As the orange full moon of May rose over Nepal Monday night, the country’s Buddhists began to celebrate Buddha Jayanti, the commemoration of his birth. Buddhists believe that the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautam, was merely the most recent of a series of enlightened teachers stretching back tens of thousands of years. One more Buddha is expected before this cycle of the world ends.
Siddhartha Gautam was the son of King Suddhodhan of the Shakya dynasty, who ruled in Kapilvastu in southern Nepal in the fifth century BC. At the birth of prince Siddhartha, a wise man told the king that the boy would be either a great emperor or a great sage, either ruling the world or saving it. The king took this prophecy to heart and taught Siddhartha to be a great warrior. The king also kept his son isolated from the outside world, and Siddhartha saw nothing as a child of aging, pain or death.
When prince Siddhartha reached maturity, he was shocked and dismayed by his discovery of the evils of the world, and he renounced his family and crown and went out into the world to find the truth.
For years Siddhartha roamed the plains of what is now north India and followed the traditional ways of seeking enlightenment: meditation, yoga and mortification of the flesh.
He learned many truths but not the great truth he sought. One day at Bodhgaya in India, Siddhartha sat under a great tree and vowed to stay there until he perceived the ultimate answer. In a moment of complete understanding, he was released from attachment to the world and became enlightened.
For the rest of his life, Siddhartha Gautam, now a Buddha, taught his Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to enlightenment.
Swayambhunath Stupa, a hilltop monument surrounded by shrines and temples, is the focal point of Buddha Jayanti for Kathmandu residents. Tiny butter lamps bedeck the stupa and temples, and the devout throng here, many from a considerable distance. The most pious may make their entire journey by prostrations, laying themselves face down on the ground, then standing up and taking a couple of paces, and then repeating the process over and over.
At sunrise ancient religious tapestries are displayed to the faithful, and men climb the freshly-whitewashed dome of the stupa to string fresh banners of prayer flags from the spire. Images of the Buddha are put out for display, some of them many times life size. A procession of monks carries the main image down 365 steps to a shrine at the base of the hill, and then laboriously back up in the evening.
At another primary shrine, Boudhanath Stupa, a gilded Buddha image is mounted on elephant back and carried around the massive dome amidst a procession of hundreds of maroon-robed lamas chanting prayers.
Processions of worshippers wind throughout the streets of the old cities, and listen to lectures on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautam – mindfulness, peace and compassion, virtues all of us could benefit from.