Buddha Jayanti: Remembering the Buddha When We Need Him the Most

Features Issue 102 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

Siddhartha Gautam was born around 566 B.C. in the small kingdom of Kapilvastu. Soon after, wise men predicted that the young prince would become a Buddha. When the king heard this, he was deeply disturbed, for he wanted his son to become a mighty ruler. “I will make life in the palace so pleasant that our son will never want to leave,” said the king. So growing up as a young prince, Siddhartha Gautam, heir to the throne of the Shakya Dynasty, was completely ignorant about human sufferings. He had never seen poverty, disease and death. Four trips outside his palace premises, however, broke this cocoon he was confined in, prompting him to leave his family to travel in search of truth. “How can I enjoy a life of pleasure when there is so much suffering in the world?” he thought to himself.

For six years, Siddhartha Gautam practiced severe asceticism in the hope that this would lead him to enlightenment. He just meditated, and barely ate anything. On a full-moon day in May, he sat under the Bodhi tree in deep meditation and said, “I will not leave this spot until I find an end to suffering.” During the night, he was visited by Mara, the evil one, who tried to lead him astray from his virtuous path. First, he sent his beautiful daughters to lure Gautama into pleasure. Next, he sent bolts of lightning, wind and heavy rain. Lastly, he sent his demonic armies with weapons and flaming rocks. One by one, Gautama met the armies and defeated them with his virtue. As the struggle ended, he realized the cause of suffering and how to remove it. He had gained the most supreme wisdom and understood things as they truly are. He became the Buddha or the awakened one. From then on, he was called Shakyamuni Buddha. Living a life that was dedicated to spreading this very wisdom, the Buddha passed away around 486 B.C. at the age of 80.

2500 years later, Buddhism is one of the major religions in the world. What started in a small Terai town in Nepal has spread like bushfire all over the world. So much so that images and references to the teachings of the Buddha even crop up in pop culture. Images of the Buddha’s calm face can now be seen on T-shirts and pop music album sleeves, while the sound of Buddhist prayers being chanted have even been recorded as an ironical, contrasting background for ‘angry’ rock music. Buddhism has seemingly penetrated all media that influence mankind.

On Buddha Jayanti, the Buddha’s birthday, his followers celebrate in their own ways. Some light butter lamps, some hold elaborate events to remember this great apostle of peace who figured out how to attain happiness. Its broad appeal and relevance is highlighted by the worldwide celebration of the Buddha’s birth.

In India, Buddha Jayanti is celebrated especially in Sikkim, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bodh Gaya and Maharashtra. Buddhists go to Vihars to observe a longer-than-usual full-length Buddhist sutra, or a Buddhist service. Most wear pure white to such an event. Non-vegetarian food is avoided. Kheer, sweet rice porridge, is served to recall the story of Sujata, a maiden who, in Gautama Buddha’s life, offered the Buddha a bowl of milk porridge.

In Japan, the Buddha’s birthday is also celebrated according to the Buddhist calendar, but is not a national holiday. On this day, all temples have celebratory events/festivals called Kanbutsu-e Goutan-e, Busshou-e, Yokubutsu-e, Ryuge-e, Hana-eshiki or Hana-matsuri, meaning flower festival. The Japanese pour ama-cha, a beverage prepared from a variety of hydrangea, on to small Buddha statues decorated with flowers, as if bathing a newborn baby.

In Korea, the birthday of the Buddha is celebrated as per the Lunisolar calendar. This day is called Seokga Tansinil, meaning Buddha’s birthday, or Bucheonim osin nal, meaning the day when Buddha arrived. Lotus lanterns cover entire Buddhist temples throughout the month. Many temples provide free meals and tea to all visitors. The breakfast and lunch provided are mostly sanchae bibimbap, a Korean delicacy. It is a major festival in Sri Lanka, too. Celebrated on the first full-moon day of the month of May, people engage in religious observances, and decorate houses and streets with candles and specially made lanterns. Countries, including Singapore and Malaysia, also celebrate Vesak Day on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, a public holiday in these two countries.

In short, Buddhism has truly gone global and the Buddha is remembered the world over on Buddha Jayanti. Rather sadly though, after all this time, instead of heeding his wise words, his lessons have to be reminded over and over again. The Buddha’s teachings have been summarized into the three universal truths, which are the pillars of Buddhism. First, nothing is lost in the universe. Matter turns into energy, energy turns into matter. A dead leaf turns into soil from which a seed sprouts and grows into a new plant. We consist of all that is around us. We are the same as everything. Through this the Buddha explained that if we destroy something around us, we destroy ourselves. If we cheat another, we cheat ourselves.

Second, everything changes. Life is like a river flowing on and on, ever-changing. Sometimes it flows slowly and sometimes swiftly. It is smooth and gentle in some places, but later on snags and rocks crop up out of nowhere. As soon as we think we are safe, something unexpected happens. Standing in the way of this change is, therefore, pointless. Only moving along with this flow makes sense.

And third, there is a law of cause and effect. The law of cause and effect is known as karma. The Buddha has said that nothing ever happens to us unless we deserve it. We reap exactly what we sow, whether it is good or bad. Our thoughts and actions determine the kind of life we can have. Every moment, we create new karma by what we think, say, and do. If we understand this, we do not need to fear karma. It becomes our friend. It teaches us to create a bright future. Karma is to be taken not as a strict teacher who makes us do the kind of work we are not interested in but as an essential formula, understanding which we can better face various challenges in life’s journey.

Buddha realized that that he was not the first to become a Buddha. “There have been many before me and there will be many Buddhas in the future too,” the Buddha told his disciples. “All living beings have the Buddha nature and can become Buddhas.” It is precisely this insight, combined with the three universal teachings, that people need to remember and be reminded of today. The Buddha, perhaps, needs to be more in his followers’ hearts and minds than on album covers and as indoor and garden decoration pieces. We need this in Nepal now, more than ever before.

Utsav Shakya is a freelance writer who believes in the Buddha’s teachings and looks to karma as a guiding light. He can be contacted at utsavshakya@gamil.com. 984.132.7187