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Your holiday cheat sheet to Vesak Day

If you know anything about Buddhism, you probably know how much of it seems to boil down to advice your therapist might give you. By following even one tenant in the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path — or at least trying to — you are almost guaranteed to improve your life. If the Buddha were alive today, I’m certain he would be a self-help guru. He’d make a damn good one, too.

Although Buddhism is unlike any other religion (in that it does not require belief in a deity), it’s still got some of the classic markers — and the celebration of holidays is one of them. So here, as part of our Holiday Cheat Sheet, is a brief rundown on one of the most important holidays in the Buddhist world: Vesak Day.

Holiday: Vesak (pronounced VEE-sak)

AKA: Wesak or Vesākha

Religion Represented: Buddhism

Celebrates: The life, enlightenment and death of the Buddha

Date: Vesak Day always falls in the spring, but the precise dates vary depending on which calendar is being used — the Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu or Gregorian. In 2015, Vesak Day falls on May 2 (Myanmar), May 3 (Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Malaysia), May 4 (Nepal, India), May 25 (China), June 1 (Thailand, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam) and June 2 (Indonesia).

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Vesak scores a perfect 10, according to my friend Tracey Nguyen, the granddaughter of Buddhist monks. There is nothing more important than the life and times of the Buddha.

Star of the Show: Siddhartha Guatama, AKA the Buddha

Back Story: Siddhartha Guatama was the Hindu-born son of an Indian king born somewhere between 400 and 560 BC. Although stories of his birth vary, most sacred texts hold that Siddhartha was born in a field in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was said to have magically sprung from his mother’s side, bathed in golden light. Siddhartha’s mother died only days later, and Siddhartha was raised by his father and his aunt inside the sprawling walls of the king’s palace. Siddhartha did not see suffering — illness, old age and death — until he was well into adulthood; and, when he did, it deeply affected him. Before the age of 30, he left his home and his crown behind and became an ascetic, or “holy man” — which meant he would wander his country, meditating, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food. His goal was singular: to find an end to human suffering. At one point during his years-long journey, Siddhartha stopped eating and grew desperately thin and weak. When he became too weak to meditate, he finally accepted food. It was at this point that he experienced his “Enlightenment” and became known as the Buddha.

What’s the Deal with Enlightenment?: According to scripture, the Buddha was sitting beneath a Bodhi tree, meditating, when he devised of the Four Noble Truths (the cause of all human suffering) and the Noble Eightfold Path (the solution). This is what is referred to as his Enlightenment. His realization was rather simple: If people followed the Eightfold Path, they could eliminate their suffering (as he had done!) and thereby achieve Nirvana. It was an extraordinary conclusion, and he spent the next 40 to 50 years expanding on it so that others could practice it for themselves. Much revered, Buddha died at the ripe old age of 80(ish.)

What’s the Eightfold Path?: In layman’s term (and, by that, I mean in my terms), they are as follows:

1. Right Understanding: Understand things as they really are (i.e., the Four Noble Truths).
2. Right Thought: Act from a place of loving kindness and compassion; practice letting go of your desire for material things; do no harm.

3. Right Speech: Be courteous; think before speaking; no lies, back-biting, slandering.

4. Right Action: Behave in a peaceful, honorable way; don’t steal or destroy life.

5. Right Livelihood: Make a living in an industry that does not bring harm to others.

6. Right Effort: Extinguish unwholesome qualities (such as greed, anger and ignorance) while cultivating wholesome ones (such as generosity, loving kindness and wisdom).

7. Right Mindfulness: Be aware and attentive of your body, thoughts and perceptions; note how thoughts appear and disappear within you and how deep breathing can make you more in tune with yourself.

8. Right Concentration: Train your mind to meditate in such a way that all judgment of others and ourselves, as well as all desire, goes away, and only pure equanimity is left.

Associated Literary Passages: The Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa, The Dhammapada, The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, and The Life of Buddha by Andre Ferdinand Herold, among others.

The Food and Fun: Buddhists partake in any number of Asian dishes on Vesak, but consume no meat — a symbol of their compassion for all living things. They also visit monasteries, give to charity, hang lanterns, decorate with flowers, and listen to lessons offered by monks. Often, they’ll have parades of musicians, dancers, floats and dragons. A Baby Buddha statue is a commonality, and celebrants often pour water over the statue to symbolize, among other things, a pure and new beginning. Most importantly, Buddhists reaffirm their devotion to the Buddha’s 10 precepts and teachings.

Conveying meaning to kids: It’s never too early to introduce youngsters to the Buddha and his Eightfold path, and Vesak is a great excuse. You might also might consider making paper lanterns or drawing pictures of lotus blossoms. Show your child some pictures of Buddhist monks. Enjoy a vegetarian meal. Check out some books: I particularly like Buddha by Susan L. Roth. Make a Buddhist flag and fly it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about talking to kids about religion, it’s that it really helps to have props: A menorah on the table during Hanukkah, a nativity scene at Christmas. Consider picking up a Buddha statuette — something for your child to look at and touch while you talk about Buddhism. It’s the difference between books without pictures and those with; you’re just more likely to hold the kid’s attention if you present something interesting for them to look at.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series that appears in Wendy Thomas Russell’s new book, “Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious.”

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