Swanya Punhi, the full moon day of flowers, marks not only Siddhartha Guatama’s birthday, but also of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, death and Rebirth (Parinirvana).
Parinirvana is not something to weep over, it is the last beautiful and deeply spiritual act a person can accomplish on the path to enlightenment. It occurs upon the death of the physical body when it reaches awakening.
It is celebrated at different dates and times due to local custom, but for me, I like to celebrate it in conjunction with the Full Moon of Fifth Month, which is also custom in Nepal and Tibet.
Also known as Vesak, Buddha’s birthday is a holy day that encompasses all of life: its beginning, its achievements, and its inevitable end, which leads to more life.
On this day, it is custom to assemble in temples before dawn for the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, his Teachings (Dharma,) and his Disciples (Sangha.) You may bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and joss-stick incense. These symbolic offerings are “to remind followers that just as the beautiful flowers would wither away after a short while and the candles and joss-sticks would soon burn out, so too is life subject to decay and destruction.” -Wikipedia.
It is also custom to have a small statue of the baby Buddha in a bowl of scented water, and decorated with flowers. Then, as is the ritual, you pour water over the statue, symbolic of the cleansing of your bad karma, and to reenact when devas and spirits made heavenly offerings to him after his birth.
Devout Buddhists who celebrate try to lead a noble life according to the teachings of the Five Precepts. However, on special days like new moon and full moon days, they observe the eight Precepts to practice morality, simplicity and humility. Granted, these precepts are not like traditional commandments. They are designed as teaching recommendations, and to be used with tact and thought and are applied to the best of one’s ability at at your own discretion. Some seem a bit outdated as the times have changed. Even Thich Nhat Hanh has condensed them down and interpreted them into his 5 Mindfulness Trainings. However, if you were a monk, you would not only follow these precepts but up to about 227. Talk about dedication!
I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from …
- …harming living beings.
- …taking things not freely given.
- …sexual misconduct.
- …false speech.
- …intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.
- …taking untimely meals.
- …dancing, singing, music and watching grotesque mime.
- …use of garlands, perfumes and personal adornment.
- …use of high seats.
- …accepting gold or silver.
(adapted from The Word of the Buddha, Niyamatolika, The Buddhist Publication Society, 1971, p xii)
Celebrating Vesākha also means making special efforts to bring happiness to the unfortunate like the aged, the handicapped and the sick. To this day, Buddhists will distribute gifts in cash and kind to various charitable homes throughout the country. Vesākha is also a time for great joy and happiness, expressed not by pandering to one’s appetites but by concentrating on useful activities such as decorating and illuminating temples, painting and creating exquisite scenes from the life of the Buddha for public dissemination.
Tradition ascribes to the Buddha himself instruction on how to pay him homage. Just before he died, he saw his faithful attendant Ananda, weeping. The Buddha advised him not to weep, but to understand the universal law that all compounded things (including even his own body) must disintegrate. He advised everyone not to cry over the disintegration of the physical body but to regard his teachings (The Dhamma) as their teacher from then on, because only the Dhamma truth is eternal and not subject to the law of change. He also stressed that the way to pay homage to him was not merely by offering flowers, incense, and lights, but by truly and sincerely striving to follow his teachings. This is how Buddhists are expected to celebrate Vesak: to use the opportunity to reiterate their determination to lead noble lives, to develop their minds, to practise loving-kindness and to bring peace and harmony to humanity.