Venerable Dhammasami, 1997
There are many ways of celebrating Vesak especially in Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Kampuchea. People going round the pagoda each with a candle in hand is a common scene in Thailand that differentiates her from other neighbouring Buddhist countries. Watering Bo tree would be something how Burmese Buddhists mark this important day. Erecting pandol and illustrate story of the Buddha with wonderful electronic displays is a celebration unique to Sri Lanka. In each country you can see the scene of people going to the temples and pagodas to observe Eight Precepts, to listen to a Dhamma talk delivered by usually a Bhikkhu and giving alms to the Bhikkhus, freeing fish, birds and in some cases cattle to be slaughtered. Meditation centres are unusually packed with devotees who join one-day-retreat. In many Southeast Asian countries Vesak is a national holiday — even in Indonesia, which is officially Islamic country.
In my hometown, Shan State, Burma, people actually have one day retreat on every full-moon day including Vesak. They spent the times in silent meditation and in listening to Jataka, life story of the Buddha, which is poetically composed and read by a well trained, lay preacher called Sa-lay. One story usually takes five to six hours. It is written in Shan cultural background so that people would understand the Bodhisatta (would-be-Buddha). Teachings from the Suttas (Buddha's Discourses) are often added where relevant to give a full set of moral teaching. This is unique to Shan Buddhist culture.
It is only understandable that these countries have come up with the kind of celebration to get the mass involved as much as possible. They light the candles to symbolise the wisdom we believe he obtained on this day.
In Thailand, it is called 'Wien-thien' (going in circle with candle). In Shan State, Burma when I was young I remember people burning a very big and long candle made of pine-wood. They burnt it on the ground. It usually lasted many hours. These are the materials people used to remind us of mindfulness — to be mindful of the wisdom and enlightenment of the Buddha. It has become part of their culture.
Wisdom or insight penetrating into the real nature of life is essential to overcome suffering in life. It is that kind of wisdom that we symbolise with lights and honour Him for His achievement. In the First Sermon, the Buddha compared wisdom with light.
Freeing fish etc. is to remember His great compassion, which was the main drive in His striving for enlightenment.
How we are going to celebrate Vesak here in the United Kingdom? Different ways of doing things for the same purpose are always open in Buddhism. Flexibility is the very nature of it.
Are we going to celebrate it like Christmas — making it a family meeting! In every celebration Turkey meat features British traditional way of celebrating Christmas. Do you want to do that!
Many people complain that they hate Christmas meetings although it takes place only once a year because they do not get on well with their relatives! I hate to see my sister-in-law! Mother-in-law! My brother! — such mumbling is almost common to any one. In addition, the next day most of them complain the problem of indigestion.
In all Vesak celebration, the Gautama Buddha is all we focus on. He is central to whatever perceived to be Buddhism because he was the one who discovered the Dhamma and taught it to others. Therefore, we especially focus upon Him and His life today so that we could understand Him better.
However, if my general view of the whole Tripitaka is correct, the Buddha Himself never talked about His life outside the context of the Dhamma. He might have thought of it unnecessary to dwell purely upon this subject although we just want to know more and more about His life. I am sure He (the Buddha) believed that discussing about the Dhamma is worthier Nevertheless, we have the opportunity to learn about His life only through the Dhamma as by-pass reference.
The Buddha even said that unless and until we understand the Dhamma we are not going to know Him. You may become the best historian specialising in the Buddha's life but this does not make you, judging from the Buddha's own words, an expert on His life.
Therefore, we now come to see that the Dhamma rather than the Buddha are the heart of what we know of as Buddhism today.
As we study and reflect carefully, we come to know that the Dhamma He discovered is completely impersonal. Moreover, He never tried to personalise His discovery. The Dhamma is very much individual in practice. It is under stood individually, not something we can share as a family or nation.
In the Dhamma practice, one may help the other by showing the path but can never do it on his behalf. It is so individual to that extent.
Today we are going to meditate to mark Vesak — the day Siddhartha Gautama was born, became a Buddha and passed away. It is relevant for us to be doing so today.
Taking this opportunity, I want to reflect upon one of His sayings that mirrors all His concerns for us. He said; "Mindfulness leads one to immortal where as heedlessness leads one to mortality again and again". That was also His last word.
Mindfulness is the foundation of all goodness. Not only that, it is also chief factor in our practices along the way. It establishes and maintains the qualities of head and heart. It balances other factors in the Path.
Take the most advantage of life. Reflect upon the Dhamma. Apply it to your daily life. Life means appearing and disappearing, coming and going, birth and death. Be mindful of it.
This is how we should honour the Buddha.
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