December 8th in the Japanese Buddhist tradition commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, attained Enlightenment, thus completing the Buddhist path. Bodhi Day is celebrated mostly in China (成道日 chéng dào rì), overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia/Indonesia (as Hari Bodhi) , South Korea (성도재일 seongdo chae-il) and Japan (成道会 jōdō-e). In other Buddhist cultures, the enlightenment of the Buddha is celebrated as part of another holiday called Vesak.
The traditional story of the Buddha’s life is that he was born into a warrior clan called the Shakya clan, and was raised as a prince, with the expectation of taking over the kingdom someday. Young Siddhartha became disillusioned with the sumptuous palace life, and took on the life of an ascetic. According to the Buddha’s words in the sutras (the sermons of the Buddha passed down through the generations), the young prince studied under a few different teachers in those days. Each one taught a form of meditation and ascetic practice, but the future Buddha wasn’t satisfied and kept at it. Eventually, and this is where we get to Bodhi Day, the Buddha resolved to sit under a tree and meditate through the evening until he found what he sought.
According to tradition, on the morning of the 8th day of the 12th month, by the light of the morning star, the Buddha had fully unraveled the nature of all things and attained awakening. By virtue of awakening, he was able to let go and attained nirvana (“unbinding”). Thus, he became a Buddha. In Buddhist tradition, he is called Shakyamuni (“of the Shakya clan”) or Shakyamuni Buddha.
153-154) Through the round of many births I roamed
seeking the house-builder.
Painful is birth
again & again.
House-builder, you’re seen!from the Dhammapada, translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
You will not build a house again.
All your rafters broken,
the ridge pole destroyed,
gone to the Unformed, the mind
has come to the end of craving.
What many people don’t realize is that the emergence of a Buddha is seen within Buddhist tradition as a very long cycle that occurs whenever a being rediscovers the Dharma, the nature of all things, and through it attains enlightenment. As a Buddha, they then teach it to others, thus “turning the wheel” once more until it slows down again many generations later. One does not just become a Buddha randomly, it is seen as the culmination of countless lifetimes of building virtue, ascetic practice, noble deeds and so much more all leading up to a final lifetime wherein they fulfill the path. In some distant future, another such Buddha will emerge as well.
Thus, Shakyamuni Buddha isn’t just a random dude who accidentally discovered the truth, he accomplished the long, multi-lifetime Buddhist path, and not only attained awakening, but also taught countless others, who then passed it on to the religion we see today. All from one human being.
If nothing else, the story of the Buddha shows that a person dedicated to the truth, virtue and wisdom can eventually attain if it they don’t lose sight of their goal, and hold the well-being of others in their thoughts. What distinguishes Buddhism from other religions is that people, not deities at at the very center of it, and ultimately what we think and do is what really matters. All the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, stories and such are all designed to help inspire and awaken people, but in the end, we still walk the path, just as Siddhartha did.
So, for all Buddhists and all beings everywhere, a peaceful and joyous Bodhi Day to you all!