This May, Buddha’s birthday month, let’s be reminded of his teachings of kindness, patience, generosity and compassion
Passing almost unnoticed last week was Vesak Day, the day of the full moon in the month of May, also known as the Flower Moon because of its coincidence with spring in the northern hemisphere. Vesak Day is a most sacred day for millions of Buddhists around the world. It was on the Day of Vesak two and a half millennia ago, in the year 623 B.C., that the Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama, was born. It was on the Day of Vesak that he attained enlightenment, and it was also on the Day of Vesak that the Buddha passed away in his eightieth year.
Declared a UN Day to recognise the contribution that Buddhism has made to human spirituality, Vesak Day is an opportunity for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike to reflect on and be inspired by Buddha’s teachings of kindness, compassion and service. Central to Buddhism is the tenet that it is not something you believe, but something you do. Buddha’s teachings thus sought to encourage behaviours that would respect all life and create the conditions for peace.
Timeless capacities for human patience, kindness and generosity: these teachings are today as relevant as ever. As we all come to terms with the coronavirus pandemic that has spread across the world and touched the lives of so many, the sutra ‘’Because all living beings are subject to illness, I am ill as well’ comes to mind. In this simple message, we are reminded of our connectedness, of our own mortality and fragility, and of the need for patience, empathy, compassion and devotion to the service of humanity.
Inherent in these teachings are the values and qualities of tolerance and peace. Buddhism proposes that peace is achieved when we are able to establish peace within our minds. Such inner peace may be achieved in several ways, but key among them is acceptance – of ourselves and of others, acceptance of the diversity of peoples, their practices and their unique paths towards their own peace. Acceptance calls for an attitude of tolerance and compassion, and a practice of respect and kindness.
Our ability to practice these attitudes and values has been much needed over the past three months as most parts of the world – more than one-third of the global population – have experienced some form of lockdown. Many have endured periods of social or familial isolation as we battle to reduce transmission and deaths from Covid-19. This coronavirus has affected millions of people from all over the world – all cultures, nationalities, religions; there is an acute awareness of our vulnerability as individuals, members of a family, a community, a species. Appreciation of our common fragility despite appearances of difference and appreciation of our mortality and potentially that of our neighbour, have already changed the way we relate and has nurtured a community spirit, a collective compassion and an empathy and practical care for those who are suffering more than we are. For many of us, our behaviour in lockdown has reflected the teachings and practices of Buddhism.
As the world tentatively starts to emerge from lockdown, many people are considering what the ‘new normal’ could look like. We know we need to ‘do differently’, we know we need to create a new way of life that is perhaps more cautious of close connection with those we care about, and we know we need a new operating system that considers social, economic and environmental factors and cares more for equality of access to life’s basic needs for all. Most importantly, we know that the values that Buddha highlights as essential for peace will need to become ever more emergent and present in a post-Covid-19 world. As people continue to suffer and continue to be economically and socially stressed and physically vulnerable, it will be easy to allow impatience and intolerance – most especially of diversity – to lead in a defensive aggressive stance towards ‘others’. Fear of Covid-19 is invoking bigotry and intolerance of ‘the other’, as it always tends to do.
But the notion of ‘the other’ is something we have to learn is a good thing. The rich diversity – cultural, ecological, physical, you name it – our diversity of being, the otherness that we have around us is what helps our planet thrive, is what makes the world and humanity so beautiful, rich, robust and interesting. Diversity is, in fact, our strength, biologically as well as culturally; it provides a fount of creativity and renewal.
And tolerance is an essential way of honouring that diversity. Tolerance is not a passive attitude; it is a practice. As Ban Ki-Moon, former Secretary-General of the UN, said in 2013, ‘Tolerance demands an active choice to reach out on the basis of mutual understanding and respect, especially where disagreement exists… It can, and must, be learned.’
Tolerance is an essential value of a brighter future for the planet and everything that lives on it, humans included. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Buddhism, points out that ‘We are the same human beings and share this small blue planet… There is no me and they – the whole world is me’. So, in celebration of Vesak Day, let us gaze up at the moon and reflect on how we, as individuals and as a society, could be more tolerant of the world’s beautiful diversity.