Special occasion: Wesak Day
Wesak Day, which normally falls on the full moon day of May, is the day on which Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of the Lord Buddha. In the Theravada tradition, it is also regarded as the day of birth and parinibbana of the Buddha.
Buddhist devotees all over the world celebrate Wesak Day in different sorts of ways. In Thailand, they circumvent the main shrine hall, holding lighted candles, while in Myanmar they water the Bodhi tree. In Sri Lanka, they have processions. In Malaysia, Ven Dr K Sri Dhammananda has also introduced the practice of processions to celebrate Wesak. In SBS we have our very own way to celebrate: hiking up a hill, lighting candles along the way!
On this day, many people go to the temple. For example, in Mahindarama in Penang, it has been estimated that as many as 50,000 devotees go there on that single day. Most of them are “Wesak Day” Buddhists, but then again, once a year is better than none at all.
Some people go to pray to the Buddha and ask for favours as they would from deities. They also go for the sprinkling of holy water, placing faith in it to somehow make them more blessed. I remember one Wesak in SJBA. Someone had come to the temple and was invited to go upstairs to see an exhibition, which was put up to educate devotees about the Buddha and his teachings. She declined, saying that she had only come for blessings. So she lost the opportunity to learn about Buddhism.
Such devotional practices are not without benefit. There is faith (saddha) in it, which is good. However, praying to the Buddha, as if he were some sort of deity who grants wishes, indicates that one does not have a proper idea of the Buddha. Therefore, when such a person goes to the Buddha for refuge, it is defiled.
On Wesak Day, the focus is on the Buddha and we should understand who he is. In the suttas, the Buddha hardly ever talked about himself unless he wanted to illustrate a point of Dhamma. Even his physical appearance is not known to us. We find different Buddha images everywhere.
So how do we know him? His outward appearance is not important. There is the story of Ven Vakkali who liked to look at the Buddha so much that he followed the Buddha everywhere he went. The Buddha scolded him: “Why do you want to see this foul body? If you see the Dhamma, you see me.” In other words, after you listen to and practice the Dhamma, you will truly understand the Dhamma and know how good it is. Then, you will really know the Buddha.
Just before his parinibbana, the Buddha laid on his right side with his head pointing north and facing west, under two sal trees. At that time, miraculous things happened, and the Buddha said:
“Ananda, the twin sal-trees are in full bloom, even though it’s not the flowering season. They shower, strew, and sprinkle on the Tathagata’s body in homage to him. Heavenly coral-tree blossoms are falling from the sky… Heavenly sandalwood powder is falling from the sky… Heavenly music is playing in the sky… Heavenly songs are sung in the sky, in homage to the Tathagata. But it is not to this extent that a Tathagata is worshipped, honored, respected, venerated, or paid homage to. Rather, the monk, nun, male lay follower, or female lay follower who keeps practising the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, who keeps practising masterfully, who lives in accordance with the Dhamma: that is the person who worships, honors, respects, venerates, and pays homage to the Tathagata with the highest homage. So you should train yourselves: ‘We will keep practising the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, we will keep practising masterfully, we will live in accordance with the Dhamma.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.” [Excerpt from the Maha-parinibbana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 16), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]
So, on Wesak Day, if we want to really show respect to the Buddha, we should then practise in accordance with the Dhamma, as the Buddha has taught. In brief, that means that we should practise dana (giving), sila (morality) and bhavana (meditation). Dana is good. Sila is better. If you can, keep the eight precepts today. The best is of course bhavana. If you cannot meditate long, just try for at least one minute. Even that would be beneficial to you.
May we all be able to celebrate Wesak in the best way, which is to practise the Dhamma as taught by our Lord Buddha.
After the talk, the monks recited verses, from the suttas, uttered by the Buddha after his birth, after his enlightenment and just before parinibbana.
First words after birth (on full-moon day of Wesak)
I am the foremost of the world.
I am the world’s supreme.
I am the best in the world.
This is my last life;
never will there be another existence.
Acchariya-abbhuta Sutta (MN 123)
First words after enlightenment
1 Mental (at dawn, after full-moon day of Wesak)
Through many a life in samsara
have I wandered unenlightened
looking for the Housebuilder.
Suffering indeed is life again and again.
Never shall you build another house.
Housebuilder, you’re found!
All your rafters are broken;
your rooftop destroyed.
My mind has entered the Unconditioned.
I have attained the destruction of craving.
2 Verbal (seven days after full-moon day of Wesak)
Indeed when things become apparent
to the ardent, meditating arahant;
then all his doubts dissipate
because he comprehends
the conditioned nature of phenomena.
Last words before parinibbana (on full-moon day of Wesak)
Well then monks,
let me tell you –
decay is inherent in (conditioned) phenomena;
strive on diligently.
Mahaparinibbana Sutta (MN 16)