Last Friday, May 17th, was celebrated as the Buddha’s Birthday by many dharma followers around the world. It’s known as Vesak, which refers to the lunar month falling in April and May, and is actually a celebration of not only the Buddha’s birth, but also his enlightenment and death.
I used to go to Vesak ceremonies here in Los Angeles. They were always put on by Theravada monks, and they were pretty boring. It mostly involved having people line up to bath a statue of a baby Buddha with water, along with some speeches by monks with thick accents who used many words to say very little, and then lunch. The lunch part always bothered me because the monks would eat first while everyone else waited. Anyway, I quit going.
In the Japanese traditions, like Zen, Vesak, called Hanamatsuri, is celebrated in April. This year it was on the 8th. The Japanese do not go by the Chinese Lunar Calendar as many other Asia countries do. But then, the birth date is arbitrary as no one knows when the Buddha was born.
Which brings me to the old Zen saying, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. There are various interpretations of this phrase, but I have always taken it as an admonition against idealizing the Buddha too much. Which, of course, throughout history many of his followers have done, and continue to do.
Frankly, I doubt if we met the Buddha on the road, we would recognize him. We only know the canonized, lionized Buddha, not the historical one. We’d probably think him to be some homeless person. Rather than a nice, fresh brightly colored robe, the Buddha probably wore what we would consider beggar’s rags. The robes of mendicant’s at that time were made from scraps of cloth scavenged from trash. Instead of the neat mane of curly hair we see in paintings and on statutes, I imagine his hair was an unruly mess and he wore a scraggly beard, like other mendicant philosophers of the time, although its possible his head was clean-shaven. No doubt he would seem uncouth and brutish in comparison to our modern manners and sensibilities. And he probably stunk to high heaven, because they didn’t bathe all that often back then. He might have been Black.
Whatever the case, I think it’s safe to say he didn’t resemble Keanu Reeves in The Little Buddha, and I doubt he had a halo. But no one knows. Indeed, what we can say for sure about the historical Buddha is not much.
Tradition offers us the dubious story of how he was born out of his mother’s side. That is a standard mythological device. Almost all of the world’s great religious figures are said to have had miraculous births.
Evidently, Gautama was from Kapilavastu, a town on a busy trade route north of Banaras, near the area known today as Nepal. He belonged to the Shakya clan, who inhabited a territory that was about fifty square miles in size. The Shakyas had a republican style government at the time, not a monarchy, so it’s unlikely that his father, Suddhodana, was a rich and powerful king, instead he was probably the elected head of a tribal ruling council.
Soon after the Buddha’s passing, or perhaps even during his lifetime, his followers began to elaborate his life story, borrowing elements from traditional folklore and other myths. By magnifying his early life to that of a royal prince enjoying every luxury and contrasting it with his period of extreme asceticism, they were able to illustrate the Buddha’s concept of the Middle Way, a path that runs between sensual indulgence and self-mortification. According to the Buddha, the key to spiritual wayfaring is moderation, to live a well-rounded life by avoiding either extreme.
Since so much is unknown about the Buddha, it’s hard to say how he would feel about the veneration afforded him. I remember reading years ago how the Buddha expressly forbade his disciples to worship his relics, and yet, there is an early sutta in which he gives precise instructions on how veneration of his relics should be carried out. So, who knows?
I have great respect for traditional Buddhism, but much of it is centered around the monks. I like Buddhism that is centered around the people.
I think everyone has a right to view the Buddha however they wish, as long as it’s reasonable. He’s open to interpretation. My Buddha wouldn’t like all this adoration. He’d say, “Don’t take so much care about me, take care about others. Don’t waste time bathing some stupid baby Buddha statue, bathe a homeless child. Give some clothes to the needy. Do something meaningful.”
My Buddha would have said to the monks, “The people eat first. We eat last.”