Sweet May: Celebrating the Buddha’s Birth, Awakening, and Death Together

“Let us seize this moment of spiritual renewal, and honor Buddha’s wisdom by coming together as one, in solidarity, and shaping a better, more peaceful world for all people.”
— UN Secretary-General António Guterres, 1986

“Vesak,” the Day of the Full Moon in the month of May, is the most sacred day to millions of Buddhists around the world. It was on the Day of Vesak two and a half millennia ago, in the year 623 B.C., that the Buddha was born. It was also on the Day of Vesak that the Buddha attained enlightenment, and it was on the Day of Vesak that the Buddha in his 80th year passed away.

The General Assembly, by its resolution 54/115 of 1999, recognized internationally the Day of Vesak to acknowledge the contribution that Buddhism, one of the oldest religions in the world, has made for over two and a half millennia and continues to make to the spirituality of humanity. This day is commemorated annually at the UN.

The statements above are taken from the UN’s official website. A May 18, 2019 post on the Boston Public Library site pointed to the intertwining of the “birth, enlightenment, and death of Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as Buddha. All these important events are said to have happened on the same day throughout his life.” This last line is particularly intriguing to me. Do these events happen every day? Every moment? Who is this person who continues to die, be born, and awaken, I wonder? This one whose teachings we Western lay people now follow?

Each year Valley Insight hosts a Sangha-wide gathering to celebrate Vesak Day and to enjoy one another, even as we join a worldwide community in commemorating this important occasion—one which honors the living source of wisdom and compassion. Usually, our event includes a talk on the historic Buddha, a Brahma Vihara meditation guided in tandem by Valley Insight teachers, silent practice, a community recitation of the Metta Sutta, an interactive reflection on the Sangha, and a time for socializing. Last May, I wrote an essay on the life of the Buddha, which I subsequently recognized as being highly colored by my own evolving experiences and understandings. My storytelling was “conditioned,” and it was conditioning me, changing how I understood “the Buddha”—even as I reflected and wrote. This year, I had the idea of inviting other Valley Insight Teachers and practice leaders to reflect on how they understood the question of the Buddha in their own lives and to consider sharing their thoughts in the April newsletter.

Some of those invited were not able to submit a written text within the short ten-day period offered. One such person pointed to the perennial challenge of putting into words that which cannot be spoken. Two others appreciated the process as a “seed,” a prompt to their own practice, a directional encouragement for further awareness. Another said that, though they had been planning to write about their daily practice with the Metta Sutta, all their time had been taken up with the promised preparing of meals for others. They wondered now about the balance suggested by the Metta Sutta’s line, “Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.” Similarly, someone else spoke of working with a balancing of wise effort in the midst of a full, committed life and reluctantly letting go of the reflective writing, an activity to which she had very much been looking forward. To me, all of these responses are actually part of this process that is wisdom and compassion being born, awakening, and dying in this very life, here and now.

Happily, we also had some lovely written responses. Peg Meyer gives us a strong, clear and very respectful view of an actively compassionate Buddha living in the world and in our hearts and imaginations. Karen Summer shares a taste of her own delight in living into Dharma. Michael Stoner witnesses a maturing practice and a gradual lessening of any separation between formal meditation and daily life. Joel Lazar offers a poem that draws us directly into the miracle of awakening, as seen from the lyrically mundane, lovingly intimate point of view of the “Bugs in the Bodhi tree.” You will definitely want to read all of these in full detail.

From Peg Meyer: The discourses do not tell us much about the life of the Buddha. This seems to me to be consistent with a man who was not concerned with fame but ardently teaching people how to end dukkha in their lives. We know that as a young man he left home to become a wandering ascetic. He spent six years searching for awakening. While he is not the author of any books, he devoted 45 years of his life to teaching; and when he died at age 80, he seemed satisfied that he had passed on his Dharma that would benefit the world. His dying was also a teaching: “And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!” (DN 2:16)

From Karen Summer: I love the Dharma, its coherence, complexity, and the basic values of a moral base that emphasizes metta and wisdom. I cannot imagine my life without it! The aspect that most fills me with amazement, even awe, is that its components are truly visible here and now. Almost every teaching can be illustrated by looking deeply into the present. Paraphrasing Thich Nhat Hahn, looking at a heap of garbage we see a flower blooming. The Dharma—and my lived experience of it—is my refuge, offering relief from the tumult of our society and anxiety about future climate changes. As the body ages, I am reminded innumerable times of the teaching of two arrows. Within the lived example of the Buddha’s life, altruism is an essential component. What we do isn’t only for ourselves. In fact, I gain strength to fight the stream of my unwholesome habits by saying to myself, “Perhaps if I can turn the mind this moment in a wholesome direction, I may be able to help someone else in the future (who faces a similar situation).” Most of my closest friends are affiliated with Valley Insight. I cherish the exchanges we have.

