Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Buddha Day" in India on May 17, 2011

Wisdom Quarterly reporting from Bodh Gaya, India (a multicultural Buddhist city)

The "Buddha Day Festival" (Buddha Purnima or Jayanti) falls on the full-moon night in the lunar month of Vaisakha (April or May depending on the year). It commemorates the birth anniversary of Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. This is officially the year 2454 (Buddhist Era). And according to another reckoning, it has been 2,600 years since the great enlightenment.

The Buddha in meditation (dhyana, zen, jhana, ch'an), Japanese style

Notwithstanding the Indian summer heat (routinely touching 45 degrees Celsius), pilgrims came from all over the world. They congregated in Bodh Gaya, the place of the great enlightenment, to attend the Buddha Day celebrations.

Nothing disturbs the serenity of a mindful meditator fully aware and at peace

The day is marked with devotions (pujas), meditation (bhavana), sermons (sutras or bhana, recitation) on the life of Gautama Buddha. There is continuous chanting reciting Buddhist scriptures from all traditions, group walking and seated meditation, banner waving processions, and honoring the Bodhi tree and the temple and statue erected on the spot believed to be where Siddhartha sat to reach buddhahood.

The Mahabodhi ("Great-enlightenment") Temple wears a festive look and is decorated with colorful flags, flowers, incense, banners, and a sea of saffron robes. The ancient Chinese scholar and traveler, Fa-Hien, recorded celebrations of this festival.

The Buddha, Sariputra (left), and Mahamoggallana, Cambodian style

There are Buddhist festivals throughout India, particularly at the main places memorializing his early life, later spiritual quest, and the establishingof the Dharma. The principal annual ceremony for all the Buddhist is the Vesak (Vaisaka) festival, as it is known in Sri Lanka and throughout the world.

"Great" Enlightenment?
He attained supreme enlightenment (buddhahood) -- that is,not only did he glimpse nirvana, but he consummated the perfections (paramis or paramitas) necessary to be a teaching buddha. (There is another kind of silent buddha, one who partiallydevelops the perfections and thereby gains enlightenment on his own without the ability to establish a dispensation or bring others to liberation). That is why Siddhartha's attainment is called the great enlightenment. It takes much longer than the path or quest of someone following a fully enlightened trailblazer.

His quest was successful beneath the Bodhi-tree at Buddha Gaya (Bodh Gaya or "Enlightenment Grove," Bihar state, India). Thirty-five years earlier, he was born in Lumbini Garden (on the frontiers of Northwest India). Forty-five years later, at the age of 80, he passed away in parinivana on the same day full-moon night of Vesak in Kushinagar, India.

The great Buddha of Bamiyan, Afghanistan (removed by the Taliban) was once a monastic cave complex in the hillside.

So Buddha Day celebrations are concentrated at these three locations: modern Lumbini (relocated in Nepal), Bodh Gaya, and Kusinara, India. One day Bamiyan may be recognized as the original Kapilavastu, where Siddhartha grew up, and Baluchistan (on the frontier provinces bordering modern Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) as the place where he was born. (According to ancient Indian tradition, a woman returns to her parent's home to give birth).

These are regarded as sacred places -- along with Sarnath (in the suburbs of Varanasi suburbs) where the Buddha set rolling the Wheel of the Dharma by delivering the first sutra.

Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Tibet, China, Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Mongolia, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Nepal, Japan, and a growing number of Western countries (most notably Germany, England, France, and the US) participate in festive celebrations.

The great Buddha Day Festival, although it is a day of rejoicing, does not encourage hectic gaiety, fervent devotion, or abandon. Instead, it encourages reflection, joy, and calm. The happiness that Buddhists feel when they are "celebrating" it is a tranquil, peaceful, and full of well wishes.

The festival has a vibrant side, of course, with most Buddhist countries being decked in brightly illuminated with colorful lanterns, electric lights, banners, parades (or processions and circumambulations), and festive decorations.