Although Vesak (Pali: Vesakha; Sanskrit: Vaisakha) is often called the “Buddha’s Birthday”, it’s actually three celebrations rolled into one: the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni (Sage of the Shakyas), and of course, as the Buddha.
The date for Vesak differs according to tradition and country, but generally it’s held on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which would be today. So happy Vesak day to everyone.
Of course, no one knows for sure when the Buddha was born or when he died, or even if there actually was such a person. Sometimes I am inclined to believe that the Buddha’s story was crafted from that of Mahavira, who was the real architect of Jainism as we know it today, or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe there actually were two guys with nearly identical backgrounds who arrived on the Indian spiritual scene at basically the same time with very similar teachings. Maybe they’re both myths. It’s likely we’ll never know.
As far as Buddhism goes, it doesn’t matter. Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Because the Buddha is portrayed as a human being and not a god, his awakening represents the potential for awakening that exists within every human being. It’s not important whether one particular person was the first to awaken. Plenty of others awakened after him, and we can too. That potential is like a seed and when it sprouts in anyone, that person is, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.”
Tsung-mi (780-841), regarded as both a patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master, composed a work entitled Yuan Jen or “On the Original Nature of Human Beings.” It’s often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings. In this piece, he wrote,
All sentient beings posses the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.
From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.”
For Buddhists, then, the Buddha is the personification of all our ideals and values. He attained the highest spiritual achievement, but the same is never beyond our own reach. To me, Vesak is about commemorating that potential for Buddhahood. We are really celebrating ourselves. We are him and he is us. His day is our day.
The term ‘all Buddhas’ means Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni Buddha is synonymous with one’s very mind being Buddha. At that very moment when all the Buddhas of past, present, and future have become, do become, and will become Buddha, without fail, They become Shakyamuni Buddha. This is what “Your very mind is Buddha” means.
– Dogen, On ‘Your Very Mind Is Buddha’ (Soku Shin Ze Butsu)