As May 5 marked the worldwide observance of Vesak, we find ourselves prompted to contemplate the profound importance of this festival and the exemplary life it venerates. Recognized in diverse cultures as Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima, or simply Buddha’s Birthday, Vesak pays tribute to the birth (Skt: jati), enlightenment (Skt: bodhi or sopadhishesa-nirvana), and passing (Skt: mahaparinirvana) of Shakyamuni Buddha.
However, the celebration isn’t solely about the Buddha, but rather, his potent message of intrinsic wisdom and empathy prevalent in every living being. We observe these three monumental life stages in one day as they echo a life trajectory that we too can emulate. Just as the Buddha, we were born and we too shall depart. What makes his journey remarkable is the tenacious path he pursued between these milestones, leading him to ultimate enlightenment.
Enlightenment, a transformative state of profound understanding, is the ultimate objective for all followers of Buddhism. Some adherents may choose to follow the footsteps of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, renouncing worldly attachments and living modestly for several years. Others may continue as householders, contributing their wealth to monasteries in pursuit of auspicious karma. As Buddhism proliferated from India and across the globe, it unfolded numerous paths, all converging towards the same enlightened destination.
If one were to distil the Buddha’s teachings into a central theme, the Four Noble Truths emerge as a likely contender:
- The truth of suffering
- The origin of suffering
- The cessation of suffering
- The path leading to the cessation of suffering
An apt metaphor for duhkha, or suffering, is a misaligned wheel. In contemporary terms, a flat tire might make a fitting analogy. The crux of the matter isn’t constant hardship but a recurring notion that things could improve. Even fleeting moments of joy harbor duhkha as they eventually cease. Unaware of this impermanence, we tend to cling to these moments instead of letting them pass.
This incessant craving for specific experiences seeds the origin of suffering. Like the instinctual desire for water, it lies deep within us. Even if ignored for a while, it inevitably resurfaces, compelling us to satisfy it in any way possible.
These two truths constitute the harsh realities we must acknowledge. However, they don’t conclude the narrative of Buddhism.
There’s a beacon of hope in the form of the third truth, the cessation of suffering. It suggests that achieving the enlightenment Buddha attained 2,500 years ago is within our grasp. The fourth truth outlines the arduous yet rewarding path leading to this cessation. These truths serve as the positive counterparts, much like a bird requiring both wings to soar.
In today’s fast-paced world, with an incessant influx of global news, persistent smartphone alerts, and political instability, the life of Buddha and his Four Noble Truths serve as a potent guide for our diverse Buddhist journeys. The Vesak festival presents a golden opportunity to delve into this narrative deeply.
One might take the time to experience the 2022 lantern festival parade from Seoul. The parade, with its radiant lights, vibrant costumes, dancing, chanting, and more, uses art as a medium to draw us into Buddha’s story. It also fosters a deeper connection to our culture, whether that be Korean, Sri Lankan, or others. Regardless of our origin, it allows us to pay tribute and express gratitude to the countless individuals who have kept the Buddhasasana, the living traditions of Buddhism, alive, allowing us to imbibe Buddhism in our own lives.
As echoed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his recent message, “The ideals celebrated on this sacred day resonate deeply with the objectives of our United Nations: fostering understanding among peoples, striving for harmony, and promoting peace.” (United Nations)
Our collective understanding as a global community is in its formative stages. Just three centuries ago, relentless wars dominated the world and few possessed the resources or inclination to learn about different cultures. Today, while conflicts persist, we better grasp the vanity of conquest.
The quest for harmony and peace begins within us, another profound insight from Buddha’s teachings. We are inevitably influenced by our surroundings and each of us yearns to bring about changes as per our understanding. However, as long as we harbor confusion, greed, and aversion, our attempts will remain ineffective.
The Buddhist path beckons us to eradicate these afflictions of greed, aversion, and ignorance. On Vesak, we honor the enlightened Buddha and the conviction that we too can undertake the necessary efforts to achieve this lofty goal. May we all continue this journey with unwavering diligence and joy.