The heart of Buddhism

by Nash Siamwalla, The Bangkok Post, March 5, 2010

Bangkok, Thailand -- At the moment of this writing, Thailand is celebrating Makha Bucha Day, one of the three most important Buddhist holidays in the Kingdom. Therefore, although much interesting news has happened within the last two weeks that the author would like to address in the light of Buddhism, it is more appropriate that we honour this important day properly.

Interestingly, we Thai Theravada Buddhists sometimes take it for granted that all Theravada countries must also celebrate similar Buddhist holidays. This is not the case. For Makha Bucha is only celebrated in Thailand and countries that used to be under Siam's rule such as Laos and Cambodia.

Makha Bucha in history

Even in Thailand itself, we just started to celebrate Makha Bucha around 150 years ago, in the reign of King Rama IV. Having been in monkhood for the most part of his life, King Rama IV was very well versed in Buddhist history and recognised that Makha Bucha was one crucial moment in Buddhism. He therefore introduced the first celebration within court circles. It later caught on among the commoners and spread to Siam's then colonies.

Now, let's take a look at what actually happened on a full-moon of the third lunar month more than 2,500 years ago that later prompted King Rama IV to honour it.

The four special aspects

The original Makha Bucha happened exactly nine months after Lord Buddha's Enlightenment. That night was marked by the four special aspects as follows.

1. A total of 1,250 monks happened to come to pay respects to Lord Buddha simultaneously that evening without any prior arrangement. After doing some more in-depth research, the author found that those that came were all well-known disciples in the early days of Buddhist history. You can say that the list sounds like a "who's who in early Buddhism." But why did they all chose to come on that particular night? Read on.

2. All monks present that night were Arhantas, meaning they had already become Enlightened at the highest level. Another thing that was special about them was that they were all ordained personally by Lord Buddha himself. It should be noted here that they were not just ordinary Arhantas, but ones with Apinya 6 or supernatural powers. At this point, some theorists believe that they may have conveniently communicated through the mind and may have made some kind of mental agreement to see Lord Buddha that day. But that is just a guess.

3. It was a special full moon of the third lunar month. Why was it special? According to Brahmin belief, the night is called Maha Shivratri, a time to pay homage to the god Shiva. Brahmins would engage in many symbolic activities to cleanse themselves of sin such as bathing in the Ganges river, etc. It was theorised that because Lord Buddha's early disciples all came from a Brahmin background, they subconsciously attached special meaning to the night.

And since they no longer engaged in symbolic cleansing in the river to please Shiva, they might have thought that it would be more appropriate to cleanse their minds instead by listening to Lord Buddha's dhamma talk. This theory is highly possible, don't you think? (Well, the mind-to-mind communication theory also sounds fun, the author must admit. Sort of like making an appointment with your colleagues via mental BlackBerries.)

4. So now we have an impressive assembly in front of Lord Buddha. The moon was shining bright. Being March, the night air must have been cool and refreshing because Spring is coming. Now, what was the highlight of the night? Naturally, it came in the form of Lord Buddha's special sermon called Ovadhapatimokha.

The heart of Buddhism

Since it was the very early stage of Buddhism, nine months to be exact, there were no specific rules or common guidelines for both monks and lay people yet. Lord Buddha may have realised that he was addressing a "teacher's conference", and thought that it was a good idea to lay down the teaching principles.

And that was precisely what he did. There were a little over three sets of gatha, a type of poetic verse or a phrase, in the Ovadhapatimokha. Two were guidelines for the monks, one for all of us. In Thailand, the gatha that was meant for lay people is regarded as "the heart of Buddhism." Are you curious what Lord Buddha chose to say that night in front of the super audience? The author certainly is! Now, let's take a look at all three.

The first gatha (for monks)

"... Patient endurance is the ultimate asceticism.
"Nirvana is supreme," say the Buddhas.
He who harms others is not considered a monk.
Neither is he who mistreats others..."

The second gatha (for all, considered the "Heart of Buddhism")

"...Cease to do evil,
Cultivate that which is good,
Purify the mind,
This is the teaching of Buddhas..."

The third gatha (for monks)

"...To speak no ill, to do no harm,
Cultivate restraint,
Knowing moderation in one's food,
contentment in one's quiet dwelling place,
Striving in one's mindfulness training,
This is the teaching of the Buddhas..."

In the second gatha, the part about "purify the mind" means "practice mindfulness" because only by doing so can one purify the mind. Come to think of it, a purified mind will naturally cease to do evil and will cultivate only what is good. Now you understand why the author always talks about the importance of mindfulness in virtually every installment of this column. As Lord Buddha has hinted, it is the very heart of Buddhism.