Vesak Day, a Celebration of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

“I don’t want to die without knowing all this.” — Joanna Macy
“If I have faith in anything, I have faith in life.” — Stephen Batchelor

Birth, vulnerability, ageing, death, awaking, and full liberation: in all Buddhist traditions, there is one special day, near the first full moon in May, intentionally chosen to celebrate all of these important events in the of life of Siddhartha Gotama, the man who would become the Buddha. He was born sometime around 563 BCE in an area near modern day Nepal, to a wealthy village leader. His mother died hours after giving birth to him, and he was raised by his mother’s sister, who became his father’s wife. His was a life of relative privilege in which he was kept materially satisfied and protected from the trials and tribulations of daily life. He was so protected, in fact, that it is said that the gardening staff would work at night to cut off any dead blossoms, so that while growing up, Gotama would never see death.

As a young man, he took a wife, and they had a child. To others, he seemed content, satisfied; but even before the birth of his son Rahula, this bright and curious Gotama had begun secretly leaving his gated community at night with the help of his own charioteer. He wanted to know about all aspects of life. Seeing sick and injured people showed him that there is an inherent vulnerability in our bodies, hearts, and minds. An old woman taught him about ageing. A child’s dead body burning on a funeral pyre led him to the startling realization that his own son would die one day, as would his wife, his step-mother, and his father. He recalled that his own young, healthy mother had died unexpectedly at childbirth. Death could happen to anyone at any time. All that he loved and held dear “would become otherwise, would become separate and different from him.” Even he, himself would sicken, grow old, and die. He knew this with certainty now, but he did not know when or how these things would occur. What should he do?

As the full picture of life became clear to him, Gotama had a life-altering insight into Dukkha, the built-in unsatisfactoriness and uncertainty inherent in our human existence, which is an unavoidable result of being born. He felt the paradox of life and death––the interconnectedness that calls forth love but cannot prevent loss. This moment of full-bodied knowing was undoubtedly heightened by the visceral bond that he, as a first-time father, felt towards his just-born son, whose given name, Rahula, refers to a bond, an attachment with a felt-sense of responsibility. The story tells us that, in this moment, samvega, a courageous, inner, spiritual urgency was aroused in this soon-to-be-Buddha. Knowing his wife, mother, and son would be well cared for in his absence, Gotama set out alone to find “the deathless.” He was looking for a path that would offer freedom from the push and pull of liking and disliking, freedom from despair, greed, and hatred. He vowed to return to his family and extended household with an answer.

He left his wealth and safe home, stepped into homelessness, and became a wandering mendicant, living among other seekers in the Indian villages and forests of the time, and relying on the generosity of others for food and shelter. He studied with two of the greatest meditation teachers of that era. After learning what they had to teach, he went off on his own to practice with what he had learned and to take it further in a way that might be accessible to others. He vowed to sit down to meditate and not get up until he felt a true “knowledge and liberation.” A young girl and a village woman saw Gotama sitting in his emaciated, weary condition and offered him rice milk. Their kindness warmed his heart, and stirred a memory of the love and safety of his own home. He specifically recalled the contentment he felt on one early spring day, sitting under a rose apple tree as farmers plowed the surrounding fields. The women’s generosity and the simple joy of his reverie refreshed his heart and mind. The Buddha continued his quest. After a series of inner struggles, he refined his insights into the uncertain, unstable, changing nature of the mind and heart. He accomplished a liberating understanding of the futility of imagining there is an aspect of mind that can directly control life; and he entered an experience of nirvana (nibbhana, in early Buddhist language), which is explained as the complete cessation of the flow of mental activity. It is a profound and unique cessation––the end of all subjective experience. As such, it is beyond our current understanding and language.

This nirvana is not death. The body does not die, but it is said that the person who emerges from this transformative experience of is changed in all aspects of life. Through an intentional stopping of the workings of the mind, all the deep, habitual tendencies towards mindlessly reacting to events, which are based a spontaneous wanting or disliking, are gone. Greed, hatred, and delusion in all their many blatant and subtle forms are gone––not just while in the state, but also afterwards. Even the slightest possibilities of their arising in response to an interaction have vanished. Only wisdom, kindness, and compassion remain in the person afterwards.

We are told that following this first connection with nirvana, Gotama sat alone in the forest, savoring its effects for weeks––contemplating and integrating its life-altering potentials for himself and for others. At first, he thought that other people would not be able to understand the full deconstruction, this alteration of his whole being, which had occurred from this “hidden in plain view” experience; perhaps it was something meant for him alone. But then he thought that maybe someone could comprehend and even have the experience themselves. He knew it would be of immeasurable benefit if they did. So, he set out in search for his five most recent practice companions to discuss his findings with them. While on the road and before meeting up with them, he met a man whom he knew only slightly. This person was startled by Gotama’s radically changed appearance––he seemed so healthy, bright, and alive––almost glowing. “Who are you?” asked the man, “You seem familiar, but are you even a man? Or are you a god?”

