More than two thousand six hundred years ago on a Full Moon Day in the month of Vesak, Mahamaya, Queen of the Sakya King Suddodana, gave birth to a child, Siddhartha Gauthama. He was born under a Sal tree. Thirty six years later, this same Siddhartha attained enlightenment in the place now known as Buddha Gaya. It happened under a Bo tree. At the age of 80, the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama passed on to parinirvana in a Sal grove in the city of Kusinara belonging to the Malla King. The three moments make the themagula that Buddhists all over the world celebrate as ‘Vesak’.
Buddha Dhamma, which calls for and celebrates free thinking, guides and advocates; the word of the Buddha is prescriptive but not commanding. The significance of Vesak then can be written in many ways with one reading as sublime as another, as superficial as the other. ‘Meaning’ after all is inscribed by reader and the Buddha Vacana does not forbid nor sanction. The following is therefore just one of many possible ways to make Vesak significant in ways that go beyond the spectacle that it has become.
It is not all thoran and koodu of course. Buddhists do indulge in that which has acquired new cultural meaning and which is called ‘Vesak Baleema’ or ‘Seeing Vesak’. This however is not done at the cost of going to temple to observe sil or even just to light a lamp and recite gathas. Moreover, all the lights do not drown the significance of dansal, that quintessentially a Sri Lankan cultural thing which is as grand a spectacle of giving as any.
To be more sober though, one can return to the themugula and note that all three moments were associated with a tree. Most importantly, one can draw much from the fact that the first act of the Buddha, upon attaining enlightenment was a giving of a unique kind. It was called Animisalochana Pooja. the Buddha, after his Enlightenment, spent a whole week in front of the tree, standing with unblinking eyes, gazing at it with gratitude.
If ‘tree’ is metaphor, there’s so much we can be thankful for and so many ways in which we can show gratitude. Our parents are ‘trees’ that sheltered. Teachers, authors of books that shaped our ways, friends who held our hands to help us through tough times, histories that nourished us, children whose innocence reminded us of the children that reside within us, the list can go on. There are implements which we do not revere but which help us at every turn. It is not for show that the humble farmer clasps hands to worship his mammoty. It’s inanimate, yes, but the act empowers by encouraging humility.
We don’t stop to reflect enough, perhaps. Deeper reflection, say on the lines of the exercises embedded in the Satipattana Sutta, would reveal connectivities that are far more profound. Such meditation would empower in many ways no doubt, but this side of that larger exercise, there’s a lot to draw from this time of Vesak.
Vesak is about the themagula. It is about the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama. The Buddha’s word. It is liberating, but only to the extent and the manner in which we engage with it. For now, since the themagula is about trees in addition to so many other things, it would not harm to think ‘trees’, literally and metaphorically. There’s something called Animisalocana Pooja. We don’t have to do it. We can, though.