This year, Wesak Day falls on May 29. To millions of Buddhists, this is a sacred day that commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Buddhists in Malaysia as well as around the world will flock to temples to participate in the many activities that will take place, such as meditation, chanting, and the washing of Buddha statues. Some temples also serve vegetarian meals.

Temples that have bodhi trees and lotus ponds will also see to these symbols associated with the Bud-dha’s enlightenment and birth.

The Buddha attained enlightenment while sheltering under a bodhi tree, which is also called the tree of wisdom, according to Rev Datuk Dr Sumana Siri, 65, the chief monk of Malaysia and Singapore.

Also, the Sanskrit word for bodhi means “to awaken”, which refers to the Buddha’s enlightenment, the reverend said in a phone interview from Penang.

As for the lotus, legend has it that when the Buddha was born, he made his special state evident by immediately walking seven steps, and at each step, a lotus flower bloomed. This is why the Buddha’s teachings are known as the Lotus Way, says Sumana, who is the founder of the Buddhist Realists’ Movement in Penang.

According to Dr Anil Sakya, “Wesak is the day that the Buddha freed mankind from all bondage and taught people to develop a true humanness without divine help.”

The 57-year-old is the rector at the World Buddhist University in Bangkok and responded via e-mail.

“The Buddha freed us from the idea that destiny depends on the grace of god. Instead, he taught us that our destiny is in our own hands. We can attain the supreme humanness with our own efforts,” he says, urging Buddhists to reflect on the three significant life events of the Buddha that occurred on Wesak Day.

Three major life events

The birth of the Buddha serves as a reminder that everyone is the same at birth. It takes time after being born for people to start to show differences, whether they are heading down a good or bad path, Anil points out.

A person with a supreme goal, just like the Buddha, always improves himself for his own betterment as well as for the good of others. He uses his endeavour, mindfulness and wisdom to achieve the highest status of humanness.

“Buddha strove for the benefit of the world and the ultimate peace and happiness of all worldly beings. Let us learn a lesson from the Buddha’s birth and follow his path to improve and cultivate ourselves to have a higher status of mind,” he says.

The Buddha was a prince who grew up in a palace surrounded by luxury but he gave it all up to gain ultimate wisdom. He travelled down the darkest corridors of his mind to come face to face with the devil inside him. He used meditation to strive towards complete peace and happiness and, at the age of 35, on a night when the moon was full, he was fully awakened from ignorance.

Anil says the story of how the Buddha gained enlightenment signifies that it is not easy to achieve success. With many years of endurance, mindfulness and wisdom, he was able to achieve what he was searching for even though the hardship nearly killed him in the process.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha didn’t then live a life of ease; enduring more hardship, he went from place to place to share his knowledge for the benefit of many.

According to Anil, the Buddha’s virtues, such as sacrifice, compassion and wisdom for the benefit of many, can be excellent models for us as we suffer through our own lives in the search for ultimate peace and happiness.

When the Buddha reached 80, his body became frail and he died peacefully, knowing he would not be reborn into the cycle of suffering life and death.

“The passing away of the Buddha denotes that no one is beyond death. It also confirms and exemplifies his teachings of impermanence, suffering and no soul,” says Anil.

“Life is uncertain but death is certain. Therefore, we should lead our lives mindfully. This is the Buddha’s word.”

Living peacefully, joyfully

In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly, in one of its resolutions, recognised Wesak Day internationally to acknowledge the contribution to the spirituality of humanity that Buddhism, one of the oldest religions in the world, has made for over two and a half millennia.

The spiritual aspect of life is indeed important, according to Prof Bhante Seevali, a visiting monk at the Sri Jayanti Buddhist Temple in Kuala Lumpur.

Seevali, who has a PhD in social science from the Sorbonne in France, believes that many social problems are due to a lack of understanding and absence of knowledge of the noble teachings.

The Buddha’s teachings appeal to the mind. His teachings consist of everything one needs to know to live a peaceful, joyful and successful day-to-day life, says the 60something Seevali, who was born in Sri Lanka and has been a resident monk at the West End Buddhist Temple and Meditation Centre in Ontario, Canada, for 24 years.

The Buddha also taught followers their duties to their elders, parents, children and society. But problems arise when parents give their children an education but fail to provide a spiritual education. As a result, they don’t understand about values in life and their responsibilities to be good citizens and useful to their families. This leads to disunity in families and loss of social values.

“During Wesak, we should understand why people celebrate. It is about a master who taught everyone to live a meaningful and useful life.

“People who chase after material wealth forget the noble qualities. They don’t find joy and happiness but are chasing after a mirage,” he says.

Being a Buddhist should not be a label. Instead, he urges Buddhists to be good Buddhists by learning and practising Buddhist teachings.

“Do good, be good before you say goodbye to this world with a smile,” Seevali says.