Secondary: Festivals of World Religions
The Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death
By Caroline Donne
Date varies from year to year - please check the
REonline Festivals Calendar.
Note: This assembly shares the story and reflection of the Bodhi Day assembly, with a new section in ‘Focus on the themes’ about light and enlightenment.
- To learn about how the Buddha gained enlightenment and making an important discovery.
- To understand about suffering and how learning something new can change the way we think about things.
The dates and celebrations of Buddhist festivals vary greatly. Buddhism is practised all around the world but is particularly found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Tibet, China and South Korea. In Sri Lanka, Tibet, Burma and Thailand, this festival is celebrated in late May or early June. In Sri Lanka, it is known as Wesak or Vaishakha; in Thailand it is known as Visakha; and in Tibet as Saga Dawa. Pure Land Buddhists, found particularly in Japan and the USA, celebrate similar themes on Bodhi Day which falls in December.
- A picture of a Bodhi tree (see the website at www.buddhanet.net) or a large drawing of a fig leaf.
- A picture of the Buddha sitting cross-legged.
- A candle or some other object that could be a focus for the reflection, such as a flower.
- Explain that this is an important time for many Buddhists. ‘Buddha’ means ‘enlightened one’ or the one who has a special understanding of things, someone who knows what is significant.
Talk in general about ‘knowing’. Ask for different meanings of ‘know’ as in knowing someone, knowing a scientific fact, knowing your own mind and so on.
The Buddha’s ‘knowing’ came to him when he recognized that in life things do not always go the way we want them to. However much we know, things still go wrong. People get ill, people are hungry, there are wars, people steal from one another or are unhappy, and everything in life comes to an end.
Buddhists believe that the Buddha came to know about what causes suffering and unhappiness and what can be done about it. This was the special understanding or ‘enlightenment’ that the Buddha received. Go on to tell the story of how the Buddha reached enlightenment.
The Buddha was born about 2,500 years ago. ‘The Buddha’ was not the name he was given at birth. His birth name was Siddhartha Gautama and he was a prince. He was born in a part of the world that we now call Nepal (the country that has the highest mountains in the world). Siddhartha’s father wanted to protect his son and so Siddhartha grew up in the palace grounds. He never went outside the grounds, and had no idea what life was really like for most people. He had a rich and happy life, with everything he could possibly want: food to eat, clothes to wear, and when he was old enough he married a beautiful girl and they had a son. But still Siddhartha had not seen anything of life outside the palace grounds.
Soon he grew bored with his sheltered life and one day he left the palace. Now he began to see the world as it really was. As he rode around, he saw suffering everywhere. He saw an old man who was weak and nearly at the end of his life. He saw a man who was sick and in great pain, and he saw a funeral with the family of the dead man crying around his body.
Then Siddhartha came across a holy man, a man who had devoted his life to following God. This man seemed to be happy and peaceful.
These things made Siddhartha think. He went back to the palace, but he couldn’t forget what he had seen. He decided he had to go in search of the answer to why there was suffering in the world. On the night before his 29th birthday, he left his palace with its riches, beauty and safety. He left behind his beautiful robes and put on the simple clothes worn by holy men and shaved off all his hair just like the holy man he had seen.
For the next six years, he travelled around the country in search of the answer to the question of why there is suffering in the world, but he could not find the answer. He travelled on until he came to a great tree. Today, we call this tree a Bodhi tree. It’s like a fig tree. He sat under this great big tree and began to meditate deeply. It was the night of a full moon. After a long time, the truth came to him and discovering the truth gave Siddhartha a feeling of great peacefulness. It was a feeling of release from all the things that had been troubling him. Suddenly he was able to stop thinking about himself and his worries. Siddhartha had become enlightened: he had found truth and so he became known as the Buddha – the enlightened one.
The Buddha learned many things while meditating under the Bodhi tree and he spent the rest of his life teaching people what he had learned, so that they might find peace in their own lives. One of the things he discovered is that very often people make themselves and others unhappy because they are always wanting and needing things. They are tied to the things they need and want, like a dog tied to a tree. The more they want the more they get tied up in knots, like the dog getting tangled in the rope that attaches it to the tree. The Buddha taught his followers about how they could be free of the things that tie them down and how this would give them peace and happiness. He taught them that they could become enlightened too by following his teachings.
Focus on the themes
Explain that at this time of year in particular, Buddhists celebrate the life of the Buddha and his enlightenment. Very often they light lamps at night. Explore together why lighting lamps might help Buddhists celebrate the life of the Buddha.
Go on to explain that when a light shines it is possible to see things clearly. When the Buddha gained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he could suddenly understand things more clearly – it was like a lamp being lit in the darkness.
In Buddhist temples, there is often a Bodhi tree and lights are placed around it to help people remember the Buddha and how he gained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
Think about the dog tied to the tree. Ask the students to think of themselves as the dog. What are the things or behaviour or desires that spoil someone’s life and keep them tied up like the dog (e.g. always wanting what others have, being unkind to others, trying to be better than others)?
Time for reflection
Explain that the Buddha is often seen sitting quietly, cross-legged, meditating. By sitting quietly and breathing deeply, he was able to clear his mind of all the things that worried him and focus on the things that were important. Explain that this is what Buddhists do today. Very often they focus on a particular object in front of them, usually something beautiful like a flower.
Invite the students to do the same. Ask them to sit as quietly as possible. Give them time to find a comfortable position. Suggest that if they would like to they can close their eyes, or they can look at the focus object you have put out for them. Explain that there will be a time of complete quiet in which no words will be said. Invite them to try to clear their minds of all the things that they’re thinking about or worried about, and to focus instead on the object in front of them. If they find this difficult, suggest that they just keep as still as possible and enjoy the quiet all around them. Indicate how they will know that the time of silence has come to an end, e.g. by blowing out the candle or covering the focus object.
Keep silent for as long as is comfortable. Ask the students to think about what it was like. How did they feel? Was it a difficult thing to do? Was it helpful to be still and silent? Explain that it does take a lot of practice. They could discuss how noisy our world is and think about why many people believe that being quiet and still helps them to cope with the busy, noisy world.