We sometimes wonder about the figurative significance of the full moon in the use of symbolism in Buddhist texts.
Siddhartha Gautama was born on a full noon day of May some 2,600 years ago in Lumpini, Nepal, as a human being—not as a god or deity, but a prince who left his palace at the age of 29 on a quest for understanding. Heading out into the wilderness, he practiced for five years as an ascetic, until, on one full moon day in May, he finally attained liberation and enlightenment at the age of 35.
The Buddha could have chosen to remain alone and enjoyed the blissfulness he had discovered, but out of loving-compassion for humanity he made the decision to share his insight with those who were able to understand the steps he had taken achieve such mental purity. And so he remained a kind, compassionate teacher for the next 45 years, until he finally passed away on a full moon day in May.
As a prince, Siddhartha had been well-educated and was familiar with the teachings of contemporary schools of thought of his time, but he had never found answers to some personal, internal dissatisfactions that had been bothering him for a long while, which may be expressed in questions such as: “Why do we have to suffer,” and “Why do we feel unhappy, even when we seem to have everything?”
On the full moon day of May when the Buddha eventually attained enlightenment after a long process of development, he realized the following formula that was always at work within his own mind/body: (1) There is suffering; (2) There is a root cause of suffering; (3) There is a way to eradicate the root cause of such suffering; and (4) There is a path of development and cultivation to follow that will lead to the end of mind/body irritation, and related stress and suffering.
In his years of austere practices, the ascetic who was to become the Enlightened One, the Buddha, looked into the workings of his own body and mind, and he found some things that no one had ever talked about before: he found answers that had not been discovered and shared in his culture. Namely, that there were actually answers to questions such as: “Why am I not happy? “Why do I feel mental stress?” “Why do we feel craving, dislike, and greed?” “How can I feel satisfied?” “How can I be happy?” and “How may I feel at peace?”
Once we understand this background, we may go on to explain the full moon of May symbolism a little more closely.
The Buddha’s birth also means that when we are born as flesh-and-blood humans, we have the unique opportunity to understand the wider workings of the cosmos and our place within it; and how only human beings, when born into the cosmos under such conditions, have the opportunity to keep cultivating and purifying their thoughts and intentions, and developing the power and potential of their minds in the way that the Buddha did, which ultimately brought him to liberation and enlightenment under the full moon of May.
Afterward, the Buddha taught his disciples with loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity from the time of his maturity, all the way through until his death under the full moon of May. This also stands for the symbolism of the liberation of not having to be born again, for sublime extinction of bodily energy, and for no return to this world—a freedom above and beyond all worldly suffering.
We still have the Buddha’s teaching because his monks memorized it and passed it on until it was eventually written down as we know it in the present. We cannot explain it all here because it is a gradual and detailed process, taking perhaps years to cultivate individually, but the early teaching goes as follows:
There is suffering and there is the eradication of suffering. Where there is craving, there is the cause of craving, so we can eradicate and replace the cause:
Where there is greediness it can be replaced by generosity.
Where there is selfishness, it can be replaced by morality/virtue.
Where there is clinging, it can be replaced by renunciation.
Where there is ignorance, it can be replaced by wisdom.
Where there is slothfulness, it can be replaced by energy.
Where there is impatience, it can be replaced by patience.
Where there is falsehood, it can be replaced by truth.
Where there is uncertainty, it can be replaced by determination.
Where there is ill-will, it can be replaced by good-will.
Where there is anxiety, it can be replaced by equanimity.
We see an impure thought arising, and we stop it from happening and replace it with its opposite. We see a harmful thought arising, and we stop it from happening and replace it with its opposite.
This is one way of cultivating the workings of the mind so that we do not suffer from the consequences of our own misdirected, unhelpful, unheedful, unwholesome intentions.
The secret is: (1) to catch the negative, harmful intention as it is arising; (2) to nip it in the bud; and (3) to then replace it with a positive, helpful, wholesome intention and action.
For more detail about cultivating the practice, see the Noble Eightfold Path. With some exceptions, following the path is gradual and takes concentrated practice and ardent energy. It can take years.
So instead, for now, let’s look some more at moon symbolism. We may also compare our practice to that of a developing moon. At first, there is no moon, meaning our ignorance, our knowing nothing in the beginning. Then there is a small sliver of light on the face of the moon, meaning our beginning to see the light. Then there is some growth, a quarter-sized crescent of light, which means we are seeing and developing more. Then there is a half-moon, meaning we are developing even more light and insight. The three-quarter-sized moon means we are advancing more and more, and finally filling out the full moon in the bright light of final liberation and full enlightenment.
In the Buddha’s era, time was measured in lunar cycles, so using the moon symbolically in Dhamma language would probably have seemed quite natural. Teaching the Dhamma was still only an oral tradition when the Buddha taught, and he expected that his teachings would be corrupted by unskillful teachers within 500 years. So it’s a good thing that his teachings were eventually written down in the second century so that we still have them today. It would be hard to find any other early literature that delves into such detailed depth on psychology and the workings of the mind, the way we see it used in traditional Buddhist imagery.
Related features from BDG
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part One
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Two: Mindfulness and Keen Awareness
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Three: Arousing Energy and Attaining Rapture
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Four: Tranquility, Concentration, and Equanimity