Today is Bodhi Day, birthday of Buddhism
Bodhi Day, the central commemoration of the Buddhist year, marks the spiritual awakening of Siddhartha Gautama (563-486 B.C.), who became known as the Buddha, the Awakened One. With this signal event, Buddhism began 2,600 years ago today in ancient India.
As an ancient event, it has little meaning for modern Western people. However, as Gautama's awakening to the realities of life, it has enormous importance for all people. Gautama awakened to five realities, which are significant in negotiating our life process. They are the truth of suffering in life; the principle of interdependence, the essence of life; the middle path of balance and moderation as the style of life; and the understanding that nothing has a fixed nature or value but is constantly changing. Finally, there is the eightfold noble path focused on realizing these truths within our own experience.
The Buddhist pronouncement that all life is suffering is viewed by many as a killjoy. However, it is realistic in recognizing that in our pleasures and joys, there is the seed of pain. It is painful to lose something we love or to encounter what we dislike. Our joys and pleasures are impermanent and pass away. Too much of a good thing turns to boredom and indifference. We suffer not only physically, but also with mental anxiety, frustration and discomfort.
Interdependence is the essence of life. We do nothing just by ourselves. We are always supported by nature, by our family and friends, by our community. It is said that the self-made man gets what he deserves. Buddhism highlights this principle in order to show the limits of our egoism and self-centeredness, the source of most of our problems. When we consider what we owe to those about us, we become more flexible, open and tolerant. Hatred, anger and prejudice are the traits of those who believe the world revolves around them and are me-centric.
The third principle is the middle path between extremes, the style of Buddhist life. Today we hear much about extremism. Gautama saw long ago the futility of a life given to extremes whether in religious practice or sensual pursuits. Extremes are self-destructive while also injuring others. True living is living with balance, fulfilling the needs of the body, mind and spirit. It means to live in harmony with nature and others, with give and take, flexibility and adaptability.
The fourth principle is no self-nature, often translated as no-soul, one of Buddhism's most difficult teachings. However, it means that nothing has its own value. Things gain value from their relations to others. Meaning is relational; the meaning of our lives derives from our relations with others and what meaning we bring to their lives. We create value through our relations. The variation in the value of gold is not in the gold itself, but in the economic relations and conceptions people have of it.
Finally, the eightfold noble path offers a system of spiritual cultivation that aims at transformation in our spirit. Through the discipline of our minds, bodies and speech, Buddhism deepens our awareness of these truths as the basis for living, and works to bring harmony, peace and justice or fairness into our modern life.
Alfred Bloom is emeritus professor of religion at University of Hawaii.