Celebrating a Buddhist Holiday

Whenever we are living the spiritual life and performing wholesome deeds of thought, speech, and body, that is an auspicious day, an auspicious hour, an auspicious moment – even if it is just for an instant, that instant is auspicious. It’s not the time or the place or environment, it’s the actions, the speech and thoughts that we perform. This is what makes something auspicious, this is what makes something special. We are very lucky to be here, and this is a very auspicious time and place for us, but it is because of what we are doing, not where we are.

When I was living in Thailand, every year at the Thai New Year there was great excitement throughout the country. We would take the bus and see people engaged in fist fights on the street, walking drunk in the middle of traffic, throwing water and ice cubes and all sorts of things at the cars and motorcycles as they went by. I would tell my students how the people talk about having a happy new year and always wish happy new year to each other, but that actually December 31st is the most dangerous day of the year for most of the world – the most unnatural fatalities of the whole year are on that day. Well, in Thailand it’s actually the second most dangerous – the most dangerous day is the Thai New Year, which comes in April.

My teacher explains how there is more than one way of celebrating a holiday. When there is a special occasion, there is more than one way of using it to bring happiness. Ordinary people rejoice and celebrate by engaging in sensual pleasure and indulgence, but how should we celebrate as practising Buddhists? Moreover, what exactly should we celebrate? What should we be happy about? Why should we rejoice? These are good questions, really. We might begin to think that everybody else gets to have all the fun; ordinary people have good food to eat, nice clothes, houses and cars, so many wonderful things that they can enjoy. They can go where they want, live how they want, and the whole material world is at their disposal.

Even in regards to becoming a monk, we have the idea that when you ordain you get to live in the perfect hut on the perfect mountain with a perfect sunset and a perfect forest; when we actually go to live in a monastery and see that the food is no good, the water is no good, the kutis have leaks, the forest has leeches, snakes, scorpions, even mosquitoes, etc. – nothing is you would like it to be. Instead, you have to live off cold food and contaminated water; you have to put up with mosquitoes, snakes, scorpions, leeches, termites, leaking roofs and so on. Some people might very well wonder why we’re here – there doesn’t seem to be much to celebrate. Of course we don’t think this, we are very happy here. We should be very happy here anyway – if you are not, listen up, because there are many things for us to be happy about. We can use tonight as an example.

Here we are, sitting in meditation under the full moon. All that is between us and the full moon is the majestic Bodhi tree. This Bodhi tree is a descendant of the tree under which the Buddha himself sat. In ancient time they brought a branch of the great Bodhi tree from Bodh Gaya to Sri Lanka, and planted it in Anuradhapura. That tree in Anuradhapura has since been cultivated and brought to many places around the world. One branch came here. So this tree is a descendent from the original tree. Here we are in a Buddhist monastery in a Buddhist country, listening to a talk on Buddhism about the practice of Buddhist meditation, living the life of a Buddhist meditator, striving to find the truth of life and freedom from suffering; striving to make ourselves better people, to purify our minds, to cleanse our minds of all defilements. This in itself is something very rare in the world, something very much worth rejoicing over. Maybe sometimes we don’t realize how lucky we are. We should rejoice in how lucky we are.

What is it that makes us lucky? First, we were born in a time when the Buddha’s teachings are to be found. Buddhas don’t come into the world every day. The Buddha didn’t work for just a week or so to become a Buddha. You can look in the world and see whether there has been any one who could compare with the Buddha over the last 2500 years; if we are honest, we will have to say that there has not. Yet, 2500 years is nothing compared to the time it takes to become a Buddha; it took our teacher four uncountable aeons and 100,000 great aeons to become fully enlightened.

A great aeon is the time it takes from the big bang until the end of the universe – the big crunch or whatever the end of the universe is. 100,000 great eons is the small part of the time it takes. The large part is the four uncountables. It is theoretically possible to count the time from the big bang to the big crunch but an uncountable eon is, by definition, uncountable; it took the Buddha more than four uncountable eons to become enlightened.

So here we are, in the time of the Buddha. We missed the Buddha himself; who knows what we were doing when he was teaching. Maybe we were drinking or gambling, maybe we weren’t even humans. Somehow we missed the chance. All that is left for us now is the Dhamma. This is why we protect and revere the dhamma as well, because it’s all that we have left after the Buddha passed away – the dhamma and the sangha who has passed it on.

