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Sunday, 19 May 2013

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Vesak the Thrice Blessed Day

Vesak is the most sacred day of Theravada Buddhism. Also called Visakha, Vesak is an observation of the birth, enlightenment and demise (Parinibbana) of the Buddha.Visakha is the name of a month of the Indian lunar calendar, and "puja" means "religious service." So, "Vesak Puja" can be translated "the religious service for the month of Visakha."

In English, sometimes it is called "Buddha Day." Vesak is held on the first full moon day of Visakha. There are diverse lunar calendars in Asia that number the months differently, but the month during which Vesak is observed usually coincides with May.

Most Mahayana Buddhists observe these three events of the Buddha's life at three different times of year. However, most of the time the Mahayana celebration of the Buddha's Birthday coincides with Vesak. Exceptions: In Japan, Buddha's Birthday is observed every year on April 8, by the Gregorian calendar instead of a lunar calendar.

The Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of Vesak Puja is called Saga Dawa Duchen and usually falls a month later, in June.

Observing Vesak

For Theravada Buddhists, Vesak is a major Uposatha day to be marked by rededication to the dharma and the Eightfold Path. Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis meditate and chant the ancient rules of their orders. Lay people bring flowers and offerings to the temples, where they may also meditate and listen to talks. In the evenings, often there will be solemn candlelight processions.Of course, in some places the religious observances are accompanied by more gala, and more secular, celebrating -- parties, parades, festivals. Temples and city streets may be decorated with countless lanterns.

According to Buddhist legend, when the Buddha was born he stood straight, took seven steps, and declared "I alone am the World-Honored One." And he pointed up with one hand and down with the other, to indicate he would unite heaven and earth. I am told the seven steps represent seven directions -- north, south, east, west, up, down, and here. Mahayana Buddhists interpret "I alone am the World-Honoured One" in a way that "I" represents all sentient beings throughout space and time -- everyone, in other words.

The ritual of "washing the baby Buddha" commemorates this moment. This is the single most common ritual, seen throughout Asia and in many different schools.

A small standing figure of the baby Buddha, with the right hand pointing up and the left hand pointing down, is placed on an elevated stand within a basin on an altar. People approach the altar reverently, fill a ladle with water or tea, and pour it over the figure to "wash" the baby.

Forty-five years had passed since the Buddha's enlightenment, and the Blessed One was 80- years- old. He and his Bhikkhus were staying in the village of Beluvagamaka (or Beluva), which was near the present-day city of Basrah, Bihar state, northeast India. It was the time of the monsoon rains retreat, when the Buddha and his disciples stopped traveling.

One day the Buddha asked the Bhikkhus to leave and find other places to stay during the monsoon. He would remain in Beluvagamaka with only his cousin and companion, Ananda. After the Bhikkhus had left, Ananda could see that his master was ill. The Blessed One, in great pain, found comfort only in deep meditation. But with strength of will he overcame his illness.

Ananda was relieved, but shaken. When I saw the Blessed One's illness my own body became weak, he said. Everything became dim to me, and my senses failed. Ye I still had some comfort in the thought that the Blessed One would not come to his final passing away until he had given some last instructions to the Bhikkhus. The Buddha responded, "Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. My body is like an old cart, barely held together.

"Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no other refuge; with the Dharma as your island, the Dharma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.Soon after he had recovered from his illness, the Buddha suggested he and Ananda spend the day at the Capala Shrine. As they sat together, the Buddha remarked upon the beauty of the scenery all around. The Blessed One continued, "Whosoever, Ananda, has prefected psychic power could, if he so desired, remain in this place throughout a world-period or until the end of it. The Tathagata, Ananda, has done so. Therefore, the Tathagata could remain throughout a world-period or until the end of it".

The Buddha repeated this suggestion three times. Ananda, possibly not understanding, said nothing.Then came Mara, the evil one, who 45 years earlier had tried to tempt the Buddha away from enlightenment. "You have accomplished what you set out to do", Mara said. "Give up this life and enter Parinibbana now.

"Do not trouble yourself, Evil One", the Buddha replied. "In three months I will pass away and enter Nibbana".

Then the Blessed One, clearly and mindfully, renounced his will to live on. The earth itself responded with an earthquake. The Buddha told the shaken Ananda about his decision to make his final entry into Nibbana in three months. Ananda objected, and the Buddha replied that Ananda should have made his objections known earlier, and requested the Tathagata remain throughout a world-period or until the end of it.The Buddha and his Bhikkhus came to a grove of sal trees in Kushinagar. The Buddha asked Ananda to prepare a couch between two trees, with its head to the north. "I am weary and want to lie down", he said. When the couch was ready, the Buddha lay down on his right side, one foot upon the other, with his head supported by his right hand. Then the sal trees bloomed, although it was not their season, pale yellow petals rained down on the Buddha.

The Buddha spoke for a time to his Bhikkhus. At one point Ananda left the grove to lean against a door post and weep. The Buddha sent a Bhikkhu to find Ananda and bring him back. Then the Blessed One told Ananda, "Enough, Ananda"! "Do not grieve! Have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change and separation? All that is born, comes into being, is compounded, and is subject to decay. How can one say: "May it not come to dissolution"? This cannot be.

"Ananda, you have served the Tathagata with loving-kindness in deed, word, and thought; graciously, pleasantly, wholeheartedly. Now you should strive to liberate yourself". The Blessed One then praised Ananda in front of the other assembled Bhikkhus.

Parinibbana

The Buddha spoke further, advising the Bhikkhus to keep the rules of the order. Then he asked three times if any among them had any questions. Do not be given to remorse later on with the thought: "The Master was with us face to face, yet face to face we failed to ask him." But no one spoke. The Buddha assured all of the Bhikkhus they would realise enlightenment.Then he said, "All compounded things are subject to decay. Strive with diligence".

Then, serenely, he passed into Parinibbana.

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