Every year in the late spring, Buddhists all over the world celebrate Vesak, i.e., the birth, death, and enlightenment of Siddhārtha Gautama, who came to be known as Śākyamuni Buddha, the sage of the Śākya clan. It is a time of fasting and penance, intensive prayer and celebration, and renewal and fortification of one’s contemplative practices. Buddha Jayanti is the celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment, where, through discerning the subtle impermanence and interdependence of all conditioned things, the Buddha completed his practice of extinguishing all his faults and their causes, and perfecting all of his qualities.
Although there is a prominent role in Buddhism for recollecting and celebrating the Buddha’s divine and metaphysical nature, the relationship between the devotee and the Buddha is more that of apprentice and mentor than supplicant and sovereign. That is, the Buddha instructed his disciples that the way to practice what came to be known as Buddhism is not primarily through devotions, but by studying, actualizing, and exemplifying the instructions he taught on how to eliminate one’s faults and perfect one’s personality and related behavior, in order to make life most meaningful by benefiting others and oneself. This is done by training the mind and gaining mastery over it, rather than being enslaved by its impulses, compulsive reflexes, and self-cherishing desires.
What the Buddha Himself Said about How to Celebrate the Buddha
We find a clear picture of the Buddha’s instructions about how to celebrate the Buddha and his instructions (the dharma) in a sermon he gave at the end of his life. In the Maha Parinibbana Suttanta from the Dīgha Nikāya, or long “Dialogues of the Buddha,” given at the end of Lord Buddha’s life approximately 2500 years ago, auspicious natural signs were observed. The Buddha, who in Buddhist cosmology is regarded as the seventh in a line of Buddhas stretching back aeons, each appearing in the vicinity of what is now the Kathmandu valley of Nepal, here directly addresses his attendant monk, the venerable Ananda:
The twin Sala trees are all one massive bloom with flowers out of season; all over the body of the Tathāgata these drop and sprinkle and scatter themselves, out of reverence for the successor of the Buddhas of old. And heavenly Mandarava flowers, too, and heavenly sandalwood powder come falling from the sky, and all over the body of the Tathāgata they descend and sprinkle and scatter themselves, out of reverence for the successor of the Buddhas of old. And heavenly music sounds in the sky, out of reverence for the successor of the Buddhas of old. And heavenly songs come wafted from the skies, out of reverence for the successor of the Buddhas of old!
Now it is not thus, Ananda, that the Tathāgatha is greatly honored, reverenced, venerated, held as sacred, or revered. But the brother or the sister, the devout man or the devout woman, who continually fulfills all the greater and the lesser duties, who is correct in life, walking according to the precepts-it is they who rightly honor, reverence, venerate, hold sacred, and revere the Tathāgata with the worthiest homage. Therefore, O Ananda, be ye constant in the fulfillment of the greater and the lesser duties, and be ye correct in the life, walking according to the precepts; thus Ananda, should it be taught.
Thus the Buddha spoke to Venerable Ananda.
We too can honor Lord Buddha according to these, his own instructions, by affirming our commitment to practice the five moralities, also known as the pañca śīla: to avoid killing living beings, to avoid taking what is not given to us, to refrain from sexual misconduct, to avoid incorrect speech, and to avoid intoxicating our bodies and minds, which can lead to carelessness and mistakes.
Could we avoid killing insects, for example, by better removing and containing the food that lures them, and move them outside instead of killing them? And couldn’t we do a better job of eating vegetarian more often, or use free-range eggs or meat if we find vegetarianism itself too difficult to practice all of the time? Sure it costs more, but the money goes to pay for better care of animals and also the human workers who look after them! Is it really too inconvenient to attempt to reduce or eliminate our participation in the suffering of other precious living beings? Similarly, does it really benefit living beings to cheat on taxes and engage in other subtle ways of stealing?
Reviewing intimate relationship behavior, to ensure that no harmful physical and psychological acts are involved, is another way to practice the Buddha’s instructions which will make our lives happier, less complicated and less painful. Incorrect speech is also difficult to avoid, but how much better our interpersonal relationships could be if we would only practice a bit more mindfulness of our own speech and listening! It is hard in a society where liquor is central to avoid it, but there are many tasty substitutes to alcohol, and even good non-alcoholic beers nowadays. If we are deliberately seeking a dulled and cloudy mind, we might need to investigate why we think we need to avoid the interior of our own minds. With an incapacitated mind, all other harmful acts become easier to perform, which can cause many uncomfortable problems for ourselves and others. But not all intoxicants are drinks! We can reduce the toxic material we take in from TV, gossip, the internet, etc.
One can see that to practice the moralities effectively, we need to practice mindfulness, and to learn how to routinely reflect on the quality of our own acts of body, speech, and mind throughout daily life.
Precept of Śākyamuni Buddha
Guard well your speech,
Purify your mind.
Avoid all negativity of the body-
Purify the actions of all three.
Being able to do all this,
Is the path of the great sage.
That is the precept of Tathāgatha Śākyamuni, the unattached, the fully enlightened one.
Dedicating Celebrations for the Welfare of Others, and General Auspiciousness
Vesak celebrations, and nearly all Buddhist ceremonies at any time of year, conclude with prayers to dedicate the positive potential of the celebrations to the speedy success of student progress on the path to awakening and perfection, in order to most effectively and beneficially serve others. Such dedications are typically followed by general prayers for auspiciousness, such as the following:
O peerless King of the Śakyas together with your entourage,
You who have inconceivable qualities of wisdom, love, and power,
Please grant inspiration that our minds may move in the Dharma!…
Please grant inspiration that the precious Doctrine may spread, flourish, and remain for a long time!…
Please grant inspiration that teaching and practice may flourish in the host of Saṅgha communities!
Please grant inspiration that the might of the patrons of the Doctrine may increase!
Please grant inspiration that happiness may come for all sentient beings!
Please grant inspiration that all external and internal adverse conditions such as sickness, famine, and conflict may be pacified in every world!
Indeed, by enjoying this and all other State of Formation forum contributions, and our culture of mutual friendship and respect among our spiritual and religious traditions, may our precious intentions to benefit others not decrease, but increase evermore!
Photo of Swayambhu Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, by Dhilung Kirat from Santa Barbara, CA (Glowing Swayambhu Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 T. W. Rhys Davids, Dialogues of the Buddha (London: Oxford University Press, 1921). Another, full translation can be freely viewed at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.5-6.than.html.
 From the Prātimokṣa Sūtra, translated by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Sisters in Solitude (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).
 Palden of Urga, Shakyamuni Puja: Worshipping the Buddha.