So, I deeply venerate the extraordinary person Siddhartha Gotama, who became the Buddha, the Awakened One. He was a human being unlike all others, but nonetheless a man and not a god. I am tremendously grateful for his exertions to be wholly freed from the cycle of samsara and his 45 years of teaching, which come to us as “the Dharma.” To the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha—bodhi swaha*!

(*Karen’s final words are the final words of the Mahayana Heart Sutra. The phrase is celebratory—roughly translated it means, Perfectly and fully awakened! – Hooray!)

From Michael Stoner: “The mind does what the mind does.” One of my most important challenges as a beginning meditator was to observe the mind in action.

Now I’m no longer a beginner, and I can often recognize when the mind is creating distractions in my sitting practice. It’s harder to do when the mind is stimulated by external distractions, especially ones that seem beneficial. We live in a time when an infinite amount of information is at our fingertips and there are many systems for bringing it to the attention of the distracted mind It’s easy to be seduced by this abundance, wanting to know which book by which teacher I should be reading next or what Dharma talk I should listen to for the latest insight, especially because this is the way we Westerners are trained to seek out knowledge.

Because the mind is so adept at making this desire seem inherently skillful, I try to stay aware of reminders like this one from Sayadaw U. Tejaniya: “When we are gathering information, such as by listening to podcasts or reading a Dhamma book or something inspirational, all of these are moments of wholesome mind—but it is all just information. Too much theory can be too heavy for the mind. We need to balance information with practice.”

So, though I don’t want to be stuck in my views or ignore other perspectives, I’ve come to believe that the mind is aware of sufficient Dharma concepts right now. What seems most important to me is to return to some essential Dharma and to explore and understand it more deeply. Not in an intellectual way but to deepen my knowing of it in an embodied and enacted way.

What that really means is practice and not just on the cushion. For example: To reflect on what the precepts really mean to me, now, and to practice them in my life. To spend time in awareness, here and now. To stay present with my breath. To practice deeply living the Dharma, not just on the cushion, but IRL, in my one wild and precious life.

From Joel Lazar, a poem.

Bugs in the bodhi tree

(Will folks know he chose the fig tree, Ficus religiosa,
and know its fruit is no fruit at all, but an inflorescence,
a field of flowers turned wonderfully inward upon itself,
and also home and grave to the wasp that spreads its seed,
death and birth beautifully unburdened of species’ separation,
instead the quintessence of cooperation, coevolution?
Will folks know, with Thich Nhat Hanh,
the next Buddha may emerge not as an individual,
but as this entire community?)

“…And the earth roared and trembled its assent.”

We watch as we fly briefly free of this small ficus flower, watch him still as the space between one wingbeat and the next. He sits so near us, and so near to waking for our sake.

The cool night comes, then daybreak and sun in so many cycles of return. In the soft dull buzz of our insect ascent we can sense his deep silence outlasting our natural lives.

We enter the next fruit’s small ostiole, lay down our eggs and die, are composted whole in the guts of our ten thousand young, who mate and, again, so many of us, fly briefly free. And here he still is, no motion but breath at the base of our bodhi tree, night and daybreak and high hot sun still hard upon his head.

Bright light beats through the half shade of these heart-shaped leaves. So others among us, not wasps or leaves, but snails!, conceive to cool him as we can. One hundred or more of us climb the warm contour of these folded legs and open arms, his chest and neck and finally the high hilltop of his hairless head. Not fruit but a flower turned inward upon itself, an inflorescence, and who can imagine what journeys this man is traveling inside? We lay ourselves out like a canopy or crown, perhaps to protect him for just a few moments, our surface a ripe glistening skin, until the hot sun consumes our briefly moist bodies, and we are nothing but dry salt upon his scalp.

We feel his fatigue, we roots of the great tree itself, and we sprout small tendrils to hold him upright through so many cycles of evening and daybreak and sun. Winds blow, and despite the soft steadiness of his trunk against our own, we fear he may any moment tumble. So we cling as we can to keep him upright. How else might we help in his helping us?

And then, as some small further number of us fly briefly free of the ficus, or begin our next oozing ascent up his leg, or wrap one last vine around the barely discernible rise and fall of his belly, just then we witness the right arm’s slow reaching, the palm’s groundward shifting; we witness the infinite care with which his five fingers touch the earth. Five brown and mortal fingers touch the earth….

There is a trembling, a roar, and … because we have witnessed, this waking is ours.

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