Today is a special day, a day that has been celebrated by all Buddhists every year for twenty-six hundred years. This is the Full Moon of the month of May, the day we call Visakha Puja or Vesak. This is the most special and universal of Buddhist holidays. It is the day on which Gotama, a living breathing human being, was born in the country of India. At the age of thirty-five, on this day he awoke to the Dhamma and became the one we know as Buddha, One Who Is Awake. And on this day at the age of eighty he mindfully passed away and left this practice to all those who would come after, including ourselves.
The Buddha as a man was truly worthy of celebration. Born a Prince, he had everything he could want but still felt unhappy. Does this sound familiar? He left his palace and life behind to wander and seek inner peace. He mastered all the practices of the day but still could not find the source of his unhappiness. Finally, on this Full Moon day, he sat beneath the Bodhi Tree and gave up seeking all things outside of himself. He finally calmed his mind and with his great wisdom saw the cause of all unhappiness and pain in our lives.
That alone would have been worthy of a holiday, but he went on to show millions of others how to attain this same enlightenment for themselves. He wandered the country of India teaching and training, gathering students from the noble classes and untouchables alike. He moved between borders speaking the common language and instructed even kings. He created the Saṇgha of Monks and Nuns that has survived in an unbroken line to this very day. He taught morality, resisted corruption, inspired millions, and created a religion of peace that has touched every corner of this planet.
But even though so many good things in our history started with this man, the Buddha himself said that Buddhas are more than just a person. Buddhas arise and pass away in this world, and he declared that whether a Buddha is in the world or not, Truth is still Truth. So the Buddha represents more than just a person.
He was the Hero, the Sage, the Doctor of the World, the Teacher, the Father, the Leader, the Great Compassionate One. But more than this the Buddha was a symbol. As long as he is remembered he is proof that we too are capable of being all of these things. We are born in this world with all its problems, but like him we can also rise above them. Some of them like famine and disease cannot be avoided, but the rest are created by the decisions we make every moment. It is within our power to make our own lives better.
Whenever we look past our biases and prejudice to see the person across from us, we are practicing his teaching. When we are mindful of rising anger and keep in it check, we are practicing his teaching. When we set aside our personal desires to have compassion for others in need, we are practicing his teaching. The Buddha did not invent kindness, compassion, and empathy. He did not invent mindfulness and meditation. He was not the first to practice simplicity and contentment. These things already existed. But he did bring them all together and point them out to us, that we can know they are the way to a better life and a better society. He pointed out the path to a life without suffering and encouraged us to walk it. Until his last breath he was teaching others how to be free of pain.
I think it is no coincidence that as this world is coming together in a way not seen before in history – with open borders, jet planes and the internet – that the Buddha’s message is being seen as more important than ever. We have all the tools we need to come together in peace and build a better future. And we have proof that is it possible even in the space of one human life.
On this most special day of Vesak we have a chance to reflect on this symbol of the Buddha and what he means to us and our society. We can also remember and show our gratitude for the legacy we inherit. Truth does not belong to any one culture or religion. It is passed from one wise person to the next. So in celebrating today we are ensuring the memory of the Buddha and the path to freedom lives on for years to come.
May you all be well and Happy. Namo Buddhāya!