Last Friday, millions of Buddhists across Asia gathered to celebrate a rather hazy date, but one with deep cultural import nonetheless: the so-called birthday of Siddhartha Gautama (better known as the Buddha). Depending on the country, the day is recognized as any time from the first full moon in May to April 8, the latter being steadily adhered to by the practical Japanese.
In reality, “Western scholars would tell you that we don't even know the year in which the Buddha was born, much less the actual month and date,” José Ignacio Cabezón, professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The Diplomat. “So it is really a matter of tradition. Many Buddhist societies celebrate a particular day (usually a full moon day) in the lunar calendar not only as the Buddha's birthday, but also as the day of his enlightenment and of his death.”
When combined, the holiday – birth, enlightenment and death – is referred to as Vesak and is recognized from Tibet and Thailand to Bhutan and Japan. And while Cabezón has a point about the hazy year of Gautama’s birth, it was popularly believed to have been 2,557 years ago, in 563 BCE.
In celebration of this day, the devout in Japan pour sweet tea on Buddhist statuary. In Nepal, where “Buddha Jayanti” is a national holiday, thousands flock to the Buddha’s supposed birthplace at Lumbini to donate food and clothes to the needy and offer tithes to Buddhist monasteries and schools.
Even in predominantly Muslim Malaysia “Wesak Day” is a national holiday during which the faithful head to temples to meditate on the enlightened one’s eight precepts. Even in Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic nation by population, the pre-Muslim history of the islands is recalled when monks convene at the magnificent temple complex at Borobudur to chant mantras, meditate, bottle up holy water and move flames between various locations in the temple on Waisak Day.
According to Cabezón, one of the most devout displays of reverence for the Buddha can be seen in Tibet where the holy day “is celebrated as part of a month-long series of religious observances that occurs in the fourth Tibetan lunar month called Sagadawa. Tibetans consider this an especially auspicious time to engage in religious practice: making offerings in temples, observing religious precepts, and engaging in various prayers and rites.”
He added that “The tradition of scholastic studies is thriving among Tibetans; not Tibetans in Tibet, where there are a lot of restrictions on the practice of Buddhism, but among Tibetans in exile.”
Perhaps not quite that pious, Seoul is still known to take it up a notch prior to the Buddha’s birthday with its spectacular Lotus Lantern Festival, in which paper lanterns in the shapes of lotus flowers, dragons, pagodas and other elements of Buddhist iconography are hung throughout the city and plied on rafts along the Cheonggye Stream that runs through the heart of the metropolis, creating an enchanting show of tradition and light.
This diversity underlines the epic journey that Buddhism took across Asia, from its origins in India to the northeastern edge of the continent in Japan. Ultimately, this brings us to Buddhism’s most recent migration: the West.
Starting with The Beat Generation writers of the 1950s, and carried along by Western Buddhist forerunners like British author and philosopher Alan Watts, Buddhism has amassed significant cultural cache. A trip to any bookstore attests to this, where Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and books on the “crazy wisdom” of Tibetan teacher and counterculture figure Chögyam Trungpa are readily available.
What accounts for this popularity?
“More recently, I think that charismatic figures like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have done a lot to bring greater visibility to Buddhism,” Cabezón said. Further back, “Certainly the counterculture movement as a whole played a very large factor. As young people in the 1960s and 1970s became increasingly disenfranchised from their own culture, they began to turn to Asia, and to Asian religious traditions, for answers to the pressing existential questions of life.”
Cabezón added, “Maybe it's the fact that Buddhism is perceived as a kind of minimalist religion, requiring little by way of metaphysical commitments and really considered more of a therapy.
Yet, Buddhism’s reach has not permeated Western culture’s roots. Instead, it has mainly gained traction among the educated, upper stratum of Western society. According to some Buddhist teachers, such as Tibetan Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, the West has missed the point altogether, “mistaking nihilism for Buddhism,” Cabezón explained. The end result: it has become subsumed by consumerism.
“Consumerism is certainly a persistent problem, but from a Buddhist point of view, it is especially pernicious when Buddhism itself becomes commoditized, when it becomes an object of consumption.”