition, but it is often celebrated on the day of the full moon in May, as it was at the White House. Festivities, such as South Korea’s Yeon Deung Hoe, or lotus lantern festival, which was recently named a UNESCO event of Intangible Cultural Heritage, often take place out of the house. This year, however, many Buddhists celebrated at home, for the second year in a row, because of the pandemic. 

The White House’s ceremony was meaningful both because it was the first Vesak celebration held there, but also because it brought together three schools of Buddhism.


vesak white house
Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith
vesak white house
Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith


According to a press release from Dharma College, Dixey said, “It is wonderful that prayers were offered from all three great traditions of Buddhist practice here, at the heart of American democracy.”

The Most Venerable Uparatana represented the Theravada tradition; Rev. Marvin Harada represented the Mahayana tradition; and Venerable Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, who is Dixey’s father and the founder of Dharma College, represented the Vajrayana tradition.

Dixey also shared with Tricycle the blessing she read during the ceremony, which specifically recognized the citizens of India, who are currently enduring the world’s worst surge in COVID-19 cases.

On behalf of the International Buddhist Association of America, the Dharma into Action Foundation, all American Buddhists, and the hundreds of millions of Buddhist people world-wide, we stand here together in lighting these lamps in honor of the Blessed One, the Buddha, whose life and teachings are an inspiration to us all. May the prayers we offer today on this auspicious occasion of his birth, enlightenment and passing away bring peace and healing to all peoples, particularly to our brothers and sisters in India, the heartland of the dharma, and may the light that radiates from here, the White House of America, bring wisdom and harmony to the whole world. May all beings be happy; may all beings avoid suffering; may all beings have the happiness that is free from suffering; may all beings enjoy immeasurable equanimity, free from attachment, aversion or indifference.

Dixey told Tricycle she is used to bringing together sanghas and she emphasized the importance of spreading the dharma, specifically the teachings on wisdom and compassion, with the four million Buddhists who live in the US. 

“But more than that, I think the after impact of this is the beginning,” she said. “I was watching Kamala Harris say, ‘I see you,’ and there’s this feeling that by lighting this lamp, ‘I see you.’”