Today Is The Buddha’s Birthday, But He Can’t Come

Lilly looking at the Vesak kuduwa

This is the saddest Vesak I remember. It’s a festival of darkness, not light. Usually (whenever that was) the streets are full of lanterns, the city is full of people, the country is full of life. Now the only state-sponsored decorations are armed men on every corner. The only constructions are barricades. There’s a full moon this evening, but it’s Sri Lanka’s darkest night.

Usually, families make lanterns and sell them by the roadside. Now there are precious few selling, and even fewer people buying. People don’t even have enough money to make any money. It’s been that steep a decline. Usually, everyone is giving away food, but this year the few stalls are mostly empty. It’s like we’re too hungry to even eat. Things are that dire.

I get home and close the door but I can’t get away. The misery just seeps in. My wife has been crying for days and now it finally gets to me. My head feels so heavy, my eyes feel wet. Vesak is a time when we’re all together, and we aretogether. I can feel it. I can feel the weight of everyone. I feel like crying.

I know people are going hungry tonight. I know it’s not just human needs going unmet, it’s that desperation of not being able to feed your children, not being able to care for your parents, not being able to provide. Sickness, old age, death, they were always around, but now they really snarl and bite. I pass the ghosts of the apocalypse at every junction, reaching for the car window, disappearing with offerings of paper, into the rain, into the night.

Just having gas in the tank, I feel like Prince Siddhartha. Just having a square meal, just getting by. Simple food and energy are such luxuries now. I might as well be a prince, and it might as well be 2,600 years ago outside.

Even though Siddhartha had everything one could have, he still felt suffering. It still seeped into the most charmed life. Suffering scaled the palace walls, it peeked into the palanquin, it reeked through the finest perfume. The terrible condition of life is dying but even that provides no release.

Since the first cell split from another, we have been reborn again and again, in different forms, different adaptations, never knowing peace. Ever since we assembled out of temperature gradients and chemicals in the ocean, we keep living and dying and living and dying, forever resisting, forever persisting, and in our salty tears, we taste the site of creation and mourn the destruction that inevitably follows. Such is life.

But Siddhartha just left. He broke the fetters, he left the chains of rebirth, be they chains of DNA or something more ethereal. Whatever it is that binds us to constantly live and die, in different forms, in different climes. Like Leonard Cohen said, you got away, didn’t you baby? you just turned your back on the crowd?As that Zen Buddhist sang about Janis Joplin:

Ah, but you got away, didn’t you, baby?
You just turned your back on the crowd
You got away, I never once heard you say
I need you, I don’t need you
I need you, I don’t need you
And all of that jiving around

Jiva means living substance in the old tongue, and whatever that is, the Buddha renounced it. He left all that jivaing around.

But here we are. Remembering him who doesn’t exist, worshiping him whose singular achievement is that he’s gone. My children said today is the Buddha’s birthday, but he can’t come. He escaped the cycles of rebirth. He’s done. He learned how to let go. But we cannot. And so we beg him to take us with him, too afraid to walk the path he showed.

That’s why we put the Buddha’s statue at every junction, even though we weren’t supposed to worship his form. That’s why we still make saplings of the bo tree he meditated under, even though he taught the way out of rebirth.

We leave food for the one soul that doesn’t hunger. We pray loudly to the one who sat silently. We remain attached to the one who preached non-attachment, and in our hearts, the birthless one is reborn. Especially today, on his un-birthday. Usually, we celebrate, but this year we mourn.

What if it wasn’t your birthday, but everybody came? That’s what Vesak usually feels like, but this year it’s not the same. This year we can’t even imagine a way out of suffering. It’s so immediate, it’s so constant, it’s so plain. This year we’re just in it, and there’s no lights to chase the darkness away. This is the saddest Vesak I remember.

May the triple gem bless you anyways.