Traditionally, the full moon day of Vesak is celebrated by Buddhists as the day that the Buddha was born over 2500 years ago, realized Enlightenment when he was 35, and finally passed away at 80 or so. The average Buddhist may marvel at the coincidence that three such significant events in a person’s life could happen on the same day, and perhaps consider that day particularly blessed. That is one level of appreciating Vesak Day.
In this article, I would like to propose that there is another way of reflecting on Vesak’s significance which is perhaps even more meaningful than the traditional rendition, especially for the more thoughtful Buddhist. Vesak Day is not just about commemorating Buddha’s birth, spiritual enlightenment and death. It is also about marking three births: that of the Buddha, that of Dhamma and finally, that of the Sangha. Let me explain.
Birth of Buddha
This is by far the most straightforward and in my mind arguably the most important of the three events, because the birth of that child who was to become Buddha marked the start of it all. Without his birth, there would have been no Dhamma or Sangha, at least not as we know them.
According to tradition, baby Siddhattha was born in a park in Lumbini (in modern Nepal). His mother was going home for her confinement as was the custom of the day, when she went into unexpected labour. So the delivery of the baby was performed under terribly uncomfortable (Indian summer and all) and clearly non-sterile conditions. Tradition has it that she died shortly after his birth (probably from childbirth complications by the look of things). It was a tragic start to Siddhattha’s young life.
However, although he had lost his mother, Siddhattha was much loved. His maternal aunt who became his stepmother brought him up as her own. His father, a wealthy and powerful elder of the ancient Sakyan tribe, doted on him. Siddhattha led a most pampered and luxurious lay life, surrounded by all forms of creature comfort. He was also the eldest son and heir to the family’s fortune, and was probably groomed to succeed his father on the Sakyan council of tribal elders. His future was all planned for him.
The only kink to his otherwise ‘perfect’ lay life was possibly his young family. His marriage started off auspicious enough. It was apparently a love marriage. Tradition has it that when he was in his mid-teens, he married a first cousin whom he had picked (not an arranged marriage which was the usual practice) from a line-up of eligible cousins. But there was no child until many years into the marriage, which would have been a source of stress for the couple because it was their foremost responsibility under the conventional Vedic faith to produce a son to perform religious duties. Anyhow, his only son, Rahula, was eventually born (probably to the relief of all). Soon after, Siddhattha left home to become a wandering ascetic in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and a way out of a deep sense of dukkha (loosely translated as suffering). He was said to be only 29 years old and at the prime of his life.
For the next six years, he checked out different methods to spiritual ‘awakening’ taught by various teachers. Ascetic Gotama (as Buddha was called as a wanderer) was not presumptuous and did not assume that he would start a new method of enlightenment. He dutifully consulted the famous spiritual gurus of the day. First he tried deep meditation and when that did not work, he explored self-torture, which was the other popular practice believed to trigger spiritual awakening. He regularly starved himself, spent long periods contorted in painful postures, deliberately exposed his body to the extremes of the elements, and so on. He was so excessive in his practices especially the self-imposed starvation that he almost died. Fortunately, he pulled back from the abyss and wisely reviewed and reflected on his practices.
Ascetic Gotama’s intuitive wisdom enabled him to realise that those severe self-torture practices were wrong and that there was another method that could work. He was not very sure initially but he instinctively knew that he needed a mind that was quiet and calm, clear, focused and objective, so that it could see itself (the mind) as it really was. He had intuitively hit upon the need for mental ‘balance’ – subsequently expressed as the ‘middle path’, as a critical condition for spiritual enlightenment. The practice would require strict restraint of sense desires, but not too punishing as to inflict deliberate pain. As Buddha once put it, for a lute to produce beautiful sounds, the strings must not be too taut or too loose. In the same way, the spiritual faculties and mental energies must be kept in balance to produce the desired spiritual outcome. This was the method, the practice and the path to spiritual enlightenment. And amazingly, he discovered it on his own, without help or guidance from another.
Birth of Dhamma
The culmination of his practice in successfully balancing the mental faculties was a laser sharp and phenomenally clear mind that was objective, detached and intuitively brilliant. That mind became a powerful tool that he used to examine some new-found knowledge the night of his Enlightenment. Buddha’s first realisation was that life did not just cease upon death, and that there were successive and relentless rounds of rebirths. He had discovered the energies that drove rebirth. His second realisation was the conditions that determined and shaped the substance of the rebirths, i.e., the drivers of kamma. And finally, he realized how to stop re-becoming and to pull the plug for rekindling any further rebirth. Buddha called it the knowledge of the destruction of the cankers. With this third realisation, Buddha was Enlightened and Dhamma was born.
Buddha’s Enlightenment could be understood at two levels. At a ‘strategic’ level, he realized that he had come to the end of samsara (i.e., rounds of rebirths and deaths). He knew that he was in his last birth, and there would be no more resetting and re-beginning. In that sense, he was out of the dukkha of samsara.
