Buddha's day, 25 centuries later Birthday: Is it a religion? A philosophy? Yesterday marked the birthday, enlightenment and death of Buddha, who blessed the world with moderation and civility.


Yesterday was the first full moon of May, the day Buddhists around the world traditionally celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, known commonly as the Buddha.

Documentable facts are few, but it is generally accepted that he was born in the sixth century B.C. in what is now Nepal but at the time was part of India. As the story goes, his father, a nobleman, wished to shelter his young son from all the pain that life offers most mortals, and thus kept the young prince inside the castle walls living in the lap of luxury for his formative years.

In his late 20s the prince found himself intrigued with what might exist outside his opulent prison. He managed to visit the surrounding areas for the first time. He witnessed people suffering from sickness, weakened by old age, and being dumped in charnel grounds after death. It became clear to him that he could not reconcile his life inside the palace and the suffering outside its walls.

At the age of 29 he stole from the palace grounds under cover of night, leaving behind his wife and son. He cut his long hair, which is why monks are often seen with shaven heads, and cast off all his royal vestments. These included his heavy earrings, which is why images of the Buddha often have elongated earlobes, pulled down by wearing all that fine jewelry.

For years he tried the path of asceticism, shunning earthly pleasures and almost starving himself in his quest for a way to end the suffering he perceived in humanity. This did not provide what he sought, however, and finally he settled on pursuing what he called the "middle way," neither overindulgence nor denial of the body's needs.

Having restored his body to health, he meditated intensely for many days seated under the Bodhi tree (Bodhi means "knowledge"), and finally became aware of the answer he had been seeking.

Thus, at age 35, he became the Buddha, the translation of which means "the awakened one." For the next 40-some years the Buddha moved around India teaching the dharma, variously translated as "the way of living," or "the path."

At age 80, the Buddha finally passed away -- or depending on which school of Buddhism you talk to, passed into ultimate nirvana, went to the pure land, returned to Mount Meru at the center of the universe.

The dharma is fairly simple and available to all -- of high or low birth, rich or poor. Gautama Buddha did not buy into the caste system that still exists today in India. The eight-step path to ultimate happiness rests on "four noble truths: "

The basic condition of life is suffering.

Suffering is caused by craving and desire.

There exists Nirvana, an end to suffering.

The way to get to Nirvana is to follow the "eightfold path."

This is not a linear path, however. The dharma is often symbolized as a wheel with eight spokes. Thus, all the parts are interrelated and even overlap:

"Right understanding" means understanding the four noble truths.

"Right thought" is compassionate, clear thought. In Buddhism, mental health is equated with a calmness of mind that is conducive to (and brought on by) meditation.

"Right speech" is honest, compassionate speech. Speaking in a hurtful way, even if honestly ("My, you've gained weight"), runs against this idea. A sign at the entrance to a Buddhist temple near Bangkok, Thailand, says: "Hurtful indeed is vindictive speech." It's in English, for the tourists.

"Right action" is helpful, proper action. This one often is mentioned in connection with avoiding improper sexuality.

"Right livelihood" is work that hurts no other beings. That's not completely possible -- anyone who works in an office works with paper, which requires the cutting of trees, disrupting the animals and insects dependent on them. But it is not considered right livelihood to be a butcher or an arms merchant.

"Right effort" involves daily meditation and actively remembering speak properly, act right, etc.

"Right mindfulness" means paying attention to the present and not letting your mind wander, particularly in meditation.

"Right concentration" means keeping focused in your meditative practice, using the quiet and calm that has been established in your mind to gain insight into the nature of reality.

One of the appealing aspects of Buddhism for many people is that it doesn't compel anyone to believe or take anything on faith alone. In fact, it is encouraged that those who undertake the practice question every aspect of the teachings, and find their own level of comfort with the truths they find. The dharma is not seen as the destination, but the vehicle. After you use the raft to cross the river, there's no need to carry the raft on your back while you're on the far shore.

Buddhism has some of its origins in Hinduism. And as it has spread throughout Asia and the world it has incorporated many local religious elements. Buddhism flourished in India up until about the seventh century and then went into decline.

Entering China in the fourth century, Buddhism at first met a rough reception. The fact that monks, practicing humility, went about begging did not sit well with Confucian values that espoused hard work. But because of elements that are similar to Taoism, it eventually gained a foothold.

Countries such as Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Vietnam have had very strong Buddhist traditions that continue to the present. Until very recently in Thailand it was common for every male to spend some time in monastic life in adulthood.

Many different schools or sects of Buddhism exist today, including Zen, Chan, Theravada, Mahayana and many others. Recent movies have highlighted Buddhism in Tibet, though there is not one unifying school of thought in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, a great schism divides Tibetan Buddhists, and was at the root of a protest against the Dalai Lama yesterday in Atlanta.

At issue is a historical shaman-like figure named Dorje Shugden. One school views this protector-god as a saint to be revered; the other, the Dalai Lama's camp, has ordered that followers should not worship him in any way.

For the most part, Buddhism does not endorse placing salvation in the hands of deities, though that is observed in some schools. Rather, emphasis is placed on meditation as a way to gain insight into the true nature of reality. All schools of Buddhism embrace meditation as a critical part of the process of enlightenment.

What is enlightenment? There is no clear answer. To be enlightened, to be awake, means to be a Buddha. One of the basic messages is that anyone can achieve this with practice and perseverance. Much of the goal is simply to pay attention to the present, to be awake to what is happening right now. The future is just a dream or a fantasy, and the past is just a memory, so the only time that one is truly alive is in the present.

Or, as the Beatle John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans."

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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