The God Squad: Happy Vesak Day!
In my attempt to make good on the promise of the God Squad, which is to honor all the different spiritual paths up the same mountain, I ask you to join me in wishing the Buddha a very happy birthday! This year Vesak, Buddha’s birthday, fell on May 8 for Buddhists in China, Vietnam and in the Philippines; May 15 in Singapore, Thailand and Sri Lanka; and May 16 in Indonesia, India and Nepal.
My 75th birthday is May 17 and people ask me, “Is there any significance in the fact that one of the great religious leaders in the world — and the Buddha — both have their birthdays in the same week?” I answer, “Probably not.”
The Buddha is a title, meaning “The Enlightened One” but his name was Siddhartha Gautama and he lived from 563 BCE to 483 BCE. He is also called Shakyamuni and was born as a prince in India but he gained enlightenment after six years of intense asceticism. His followers once asked him if he was a god and he replied, “No. I am merely awake.”
There is no Creator God in Buddhism and there is no soul (anatman) and so for those who believe that a religion must believe in God/soul/heaven, Buddhism is a mystery that confounds our spiritual expectations. Some prefer to call Buddhism a wisdom tradition or a spiritual philosophy. I believe that Buddhism is indeed a religion, a very sublime religion, that has much to teach us in the West. Like all religions it addresses the need for salvation from sin/ignorance/despair.
Buddhism teaches us that we can become spiritually whole even in a broken world. For the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, fixing the world by engaging it and with Messianic leadership triumphing over worldly evil is a fundamental religious orientation. Buddhism takes a very different path to changing the world. It teaches us how we can, as individuals, change ourselves and in so doing change the world. It teaches how to achieve a release from suffering (called dukkah). This release comes when we let go of our attachments to all the parts of the world that cause us to suffer.
The Noble Eightfold Path to such release from suffering consists of: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. Buddhism has male monks and female nuns (called the sangha) who are celibate. Householders are lay Buddhists and have families.
What can we learn from Buddhism?
I read so many agonized emails and letters from you, my dear readers, that are full of suffering based upon illusions and attachments. We suffer when God does not do exactly what we want God to do for us as if our own agency does not matter; and as if a God who caters to our every wish is either possible or desirable. We suffer when those we have loved die as if we did not realize that death is the price of love; and as if we believe that we are guaranteed by God a long and happy life and anything else is a betrayal. And we suffer when we are insulted as if we really expected massive undying love from everyone we have ever met, including from people so broken they do not even love themselves.
Here is a story that conveys the deep wisdom of Buddhism. The author is unknown but if you ask me, the author is the Sakyamuni!
Two Buddhist monks were walking through a forest. During some point of the journey, they had an argument, and one monk slapped the other monk in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, he wrote in the sand: “Today my friend slapped me in the face.” They kept on walking, until they found a pool of water where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mire and started drowning, but his friend saved him. After he recovered from the near drowning, he wrote on a stone: Today my friend saved my life. The friend, who had slapped and saved his best friend, asked him, "After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand, and now, you write on a stone, why?" The other monk replied: "When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand, where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away, but when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it." Learn to write your hurts in the sand and to carve your blessings in stone.
Happy Birthday Buddha wherever you are.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)
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