The sangha refers those people we ordinarily think of as our teachers, but actually they are only responsible for passing on the Buddha’s teachings and to be an example to us in our practice. They can never replace the Buddha as a teacher, so it might be easy to become discouraged in this day and age, thinking we have no teacher. The Buddha, foreseeing this, taught that the dhamma itself would be our teacher after he passed away:

“siyā kho panānanda, tumhākaṃ evamassa — ‘atītasatthukaṃ pāvacanaṃ, natthi no satthā’ti. na kho panetaṃ, ānanda, evaṃ daṭṭhabbaṃ. yo vo, ānanda, mayā dhammo ca vinayo ca desito paññatto, so vo mamaccayena satthā.

“It may be, Ananda, that you will think, ‘the teaching has passed away with the teacher; there is no teacher for us.’ You should not see it thus, Ananda. Whatever dhamma and discipline (vinaya) has been taught and laid out to you, that will be your teacher after my passing away.”

— DN 16

The teaching itself is all we have left for a teacher; when the dhamma and the sangha are gone it will be just dark water. It is like we are on an island, slowly sinking into the ocean. Once the island is gone, there will be no refuge for beings. It will be like drowning in an endless ocean with no sign of shore, floating around and falling prey to the sharks and crocodiles, tossed about in the storms of the vast dark ocean of samsara. For now, we still have this teaching and can put it to practice. This is something that is very lucky for all of us, making this an auspicious time.

The second thing we should rejoice in is that not only are we living in the time of the Buddha’s teaching but we have been born as human beings. If you had been born a dog, a cat, an insect, a snake, or a scorpion, it goes without saying that you could not obtain much benefit from such a life. We may not know what we did, but we must have done something right. We were floating around in the ocean of samsara and somehow we managed to find a way to be born as a human being.

The Buddha gave a comparison of a sea turtle in regards to how rare human birth really is. He said, suppose there was a turtle that lived at the bottom of the ocean that every one hundred years would come up for air. Then, suppose someone were to throw a yoke into the great ocean (a yoke is the bar of wood that they put on the neck of an ox to harness it to a cart). So, every one hundred years the sea turtle would come up to the surface, and in the whole of the ocean there was one yoke floating, tossed about by the four winds. Well, the Buddha said that it would be more likely for such a sea turtle, when rising from the bottom of the ocean every one hundred years, to touch the surface with its neck in the yoke, than for an ordinary animal to be born a human being.

As an animal, there is not much one can do to cultivate one’s mind; it’s mostly kill or be killed. Opportunities to practice morality, to develop concentration, and obtain wisdom are very rare. Yet somehow, floating around in the ocean, we managed to put our neck up inside the yoke. We were born human beings. I don’t know how we got here. I don’t think any of us know how we became human beings. If you have that sort of special knowledge, then maybe you know what you did; mostly we don’t have a clue – we are just happy to be here. We should be happy to be here, anyway. We’ve met with Buddhism, and we’ve met with Buddhism as a human being.

These two things are very difficult to find. As the Buddha said, “kiccho buddhānamuppādo – the arising of a Buddha is a difficult thing to find. (Dhp 182)” “Kiccho manussapaṭilābho – a human life is a difficult thing to find.”

Further, we have been born as a human being with arms, legs and body parts – including brains, in fairly good working order; good enough to be able to walk and sit, anyway. Good enough to be able to think, read, and study, and good enough to practice. Our bodies work, we are still alive and well – how long have we managed to avoid death, dismemberment, sickness and disability?

After everything we have been through in this life, we are still alive and well and able to practice the Buddha’s teaching. We have managed to make it through school, to find a job and make enough money to live our lives in ways that allowed us to find our way to a monastery and dedicate ourselves to the Buddha’s teaching. This too is a part of the difficulty that we have faced and conquered: “kicchaṃ maccāna jīvitaṃ – difficult is the life of humans.” Difficult to find is a life that is free from illness, difficulty, and obstacle – a life that allows us to come together from all parts of the world to find the Buddha’s teaching. Very few people have this opportunity.

The third thing that makes us lucky is that we actually desired to take the opportunity. Compared to all the people in the world that don’t have the opportunity, very few are the people who have the opportunity to ordain and undertake the spiritual life in earnest, but among those people who have the opportunity, even fewer are those people who actually have an earnest wish to take the opportunity.

How many people, when you told them you were going to practice meditation, got a confused look on their face or even ridiculed you? When you decided you decided to ordain, how many people looked at you like you were crazy, or even abandoned you completely? How many people have you heard say: “monks are useless,” “meditators are wasting their time,” “living a peaceful life is a selfish thing to do,” and so on? Many people have the opportunity, but would never think of even attending a meditation course, let alone becoming a monk or dedicating their lives to meditation practice.

