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Vesak: That time of the year again for sentient beings

I had a shock after reading this news piece. Not at the fact that the minister shaved his head (people shave their heads all the time, be it to leave the household or cover a bald patch), but at the fact that May 10th is apparently the 2600th anniversary of the Lord’s appearance in this world-system. Truly a joyous time for all sentient beings, and the fact that the Dharma has lasted this long at all is really quite incredible. Thanks go to Ananda, for being credited with reciting so many scriptures across the ages and cultures for more than two millennia. Unfortunately, the sheer volume and mind-boggling mass of those scriptures mean that statistically, you would have been talking non-stop, at fast-forward chipmunk-style speed, twenty-four hours seven days a week, with no time for food or sleep, for your entire adult life.

So, wait, what? Has it been 2600 years already? Last time I checked (and celebrated) in 2010, baby Gautama was partying up 2550 years worth. And that is a generous estimate, according to hardcore cutting-edge research by Buddhologists and scholars. You know your life is rather specialized when you spend most of it trying to calibrate a date that probably can’t be fixed anyway, thanks to those ancient Indians having no real interest in the historical figure of the Buddha anyway. Yet tomorrow they claim it’s the 2600th anniversary of the day when that cheeky lad performed the Second Act as a predestined Buddha? Have I been stuck in some Doctor Who time warp? Or is the time zone difference between London and Colombo that great (I prefer the Doctor Who wormhole)? Why has a year stretched into half a century?

And here is another pet gripe of mine about religious festivals, important as they are. Theologians and scholars still have trouble fixing the date of Jesus Christ, and at least the Gospels appear several decades after his humiliation on the cross. The earliest written records for the Buddha appear almost 400 years after his death at the age of eighty. I know the Indians were much better at oral transmission and mnemonic memorization than many civilizations, but I think we’re in a bit of a spot here. And don’t forget Jesus is Gautama’s little brother by a considerable margin: half a millennia. Written records were hardly reliable in Jesus’ time, and we have no written records for the Buddha’s era at all. Sometimes I feel you just have to roll with the whole thing and not worry too much about the details. If you do, you either can’t find said details, or they’re inaccurate or contradictory. This is the beautiful thing about the history of religions. This is why we have the philosophy of religion, to make sense of what we have right now.

Well, all that matters is the Compassion is always present. He’s everything and in everything. Why worry about history when the Dharma’s revelation is trans-historical? This is a basic assertion made by the Buddhist religion: that there is nothing more conditioned than history, and the only unconditioned Presence is that of the Buddha and his Dharma. And what that small child said when he was worshipped by Indra and Brahma rings true for all world-systems, regardless of the aeon we’re in: “Above Heaven and below, none are equal to me.”

I give up on the dates, anyway. My head hurts.

A most joyous Vesak to all beings.

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