Unlike Christmas, which is celebrated in January by many Orthodox Christians or in December by most other Christians, The Buddha’s Birthday holiday varies not only by region or country, but also widely by its date.
The traditional commemoration of the Buddha’s Birthday is often the eighth day of the fourth lunar month. Some celebrate it as Vesak which falls on the first Full Moon in May. In some areas in East Asia, such as South Korea, Macau, and Hong Kong, today is Buddha’s Birthday. This solar-determined date varies year to year. For instance, next year the date will be May 12th, and in 2020, it will fall on April 30th.
Personally, to keep things fairly simple, I celebrate it on the Hong Kong date and Vesak according to Tibetans. This way, my beneficiary monks and I can coordinate our tributes.
In capsule form, here is what is celebrated by millions of people today.
Some 2,600 years or so ago, near the present boundary between Nepal and India in Lumbini, the young prince was born to the royal family of the Shakya Clan. After his birth, a seer predicted that the infant would grow up to be either a great political emperor or a great spiritual light.
His father wished to have the young man become his political successor, so the young Siddharta Gautama was raised in a protected environment within the palace walls. Every conceivable desire was provided in the effort to have the prince grow into a king and not a spiritual guide. He was militarily trained in archery and the combat arts. Gautama won his wife in a shooting contest.
Before the age of 30, Gautama’s curiosity about the world beyond the palace walls became uncontainable. He finally was given permission to see the area around the palace. The king arranged a carefully planned route in order to control what the prince would see during that special week. Even though the route was censored, it was impossible to eliminate every possibility.
The first day out of the palace, he noticed a person who was severely ill. Gautama asked his valet about this. The valet said that the person was sick and that everybody becomes ill at some points in their lives.
The second day, he came upon a wasted, decrepit, elderly man. The valet explained to Gautama that every person gets older and that if one survives illness or accident, one can expect to become very old.
The third day, Gautama crossed paths with a funeral procession with a corpse being carried to its cremation pyre. The prince was alarmed and asked what had happened. The valet explained that every person will sooner or later die. Even the prince was not immune from this event.
The fourth day the prince noticed a meditating monk. When the monk’s gaze met Gautama’s glance, the prince was mesmerized. This was the prince’s first realization that a deeper refuge from suffering was possible.
Upon this realization, Gautama understood that he needed to take an hiatus from his royal life in order to further explore the meaning of life and to realize enlightenment. He had his valet help him secretly escape the palace, then the prince began his wandering through the land.
During over half of a decade he joined many priests, monks, and meditation teachers who showed Gautama several techniques to enhance the mind’s potential. He finally decided to discover enlightenment near the village of Bodhgaya. He was determined to remain in meditation until he experienced it. “Let my skin and sinews and bones dry up, together with all the flesh and blood of my body! I welcome it! But I will not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom.”
Following six days and six nights of contemplating his mind’s most subtle and enticing obstacles, the prince reached complete enlightenment. On the Full Moon morning, a week before his 35th birthday, Gautama became the Buddha…the Awakened One. Shakyamuni Buddha discovered a radiant, intuitive state of bliss. He had truly become one with everything in the Universe.
During the next 45 years, he traveled through northern India and taught students from all castes and stations in life. The Buddha shared his wisdom and methods with everyone who requested his audience. He was non-dogmatic in his teachings. He always encouraged his listeners to question the teachings and confirm them through their own particular experiences. It is this scientific attitude that is present in many practitioners today.
Even if you are not Buddhist, today can be special. Take a few moments to formally or informally meditate and contemplate on your life. Keep the time personal and focused. Make sure your mental space is simple and non-dogmatic. Be open and have a cheerful Buddha’s Birthday.
The Blue Jay of Happiness contemplates wisdom attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha. “With fools, there is no companionship. Rather than live with men who are selfish, vain, quarrelsome, and obstinate, let a man walk alone.”