As Buddhists celebrated Wesak, Vishvapani reflected on the continuing relevance of the Buddha. ‘Standing apart from political struggles he offered a distinctive outlook on their causes …’

A few hours ago we passed the May full moon. Most of us barely notice these things, but life in many traditional cultures is shaped by the phases of the moon, and the full moon in particular is seen as a time of heightened energy and possibilities. The events of the Buddha’s life, for example, are connected to the lunar cycle and the May full moon marks is the time he gained Enlightenment. Buddhists around the world are celebrating that in the festival of Wesak.

The full moon also symbolises what the Buddha attained, hard though that is to express. Buddhists say that he became complete, whole, and in some way beyond the vicissitudes of ordinary life. In traditional language, he woke up to the true nature of existence.

But what relevance does an ancient sage have to the struggles of the real world in the Twenty-first Century, where conflict and suffering are never far from the headlines, and this week arrived on our streets in the most brutal manner? Recent events in Burma show that Buddhists themselves are hardly exempt from a share of responsibility for the world’s problems.

For me, the Buddha’s relevance lies precisely in his radicalism. By standing apart from political struggles he offered a distinctive outlook on their causes. All parties in just about any conflict have their own sense of grievance and justification, hard though that may be for others to perceive. The Buddha, however, saw a cycle of violence, driven by people who all want to be happy and avoid suffering. The fundamental cause of suffering, he said, lies in the mind and he urged people to look first to their own motivations, declaring, “Hatred is never conquered by hatred, but only by love.”

There’s more to this than saying that things would be better if people were nicer. It means that if I genuinely want to have a positive influence on the world I cannot ignore my mixed motives and impatient reactions. Holding love to be the only real antidote to problems caused by hatred challenges me to change more profoundly, just as the inspiring behaviour we’ve seen recently in Woolwich, Bangladesh and Boston also challenges me. It expands my sense of the courage and compassion of which apparently ordinary people are capable.

Buddhists believe that on Wesak night the Buddha turned his attention deep within his mind. And as the moon became full, he saw how to extinguish the sources of craving and hatred in the most fundamental way possible.