To the uninitiated, Vajrayana’s ritualistic and esoteric appearance can make some observances seem heavy and difficult to comprehend. Tantric texts are laden with difficult religious vocabulary and involve grasping complex ideas. However, happily for those like me, everyone can easily understand the premise of Saka Dawa. From the small child to the most recent novice, we all love the timeless story of the little Prince Siddhartha and how he became Lord Buddha, the Awakened One.
Just as followers all over celebrate the day of Vesak this month, Vajrayana practitioners engage in practices of merit and purification to mark the date of the Buddha’s birth,
enlightenment and parinirvana. The story tells of how these events occurred long ago, on the full moon day of the fourth month. On the 15th (full moon) day of Saka Dawa, Tibetan Buddhists pay tribute by lighting hundreds of butter-lamps, reciting mantras, releasing captive animals and refraining from eating meat. During this month, the merits of good deeds are said to be multiplied one hundred million times. So even if it is as simple as avoiding negative thoughts and doing something nice, Saka Dawa could be a very good time to get inspired and begin or maintain good habits!
There is, of course, great importance and gain to be had from deep study. But there is also room for other explorations and expressions of faith. A few friends and myself tried our hands at being creative. We do not need to be great lyricists, poets, scholars or virtuoso artists to make offerings to the Blessed One. I wrote a poem as a personal way of connecting with the significance of this month:
The moon rose in the sky
The light of supreme knowledge rose in his mind
The meditating bodhisattva.
Contemplating this life
His many lives once lived
It was then he was Awakened
Lo! The birth and rebirth of all beings
Spinning the wheel of samsara,
The winds of karma and affliction
Worlds of vanishing pleasures,
Worlds of pain.
Life after life after life,
Enduring. Life after life after life
The endless cycle of suffering!
Some of our younger friends strung together their own beaded malas (rosaries) and made their own versions of Tibetan thangkas. Seeing them get so excited about learning the Buddha’s story was a wonderful celebration of Saka Dawa. It brought back my own childhood memories that are filled with bedtime stories of Prince Siddhartha, Buddha Shakyamuni and the many Jataka Tales. They seemed magical at the time and so poetic in their simplicity. They moved me as a child, and still do today. I have read countless versions of the tales, from Indian comic strip Jataka stories to Herman Hesse’s epic novel Siddhartha.
These are the stories that run deep, that we first learn as Buddhists. They are themselves expressions of two and a half thousand years of history, and our first steps into the faith. They taught me that Buddha nature and activity can be found everywhere, that there is wisdom to be found in everything and everyone.
Stories of Buddha’s past lives taught me that there are infinite different paths and ways we can be Buddhists, each as valid as the next. They renew and bring life to our faith. We should celebrate this variety as often as we can, without ever losing sight of the fact that we are all Buddhists. We’re all traversing the path toward the same goal of non-violence, selflessness and loving-kindness. Close-mindedness, rigid sectarianism, division and intolerance have no place on this path.
Saka Dawa and the Vesak celebrations of Buddha’s enlightenment are a great leveller. They are based upon that great story that unites all the many Buddhist cultures, traditions and schools of practice. It is a time when the Buddhist community of the world comes together to remember our shared heritage and celebrate the endlessly diverse ways that we can pay homage to our Lord. All of them are blessings. During this month, Buddhists turn their prayer wheels, kneel in prostration, light their lamps, bathe their statues, chant in worship and give offerings with extra vigour, and renewed motivation. For those who believe in the power of prayer, the month of Saka Dawa must be powerful indeed.
However you celebrate, and whatever you may call it, let us all take inspiration from the age-old story of the Buddha’s Enlightenment and delight in the rich diversity with which we express our faith.