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Celebrating Bodhi Day for the 21st Century

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Flickr: Allie_Caulfield
Flickr: Allie_Caulfield

On Dec. 8 Buddhists the world over will celebrate Bodhi Day, the day when Siddhartha Gautama, on seeing the morning star at dawn, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree and became the Buddha, the "Awakened One." Buddha's enlightenment has for 2,500 years been the central article of faith for Buddhists of every school, sect and nationality, as well as being the unifying principle of all Buddhist teaching. For Buddhists everywhere Bodhi Day is an opportunity to acknowledge our dedication to the principles of wisdom, compassion and kindness -- the distinguishing features of the Buddhist worldview. I also think it is an opportunity to understand the relevance of Buddha's enlightenment to today's world, where Buddhism is enjoying something of a renaissance at a time when a troubled planet needs kindness and compassion more than ever.

I think of three ways that the traditional story of Buddha's enlightenment can be reassessed in the light of modern sensibility. The first has to do with Siddhartha's identity as a man, a prince and a warrior. The second has to do with his intention. And the third has to do with humility.

Historically, Buddhism has been a male-dominated religion, and today's inclusion of Buddhist women as equals is a revolutionary development. Scripture tells that the Buddha himself was reluctant to include women in his monastic order and down through the centuries Buddhist women have for the most part been treated as second class citizens. Historians can say this was culturally normative, but that is not an excuse. Recently an influential young Tibetan Lama announced in public that this historical bias against women was simply a mistake that now needed to be corrected. This is good.

The Siddhartha of scripture was born into privilege as a prince, and his spiritual journey has the archetypal quality of the warrior hero, making death-defying efforts, battling the delusions of Mara the Tempter, and achieving final victory in the face of difficult odds. Siddhartha was a loner, too. He abandoned his family in favor of the spiritual life; he had named his son Rahula, which means a fetter or chain. I doubt that these elements of Buddha's story resonate much with women practitioners of today, who juggle the demands of work, relationship, family and children and still find time for spiritual practice. One of the ways we can rectify the "mistake" the Lama spoke of is to imagine a Buddha story and Bodhi Day that celebrates the experience of modern Buddhist women.

The first step in Buddha's eight-step Path is Right Intention, and it is important to remember why Prince Siddhartha abandoned his royal privilege and set out on his spiritual journey. It was not to become famous, charismatic, wealthy or powerful. He already had all of that through his birth. His motivation was to solve the riddle of human suffering. Why do people suffer and cause suffering for others? How can their suffering be eased? This was Siddhartha's life question. He came to realize that no privileges of birth were useful in solving this riddle. In ancient times or modern, very few people turn their back on wealth and power for such a reason. (St. Francis of Assisi was one Western exception.) The fact that Siddhartha did this is inspiring; that he pursued his spiritual question to the end is what we celebrate on Bodhi Day.

What about spiritual leaders of today? Some go on talk shows, attract large numbers of Twitter or Facebook followers, publish books and preside over spiritual centers and legions of rapt followers. The Buddha was not like that. He lived as a homeless mendicant and walked from village to village, devoting his life to easing the suffering of others. This is not to say he was naïve; when he needed a park or a forest for his monastic community he used his personal connections with local aristocrats to acquire them. Undoubtedly Buddha's royal pedigree helped him as a spiritual teacher in numerous ways. But he clearly lived a life of humility -- the most difficult of all spiritual virtues to inhabit and sustain.

Living in the light of humility, kindness and compassion is the deep lesson and timeless inspiration of Bodhi Day. When we celebrate Bodhi Day this year I hope that we can celebrate it as a 21st century holiday, embracing the full weight of Buddhism's long history without being limited by it. Enlightenment exists partly outside of history and partly within it. The suffering of humanity and its causes persists today as it did in Buddha's time; the life question of the Buddha remains -- how do we overcome greed, anger and confusion and create a truly kind and compassionate persons and societies? What is our authentic response to the world's pain as it exists today? To paraphrase an old teaching from the Zen tradition: every day is Bodhi day.

Around the Web

Bodhi Day - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

How To Celebrate Bodhi Day | DoItYourself.com

When is Bodhi Day? - When-Is.com

Bodhi Day: What it is and how to observe it - National Zen Buddhism ...

Bodhi Day, Rohatsu, or Waking Up - Beliefnet.com

Bodhi Day 2011: Commemorating The Enlightenment Of The Buddha