Perhaps momentarily confused by the question, and probably speaking for the first time after weeks of deep meditation, he answered thoughtfully, “I’m not a god or a man; I am awake.” In that moment, he named himself for us––not with a noun, but with a descriptive adjective. In his language “awake” is expressed as Buddha: “I am Buddha.”

He continued on to meet up with his friends and to share the Dharma with them. This first teaching contained the insight that led him to start his quest: the truth of dukkha, his initial insight into the unavoidable pain and loss woven into the happiest of lives. It included his new knowledge also: there is a way to lessen and end this dukkha. He explained the roots of the pain, that humans mistakenly add to the existential pain of existence by relying on the deeply embedded habit of thinking of things as “me” and “mine,” wrongly perceiving the sometimes useful concept of an organizing, controlling self as truth. A freer, more fluid, less stressful life is possible, and the Buddha taught them a path that incorporated his findings. Everyone quickly understood, and all five soon awakened through these teachings. The group then moved on together, forming a living practice community. This first sangha arose from the Buddha speaking the Dharma. Their numbers grew, and their practice, study, and teaching continued to expand throughout the countryside, as the Buddha made his way back to his family’s home village. There too his transformation and his explanation of the path to healing were received as a precious gift.

He stayed with them for several weeks, and then the Buddha again left home again. This second time his intention was to further practice and study what he himself was learning––and to share this potentially liberating knowledge so that others could try it for themselves. People from his home and the village complex joined him. His son Rahula went along; and soon the boy became a novice monk in the growing community that was arising in the light of his father’s guidance. The Buddha’s wife and step-mother followed him and were among the first group of fully ordained Buddhist nuns. His father, the village leader, was touched by the Dharma as well, and though he didn’t follow his son into a homeless life, he became a financially supportive lay practitioner. The Buddha continued to live as a mendicant for the rest of his life––teaching and interacting with increasingly large numbers of male and female monastic and lay practitioners in an extensive area in north central India. He died of dysentery at age eighty in a simple rural way station.

The Buddha aged during his very active lifetime; he was said to have had chronic back problems for years. His final illness was common in his time, and his death was a real death, a compete death. He didn’t rise from his tomb, and, importantly, he wasn’t reborn. In his culture, which was firmly rooted in the acceptance of rebirth as a natural phenomenon, his was a unique death in that he would not be reborn––either in earthly or heavenly realms. The Buddha had stepped off the seeming “endless wheel of birth, death, and rebirth.” Because of this, it was said that he realized “the deathless.” He would not again experience birth, the root cause of dukkha. This death is referred to as Parinibbana, and included as part of it, nirvana.

So Vesak Day does not celebrate the Buddha as a perfect, omniscient, permanent person or as a god. With this in mind, we could say that Vesak Day is a celebration of the fullness of life: life as an ongoing, ever-changing, yet recognizable process; life as possibility; life as an awakening; life as complete in itself; enough. The Buddha in the earliest teachings was a person like us. Though he lived in a different era under different life circumstances, he had the same kind of physical body, the same sensory and neurological apparatus that we do. He faced difficult situations in his inner and outer life. His mind had at times flailed about in confusion as he faced the unbearable moments in life; but he discovered a way to reduce the stress and fears enough to stay balanced and kind and connected. He found and taught a mindful and compassionate way to be in relationship with life’s inevitable ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows––a way which deepened his own wisdom and at the same time laid out a clear path that others can follow, a way that leads towards peace of mind and ease of heart, towards the end of addiction, cruelty, selfishness, hostility. This path that he taught has been helping and supporting people for over 2500 years, and it still is.

In his book Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that not only do we take refuge in the Buddha, but also, the Buddha takes refuge in us. May it be so. May kindness, wisdom, and compassion find a home, a place of refuge, in our hearts.

Please come celebrate the Buddha’s well-lived life with us this year on May 17, from 5:30 p.m.–7:00 p.m. at St. Barnabas Church in Norwich or online. See the announcement in our May newsletter for details.

Remember the Buddha’s last words: Anything can happen at any time. Pay attention. Continue with care.

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*** Postscript: This version of the Buddha’s life story is very much rooted in the traditional telling of it, which is based on his own words about his life as found in various texts, especially the Maha Parinibbana Sutta (DN. 16). My telling of the story here is also colored by what I have come to know of historic facts about the time period; and by my own years of Dharma study and practice; and by the unfolding of my own life. The story, though I know it well, was a surprise to me as I wrote it. It called me to pay attention and to think. What was going on for him? What is this journey to awakening really like? What is the intention in “leaving home”? What are the aids to awakening and what that even mean––awakening?

My heart’s imagination has been touched recently by the realization that the Dharma has taken up residence in me, coloring my understanding of both my present and past life experiences and my interactions with its kind and alive energy. As I think of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha taking refuge in me, I feel both a sense of safety and sense of curiosity. What might that mean?! I could feel this curiosity as I wrote this essay.

I invite you to consider telling the Buddha’s life story for yourself––from your own present perspective as the Dharma continues its process of finding refuge in your heart. I don’t necessarily mean to directly tell your own personal story––though that could be important too––but to tell this 2500 year old story as a way of feeling your way into a relationship with it, as a way of finding out perhaps what it really means to you at this point in your life.

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