A SPECIAL DAY in memory of the passing of Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha, from this earth, Visakha Bucha Day is a precious testimonial to the 80 years of the Buddha’s life and celebrates the end of the live 2551 years ago. It was his death, on his 80th birthday -- the 15th day of the waxing moon in the 6th lunar month -- that marked the beginning of the Buddhist Era.
On the day of his departure from this world, enlightenment and nibbana merged and became one, and since that day so long ago the anniversary of the Buddha’s death has been observed by Theravada Buddhists as Visakha Bucha Day.
This is a day of fervent observance for true followers of Theravada Buddhism, and it is celebrated in Chiangmai with faithful Buddhists participating in a procession up to Wat Phrathart on Doi Suthep for the purpose of paying homage to the Buddhist relics housed there and for the purpose of what is called “Merit-Making”. ‘Merit-Making’ is an important aspect of Theravada Buddhism.
The procession to Doi Suthep begins at sunset from Chiangmai and after a 9 kilometer walk, the participants arrive at the temple on the mountain at about 3:00 a.m. At daybreak, food is offered to the monks -- a form of merit-making; and homage is paid to the Buddha images in the temple -- another form of merit-making.
Doi Suthep and the temple on the mountain are an important part of Visakha Bucha Day because in the 16th century it was on Doi Suthep that King Gue Na of Chiangmai received holy relics from the monarch of Chiang Saen and had them housed in sanctuaries in the form of the beginnings of the present temple on Doi Suthep. Since that time, additions and renovations have been carried out by successive kings but the two original sanctuaries are still there.
Participants in the procession to the temple on Doi Suthep carry lighted candles, incense sticks, and flowers and they walk around the temple, Bhote, three times in ceremony. Bhote is the main shrine of the temple where monks are ordained.
On Visakha Bucha Day, as on other Buddhist holy days, Thai Buddhists demonstrate their high respect for what is called the “TRIPLE GEMS” of Buddhist philosophy. These are :
Theravada Buddhism is the professed philosophy of approximately 95 percent of the population of Thailand, and the philosophy strongly influences daily life in the country.
Buddhism first appeared in the Golden Peninsular region during the 3rd century B.C. This was before the Kingdom of Siam, or Thailand, was founded. It first appeared in the region at Nakorn Pathom, site of the world’s tallest Buddhist pagoda, after the Indian Buddhist Emperor Asoka, or Ashoke (267 - 227 B.C.) sent missionaries to Southeast Asia to propogate the newly established faith.
Theravada refers to only the earliest form of Buddhism practiced during and after the lifetime of that emperor. Another term for Theravada Buddhism is Hinayana, meaning “The Less or Small Vehicle”. This preserves and limits the Buddhist doctrines to only those canons codified in the early Buddhist era. A later term, Mahayana, meaning “The Greater Vehicle”, was built upon the earlier teachings but was expanded in order to respond more to the needs of lay people.
Although Buddhism was brought to Southeast Asia at the behest of an Indian emperor, the philosophy grew out of a way of life as conceived by Siddhartha Gautama, who was the crown prince of the Sakyas Kingdom on the southern side of the Himalaya Mountains near Nepal. Although a person of royal lineage, he was not happy to see the great problems and sufferings of so many people. He was constantly engaged in thought as to how best to remedy these problems and eventually he gave up his wealth, palaces, wife and son and went into the forest to seek knowledge from several famous teachers of the time. He subjected himself to many years of severe austerity in his search for the truth, but he could find no teacher who could satisfy his quest for answers. Ultimately he went into the forest alone and sat under a Bhodi Tree to meditate.
On his 36th birthday he arrived at a vision of the world and spoke of four noble truths which had the power to liberate the human beings who could realize the noble truths. These truths are:
It was as a result of these Truths and Siddhartha Gautama’s exposition of these Truths through vision that he became “The Enlightened One” -- the word Buddha means “Enlightened One”.
Visakha Bucha Day falls every year in the month of May. In 2008, it is Monday, 19th May, all visitors to northern Thailand who are interested in the procession up to Doi Suthep are most welcome to join. You are not expected to be Buddhist, nor would anyone in Thailand attempt to convert you to Buddhism if you should choose to participate. The Thais, in the tradition of Buddhist thought respect you for your beliefs whatever they might be and would never try to convince you that you should follow Buddhist thought.
So, if you wish to join in the procession, please do. You’ll find it an incredibly sincere participation in one of the world’s major philosophies of life.c
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