Buddhists are celebrating Buddha Day or Wesak this week. But 2,600 years on, is Buddhism still relevant?
This week Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s Awakening or Enlightenment. According to the traditional dating that took place in 538 BC, and the spiritual tradition he founded eventually inspired a vast civilisation. So we can agree that Buddhism deserves a place in a museum. But in a world that’s hurtling towards post-modernity and faces unprecedented challenges, we can justifiably ask if an ancient tradition like Buddhism has any continuing relevance?
I find an answer in the period just after the Buddha’s Enlightenment. According to the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha’s new understanding of life challenged everything that had come before him – religion, philosophy, and every kind of worldly pursuit. So he wondered whether it was worth the hassle of trying to communicate what he’d discovered to people who weren’t very interested. Perhaps, he wondered, he should just stay in the forest, quietly enjoying ‘the bliss of release’.
An answer came to him in the form of a vision of all living beings as a bed of lotuses. Some plants were still submerged, while others were rising from the surface and others again were bursting into bloom. In other words, he saw that human beings have the capacity to emerge from the mud of instincts, the struggle to survive and prosper, and all the preoccupations they bring.
He would find a way to engage with others without concerning himself with questions like ‘who created the universe?’ In the teachings he eventually formulated, he set aside belief in God and the soul. Instead, he tried to show people how the their consciousness was shaped by powerful instinctual forces that guided their beliefs and actions and, in the end, led them to suffer.
Against that, he also showed people how to tap the mind’s hidden capacities and undermine the power of craving, hatred and ignorance. And he taught a path that was ethical as well as meditative and could bring a fresh understanding of life.
If Buddhism has a continuing relevance I think it stems from this focus on the mind and its potential. We see that in the widespread interest in Buddhist mindfulness and meditation practices, but the Buddhist vision concerns the whole of life.
For Buddhism, we are neither animals nor machines; we aren’t just consumers and we aren’t even ‘just’ believers. Setting concepts aside for a moment, let us say that we are most like lotus flowers and that the the meaning of our lives is learning to bloom.