That’s certainly something worthy of rejoicing; rejoicing about how lucky we are just having this mind. It’s not really up to “us”, is it? It’s not like we chose to have this mind, and yet suddenly our mind says: “I want to become a monk” or “I want to go meditate.” It’s kind of funny really because it’s not like we chose to have such a mind. It’s not like other people chose to have the mind that didn’t want to do such things. We cultivated this. Somehow we managed to, almost accidentally, get something right. We should feel happy about that and rejoice in it. How wonderful it is to have this wonderful mind that wants to meditate, that wants me to devote my life to the Buddha’s teachings.

Of course, we don’t want to feel proud or gloat about it, but we can at least feel happy about it, encouraged by it. We can feel confidence and encouragement. When you need encouragement you should think like this – “I’m not a horrible person, I’m not a useless person, I may not be the best meditator but at least I want to meditate. At least I do meditate.” This is the third blessing that we have, that we should be happy about and rejoice over.

The fourth blessing to rejoice over is that we have actually taken the opportunity when it presented itself. As the Buddha said:

appakā te sattā ye saṃvejaniyesu ṭhānesu saṃvijjanti; atha kho eteva sattā bahutarā ye saṃvejaniyesu ṭhānesu na saṃvijjanti.

“Few are those beings who are disturbed by what is truly disturbing; those beings who are undisturbed by what is truly disturbing are far more.”

— AN 1.331

Rare are the people who understand that we can’t live like this, that we can’t be negligent. It is far more common for people to live under the assumption that nothing will go wrong in our lives, that bad things will not happen to us, that when we die we will go to a good place, or be extinguished forever.

Actually, a human being is like a person walking a tightrope; any moment we could slip off and fall into death or suffering or whatever lies in wait below. If you were up here meditating during the lightning storm two nights ago you can understand this. It’s quite an experience really, realizing how thin is the rope on which we are walking. At any moment, something could knock you off and if you haven’t prepared yourself or learned anything useful in your life, how could you be ready for it? You would die without any clarity of mind, without any presence, without any awareness. You would die with a muddled, confused mind, and be reborn in a corresponding state. Many people have no concept of how precarious our situation really is, and yet we are able to see this.

Not only are we able to see this, but we have acted on it, which is a rare achievement as well, as the Buddha taught:

“appakā te sattā ye saṃviggā yoniso padahanti; atha kho eteva sattā bahutarā ye saṃviggā yoniso na padahanti.”

“Few are those beings who, disturbed, put out wise effort; those beings who, though disturbed, do not put out wise effort are far more.”

— AN 1.332

Some people see the danger of being negligent, but do nothing about it. They think, “yeah, that would be great if I could do some meditation or something spiritual,” but they don’t do it. Seeing this, the Buddha taught that as rare are the people who have understanding of danger, far more rare are the people who actually do something about it.

So here we have accumulated quite a number of blessings in our lives, just by being at this spot at this time. We have the blessings of the Buddha and his teachings. We understand the teaching of the Buddha; we understand the four satipaṭṭhāna and vipassanā, we know the four noble truths and the eightfold noble path -these aren’t elementary school subjects. These teachings aren’t things that anyone else can teach you. We take them for granted sometimes, but even just the four foundations of mindfulness are enough to take you to nibbāna; enough to free you from the entire cycle of saṃsara – just the four foundations of mindfulness. As the Buddha said in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10), “ekayano ayaṃ bhikkhave maggo – this path is the straight path, the one way – just the four foundations of mindfulness”.

Being humans, we are able to understand this teaching. We are able to put the teaching into practice – we can walk, we can sit, and we can think. Our mind works, our body works, and we have given rise to the wholesome intention to practice meditation. We have confidence and knowledge that the Buddha’s teaching is a good thing. There are many people who don’t have as much; either they repudiate the Buddha’s teaching or they doubt it to the extent that they can’t practice it wholeheartedly. Even if they think it might be good, their doubt stops them from practising.

Here we don’t have any of that. We have enough confidence to allow us to practice, to ordain, to fly around the world just to stay in a hut in the forest. How rare is that? We must have done something right to get here.

The fact is we have actually done it and succeeded. We made it. Of course, we are not fully liberated yet, but physically we have achieved our goal. We are here. We are where we should be. We are where we want to be. We are in a place where so many people will never have the chance to be. I consider this to be very lucky; I think we all should consider ourselves quite lucky. This is an auspicious occasion – and an auspicious moment in time. Here we are developing wholesome qualities of body, speech, and mind – this is what makes this moment auspicious.

