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The Memorial Day of a Great Teacher

THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT holy days of the year for Thai Buddhists all include the word "Bucha", which means to pay homage. Asahara Bucha commemorates the day the Lord Buddha preached his first sermon. Makha Bucha marks both the occasion when 1,350 of the Buddha146;s disciples gathered without prior notice and listened to the Buddha elaborate some of his most important teachings in a sermon, as well as the day he foresaw his own death and attainment of Nibbana (Nirvana). But the most auspicious of the three is Visakha Bucha, which simultaneously commemorates three important anniversaries in the life of Siddharta Gautama, the Lord Buddha: his birth, his enlightenment, and his death.

The Lord Buddha passed from this life exactly 80 years from the day of his birth. On that day, 2543 years ago (543 years before the birth of Christ), when the count of the years of the Buddhist Era (BE) began, the Buddha achieved the ultimate goal of merging his enlightenment with Nirvana, freeing himself forever from the eternal cycle of death and reincarnation which is the fate of lesser mortals. His death occurred on the 15th day of the waxing moon of the 6thlunar month (the 8thmonth of the Lanna calendar) and it is on this day each year that Visakha Bucha is celebrated.

The Lord Buddha's enlightenment and death are represented in the many reclining Buddha images to be found in numerous temples throughout Thailand. This style shows him just prior to his departure from this earth, and is typified by the serene and peaceful smile, reflecting the inner soul at peace for eternity. It is an image that speaks volumes for the gentle and accommodating nature of Buddhism

The form of Buddhism that is the religion of 95% of all Thai people is called: Theravada Buddhism, or Hinayana, meaning "lesser vehicle". This preserves the early purity of the religion, and is limited to the canons laid down while Buddhism was new and fresh. A later term, Mahayana, the "greater vehicle", describes a version of Buddhism that is still based on the foundation of the early teachings, but has been expanded and modified, which sets it apart from Theravada Buddhism.

Buddhism first arrived in the land that is modern day Thailand over 2,200 years ago, when the Indian Buddhist Emperor Ashoke (or Asoka) sent missionaries to Southeast Asia to spread the religion. That a religion such as Buddhism, which is based on a philosophy of seeking within oneself, should have been so actively spread may seem a bit strange. But Emperor Ashoke was at heart a warrior, and was determined to spread the religion of his empire even by force, if necessary. The first records of Buddhism in Thailand are from Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok, in the great fertile plain of the Chao Phraya river. With the migration of the Tai people from the north much later, and their co-mingling with the Mon, Khmer and Lao peoples, this already established religion became the faith of the fledgling kingdoms and eventually of the Kingdom of Siam. The immigrants brought with them their own animistic beliefs, and such is the flexibility of Buddhism, these superstitions happily coexist with the mainstream of Buddhist thought to the present day.

The Lord Buddha was born as Siddharta, the crown prince of the Kingdom of Sakyas, south of the great Himalayan mountain ranges in an area corresponding to Nepal and the northern state of Bihar in India. Despite his high birth, Prince Siddhartha was concerned about the problems of poverty and suffering of the ordinary people of the kingdom that was his birthright to rule. He constantly searched for ways in which he might alleviate the hardships of his future subjects, but realized that the lofty eminence of his position was not the platform from which he could do this. Finally, he renounced his title, bid farewell to his wife and son, and walked away from his great wealth and splendid palace to seek knowledge from the famous teachers who dwelt as hermits in the forests that then covered the land. Siddhartha lived a life of great austerity as he sought to learn the truth from these sages, but none could satisfy his constant thirst for answers to the perils and tribulations of life. As a last resort, he wandered alone in the forest until he came to a Bod hi tree, under which he sat and began to meditate.

On his 36th birthday, Siddhartha reached a state of understanding of the world, and spoke of four noble truths that had the power to liberate the minds of men who could realize them. They are:

  • The Truth of Suffering - Existence is suffering
  • The Truth of the Cause of Suffering - Suffering is caused by desire
  • The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering - Without desire, suffering ceases to exist
  • The Truth of the Path - The eight-fold path is the way to eliminate desire

The Eight-fold Path is comprised of eight elements of living that must be done correctly. They are (1) Right Understanding, (2) Right Mindedness (Right Thought), (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Bodily Conduct, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Attentiveness, and (8) Right Concentration. It was the discovery of the four truths and the eight-fold path that ultimately paved the way for Siddhartha to attain enlightenment, and earn the honorific title of Buddha, the Enlightened One.

On Visakha Bucha Day, Buddhists from throughout Thailand demonstrate their high regard for the Triple Gems of Buddhist philosophy: The Lord Buddha, the great teacher; The Dhamma, Lord Buddha's teachings; and The Sang ha, the brotherhood of Buddhist monks. In Chiangmai, many of the faithful participate in a procession to Wat Phrathart Doi Suthep, the famous monastery on the mountain overlooking the city. The procession leaves Chiangmai at sunset and winds upwards 9 kilometers through the forest in the bright moonlight. The congregation arrives at the temple at about 3:00 a.m., where they wait until daybreak to fulfill their intentions of paying homage to the relics of the Lord Buddha housed there, and to make merit.

At the first light of dawn, the devout worshippers offer food to the monks and then, in turn pay their deep respects to the Buddha relics in their ancient sanctuaries. These relics were received at the temple over 400 years ago by King Gue Na of Chiangmai, from the monarch of the realm of Chiang Saen on the banks of the distant Mae Khong river. Although Wat Phrathart Doi Suthep has since been enlarged and renovated, the sanctuaries housing the invaluable relics are those that date from the distant past.

The final element of the pilgrimage to this famous monastery, following a day of sermons, is the candle-lit procession around the Bhote, the principle chapel of the temple. The followers walk three times around the Bhote clockwise, each clasping three incense sticks, a lighted candle and lotus buds. The air is filled with burning incense and smoke from the candles as the faithful complete this most sacred of Buddhist celebrations.

Visakha Bucha Day falls every year in the month of May. This year it is Wednesday, 2nd June. All visitors to northern Thailand who are interested in joining the procession up to Doi Suthep are most welcome. 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

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