At a ‘tactical’ level, the same knowledge which Buddha had gained from realizing what led to the destruction of the cankers also led him to experience nirodha (term literally means cessation). It was not said but that night, Buddha effectively also realized the four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. That meant, he understood the nature of dukkha; that he had completely let go of craving; that he had experienced nibbana (unconditioned bliss); and that he had successfully walked the path and cultivated the practice that had made his spiritual enlightenment possible. Buddha subsequently said that if he had not seen and understood the four Noble Truths properly and completely, he would not have declared that he was Enlightened.
About two months or so after his Enlightenment, Buddha made the decision to preach Dhamma to others. He then made a 200-mile journey from the forest in Uruvela (now known as Bodhigaya, where he had realized Enlightenment) to Isipatana, Benares, to teach the Dhamma to five ascetics. (They were his staunch companions when he was on his formidable starvation programme but left disappointed when he started eating properly.) The first discourse that he preached to them was the Dhammacakkapavatthana Sutta (Discourse on the Turning the Wheel of the Dhamma). It explained the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path in essence. One of them got it and became the first disciple to truly understand and see Dhamma. Following a second discourse, Anattalakkhana Sutta (Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic), all fully realized Dhamma and became the world’s first ariya Sangha.
It is hard enough to see Dhamma even with the roadmap that Buddha had left for us. It boggles the mind that Buddha had done it without the benefit of another’s guidance or such a roadmap. But teaching Dhamma to another takes it to a whole new level of challenge. And Buddha was such a genius of a teacher that he successfully guided thousands of practitioners to spiritual enlightenment in his lifetime. But the ultimate of incredible achievement was Buddha managing to devise a method of practice that continued to help practitioners realise enlightenment even in his absence. Amazingly, Buddha’s Dhamma continues to work even after 2500 years.
Birth of Sangha
Buddha passed away at about 81, after 45 years of tirelessly teaching Dhamma. Right up to the end, when it was literally down to the final minutes of his life, Buddha was still checking if there were any more Dhamma clarifications that his monks needed. His example is truly inspiring: to be dedicated to the service of Dhamma to the end of life and time.
But just as inspiring is the fact that after his parinibbana, his closest disciples and members of the ariya Sangha, stepped up to the plate and took on the responsibility of protecting Dhamma and preserving it for future generations. Hundreds of them came together at an event known as the First Buddhist Council just months after his death, to collect, compile and consolidate his teachings and to organize them for memorizing and care-keeping. There was no written word then. All the teachings had to be carefully memorized, recited and passed on to future generations of Sangha. It was an extraordinary, mind-blowing effort, fraught with much challenge not least because everything had to be committed to memory. Had the Sangha not taken the initiative to compile Buddha’s teaching in such a systematic and thorough way, the true Dhamma would have been lost. We owe everything that we know and understand of Buddha’s teaching today to that group of ariya Sangha.
Vesak thus also marks the birth of Sangha in performing the role of protector and preserver of Dhamma. Through the centuries and across distant lands, successive generations of monks have followed in the illustrious footsteps of those early ancestors in keeping the words of Buddha alive. Ultimately, however, the most critical role of the Sangha is walking the path correctly and realizing Dhamma fully. As long as there is one more practitioner who understands Dhamma correctly, the Buddha’s teaching will not be lost. But once there is no more ariya Sangha then preserving true Dhamma may well be impossible. For how could one who has not seen Dhamma know what to preserve and how to preserve it?
The meaning of Vesak goes beyond just commemorating events. While celebrating together is important in binding us as Buddhists, it is however just form and form is ultimately superficial. Truly honouring the spirit of Vesak would mean being inspired by Buddha’s example, and seek to follow in his footsteps. That means seriously walking the path, upholding all that it stands for and putting in place the mental conditions for realisation of Dhamma. And finally we should endeavor to continue the unfinished work of the ariya Sangha who came before us: protect and preserve Dhamma for the people who come after us. May the spirit of Vesak always continue to inspire you to do more in noble service of the Dhamma.
 Canonical texts actually did not record Buddha’s lay name. It was found only in later commentarial literature.
 These would be faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.
 The word ariya literally means ‘noble one’. But it is a term to describe someone who has intuitively understood Dhamma in the sense of knowing what it means, how it works and how to get there.
 The teaching of Buddha, which we typically call Dhamma, would encapsulate both the knowledge that the mind realizes when it is enlightened and the practice that Buddha had prescribed as necessary to set in place the mental conditions without which that enlightenment is not possible.
* Sylvia Bay will be giving a talk on Significance on Vesak this coming Sunday (31 May 2015) at Singapore Buddhist Fellowship West Wing. From 7.30pm - 9.30pm.
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