It’s quite fitting that we are meditating on the holy day. I used to joke to my students at Wat Doi Sutep in Chiang Mai, Thailand: “So today is a holiday – no, it doesn’t mean you get a day off, it means you get to be holy.” In Buddhism we take the holiness of the day upon ourselves, rather than leaving the holiness to the day alone; we take it to mean something for ourselves, that the holy day is a time for us to increase our own holiness.

In Buddhism we don’t look for someone else to be holy for us; we take the responsibility upon ourselves. It’s not that we don’t believe in gods or angels but we figure they’ve got enough work to do for themselves so, rather than asking them or praying to them, we do the work for ourselves. In Buddhism, holiness isn’t reserved to a day, a god, or an angel – the holiness of the holiday is our own. This is what makes a Buddhist holiday; it’s not a day off.

This is what we should feel lucky about, what we should rejoice in. How do we rejoice as Buddhists? I think there is only one answer, the best way to rejoice – the best way to rejoice is practising to purify our minds. It’s difficult to rejoice in this, actually, because the equivalent in a physical sense would be on a holiday or on a festival to go home and clean your bathroom or kitchen. It doesn’t ostensibly seem like the best way to make use a holiday. Nonetheless, when you do have the day off, when you have the time to spare, this is when you should do your house cleaning. So, even if a Buddhist holiday were a day off, cleaning our minds would be the best use we could make of it.

But there is another way to understand practising as a means of celebrating a holiday because the practice is like an appreciation of this opportunity. How difficult it is to want to meditate, let alone to actually meditate! Meditation itself is a way of rejoicing at our good fortune. It’s like a victory lap at the end of a long race. It’s like proclaiming to the whole universe that we are succeeding, that we are attaining victory here under the Bodhi tree. We are meditating in spite of all the difficulties, in spite of all the improbability of getting to this point in time and space. We made it!

Our walking and sitting meditation is actually a celebration. It is a celebration of this special occasion. It is the consummation of all the work and hardship we’ve gone through in all the lives we’ve lived, wandering through the darkness of samsara. Moreover, it is the act that purifies our minds, and so it is the act that brings us happiness. Without purity of mind there is no happiness; this act of meditating is that which brings us true happiness. As a result it should be something that we rejoice in.

It goes without saying how important it is to meditate at all times; this is just one more reason for us to apply ourselves to the meditation. Someone asked today whether we were doing anything special on the Buddhist holiday and I joked: “meditate more.” It’s true, though, isn’t it? This is a chance for us to practice more intensively; it is a day when lay people will come to the monastery, take the eight precepts and listen to the dhamma. It’s a time when people undertake the practice of morality, concentration, and wisdom; it’s a good excuse, a special opportunity for all Buddhists. It’s an especially good opportunity for us who are living in the monastery, who have the chance to take the opportunity in full; to take is as a joyful occasion for ourselves.

Here, we have the opportunity to meditate, and we take it. On the holy day we practice with greater conviction; it doesn’t mean you have to necessarily practice for longer periods of time, but you will at least make more effort to be mindful knowing that this is the holy day, knowing that there is a full moon and we are under the Bodhi tree; thinking about the Buddha who sat under the Bodhi tree. Here we are, 20 feet away from the Buddha – the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat.

Finally, we can also take our practice as a puja towards the Buddha, a way of paying homage to the Buddha. We may wonder what we can do on a holy day to pay homage to the Buddha. The Buddha himself was very clear on this topic; when he was about to pass away and everyone was bringing flowers, paying homage to him, the Buddha taught that such homage wasn’t proper homage to the Buddha. He said:

“yo kho, ānanda, bhikkhu vā bhikkhunī vā upāsako vā upāsikā vā dhammānudhammappaṭipanno viharati sāmīcippaṭipanno anudhammacārī, so tathāgataṃ sakkaroti garuṃ karoti māneti pūjeti apaciyati, paramāya pūjāya.”

“Whether a bhikkhu or a bhikkhuni, a lay man or lay woman, when they dwell practising according to the teaching, realizing the teaching for themselves, practising properly according to the dhamma, this is a person who pays proper homage, pays proper respect, pays proper reverence, pays homage to the Buddha with the highest form of homage.”

— DN 16

Every step we take is like offering a flower to the Buddha. The Buddha himself said our practice is the highest form of offering we can give. It is a gift to the Buddha, to the Buddha’s teaching, to the monastery, to the meditation centre, to the world. One step you take with mindfulness, clearly aware of the present moment as it is, with morality, concentration, and wisdom is the greatest gift you can give to yourself and to the entire universe.