As Buddhists mark the Buddha’s Enlightenment, Vishvapani asks, what is his significance today?
Thought for the Day 14/5/2014
This week Buddhists around the world celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment in the festival of Wesak or Buddha Day. Buddhists believe that on night of the May full moon he sat beneath a spreading fig tree and entered a state of deep concentration. Exploring his consciousness in its profoundest depths, he saw the ingrained, instinctual responses, such as craving and ill will, that shaped his mind and sowed the seeds of future suffering. Then something changed. A new vision of existence opened, as if he’d been asleep and now he’d woken up.
This experience made him the Buddha, ‘the One who has Awakened’. It guided how he taught others in the remaining 45 years of his life, informed the practice of his disciples and inspired a pan-Asian civilisation. But what is its significance today?
The Buddha’s teachings resonate, to a surprising extent, with a secular outlook. He didn’t believe in a creator God or insist on the need for a saviour. He said reality was impermanent and insubstantial, and suggested that our failure to live in accordance with it produces suffering. Then he taught practices like meditation that reshape our minds accordingly. Their continuing relevance is seen in the current popularity of mindfulness practices. These have served centuries of Buddhist practitioners and are now being adopted in secular settings from parliament to schools as an antidote to our speedy, stressful lives.
But the goal of Buddhist practice is more than psychological health. It aims for the same liberation the Buddha experienced in his Enlightenment. While ideas and teachings are helpful in grasping this, images can evoke it.
So let us imagine a clear, blue sky stretching infinitely in all directions. We’re in the space of the creative imagination, and before us we see a light. It resolves into a figure and we sense that this figure embodies wisdom: our capacity to know, deeply and truly, the real meaning of our lives. It embodies compassion: the force that flows through us when self-preoccupation falls away. It embodies energy, creativity and beauty.
In Buddhist art the figures that appear in this space are defined by traditional iconography, but perhaps we can also allow room for our own intuition. What does wisdom look like to you? For Buddhists, the Buddha is both an individual and a symbol for a new way of being. So, in marking Buddha Day, we’re celebrating the human capacity to develop awareness, wisdom and compassion, and their potential to transform both individuals and the world.