By MACKENZIE STEELE

 

Vesak Day is a Buddhist celebration, generally falling on the first full moon of Vesak on the Buddhist Calendar. This year, that’s the 10th of May. This day was important for Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha. It was the day of his birth, hence why it’s also called ‘Buddha’s Birthday’. On the night of his 35th birthday, he also reached enlightenment (that’s when you discover the Four Noble Truths, get rid of all attachments, and no longer are reincarnated, as I will explain soon), and on his 80th birthday, he passed on to Nirvana (a state of higher consciousness, a bit like a Buddhist version of Heaven).

Vesak Day is a public holiday in countries where Buddhism is a major religion, including Nepal, India, China, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam. Each country has its own unique way to celebrate, from dousing statues in fragrant water in Taiwan, to the more modern Sri Lankan electric light displays depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life. However, the general format is the same, including attending temple, giving to charity, decorating temples with flowers, meditating, cultural performances, and bringing as much happiness to others as possible.  

It was made a UN holiday in 1999, to recognise the impact Buddhism has had for two and a half thousand years. While it isn’t an official holiday here, there are an estimated 58,400 Buddhists in New Zealand, so it’s still pretty important even if you aren’t a Buddhist. At the very least, it’s an excuse to learn about another culture.

Guatama Buddha was the founder of Buddhism, so obviously a day that meant so much to him means a lot to his followers. But it’s also a time to review his teachings. It’s all about cycles, and the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, which he discovered on the night he reached enlightenment. In a nutshell, they are:

  1. Suffering is any state in which we are not content (anywhere between “my life sucks temporarily/permanently” and “I’m not happy but I’m not unhappy either”). Such states are influenced by our perspective, which can easily change.
  2. Greed, possessiveness, inability to change, and selfishness are the causes of suffering. Any attachment to ideas, objects, or more abstract concepts in between (like power) counts, because these things are not permanent. Truth and knowledge are permanent, by the way.
  3. If you want something, it hurts you if you don’t have it. But if you aren’t attached, it won’t matter if you have it or not. Deeper than that, you can only reach enlightenment and stop reincarnating if you don’t have any attachments.
  4. We can achieve enlightenment by following the Eightfold Path: avoiding doing things for bad reasons (greed, hatred, delusion, etc) and always doing things for good reasons (out of pure kindness, wisdom, etc), even if it’s out of your way; analysing everything non-judgmentally and without bias to see truth and cause and effect; and using the Four Noble Truths to solve problems and lead us in the right direction.

Even though I’m not Buddhist, I can see there is a lot of sense here. You shouldn’t clean your room before Christmas just to get presents, or volunteer only because it looks good on your CV, or do something heroic because someone you want to impress is watching. These are selfish reasons.

You should clean your room because it needs to be cleaned, volunteer because you want to help, and do even small nice things just because. If everything we do is because we genuinely want to do it, rather than because it leads us to something else, we can feel good about ourselves as we aren’t worrying about what other people think or if being happy might be taken away. If we look at life without thinking about “me,” we can see a lot clearer.

For example, how many times has something like this happened: someone yelled at you, and all you could think about is how horrible they were to you, and you were upset and indignant for the rest of the day? But later, you find out their dog died, so they were feeling vulnerable, and that’s why they snapped. We can use these ideas to keep a little more detached from stressful situations like in the example, and stop us feeling overwhelmed so often – something I could definitely use!

Personally, I don’t think I’ll be converting to Buddhism anytime soon, but I will be using a lot of these cool ideas for living life as inspiration. This is something we all can do. After all, don’t we all want to be more balanced?

 

This is a really fascinating subject, but exploring it in detail is a little much for one article. If you’d like to discover more, I’d recommend these links:

Wikipedia, the great jumping-off point. They have pages on Vesak and Guatama Buddha

UN Vesak Day website

A more in-depth article about the Four Noble Truths, enlightenment, and Vesak Day

A BBC article about Vesak Day

Another good article on Vesak celebrations from 2015

A small but interesting article on celebrations in different countries

For the socially-minded, this article on the negative effects of a Vesak custom in Singapore

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