The Buddhist Easter

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Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus observed by over two billion Christians worldwide.

But, do Buddhists have anything similar to Easter?  Yes and no.

These are, of course, two different religions and stories.  However, Buddhists have their own type of Easter ‘resurrection’ story that is an inspiration to the half a billion Buddhists worldwide.  This is the awakening and enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama who became Shakyamuni Buddha.

In order for Siddhartha Gautama to become the Buddha, his belief in “self” needed to die.  When this occurred, his true natural state of Nirvana was resurrected.

The Test and Temptation

The Devil tempting and testing Jesus in the wilderness.  CC0 Photo by GDG on Pixabay

Jesus and the Buddha were both tested and tempted, but in different ways.  When the human body is weak, especially from fasting for such long periods, is when wrong decisions and views occur.  Both Jesus and the Buddha were able to be tested in this way, and were triumphant.

  • Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, and was tempted at the end by the Devil.  The Devil tempted him, at his assumed weakened state, with power.  The power to rule over the world, and the power for him to create things (such as bread out of a rock).  Jesus may have been hungry, but he was not weakened in his strength against evil and temptation and rebuked the Devil.  The Devil, unable to seduce Jesus, left defeated.
  • Siddhartha Gautama (the man who became the Buddha) was also in a wilderness, and spent 49 days meditating under what was later to be called the Bodhi tree (‘tree of enlightenment’).  Similar to Jesus, he was tempted by Mara (a demon, akin to the Devil in Christianity).  Mara tempted him with lustful desires, power, and eventually threw the weight of his entire army at him.  As arrows flew at him, the Siddhartha needed only to raise his hand and they transformed into flowers.  Mara, unable to seduce or stop Siddhartha from becoming enlightened, left defeated.

Both were remarkable tests of physical and mental endurance and strength.  Most importantly, they showed that even during our most difficult moments, their determination and balance were instrumental.  The ability to see things as wrong or illusionary helped them to respond appropriately to what they encountered.

The Weakness and Kindness

Sujata offering Siddhartha milk-rice to help him recover his health and strength.  CC 2.0 Photo by Anandajoti on Wikimedia

Both Jesus and the Buddha found something remarkable in their journeys:  kindness and compassion.  Without which, their stories may have had a different outcome.  The interactions with everyday persons with these two remarkable figures shows that we are not separate from others, and the struggle can be seen as shared in a way.

  • Jesus was beaten and forced to carry the cross he was to be crucified on through the streets.  His physical body worn down, he fell three times.  Then, one was asked to help him carry the cross – Simon of Cyrene.  The burden was no longer his alone as another was helping him carry the cross.  For Jesus to be crucified, and to die at the cross for our sins, the cross needed to reach it’s destination. Without Simon, this likely wouldn’t have occurred.  Simon’s role in Christianity didn’t stop there.  Later, he consecrated as the first bishop of the current Archdiocese of Avignon, and tragically was crucified later in his life.  While the interpretation of the scripture as to whether Simon was ordered to carry the cross, or had compassion for Jesus, the overall act may be seen as compassion.
  • Siddhartha, before he was the Buddha, was practicing numerous ascetic, methods which were not helping him find the truth he was searching for.  It was not until his last practice, where he was barely eating and literally a walking skeleton, that he was nearly washed away in a river and would have died.  As he made it to shore, the kindness of a young girl named Sujata who was passing by saved his life by offering him some milk-rice.  This small act was instrumental as the Siddhartha was near death, and it allowed him to be slowly regain his faculties.  It also had another profound result – Siddhartha realized that going to extremes was not the answer (what is known as the ‘Middle Way’ in Buddhism).  After regaining his strength, he went to meditate until he discovered the truth he was seeking for.

We can also look at “Good Friday” in the Christian tradition.  It appears to be contradictory.  Why would it be good that Jesus was led to the cross, crucified, and died at Calvary?  Nothing about that seems good on the surface.  It was Jesus showing love and compassion by taking on the sins of mankind, and dying for them, was so transformative in the Christian tradition.  This opened up a new path to God that ended up touching the hearts of people around the world.

Siddhartha had a different path where he threw aside all the pleasures, riches, and comfort of his life to set out as a monastic.  As he learned from different teachers, and found their teachings to not be complete, he set forth on what turned out to be his last vain attempt – eating barely anything in order to achieve higher states of realization.  This is the event that eventually nearly led to his death.  As explained above, it was Sujata who helped lead him to his ‘cross’, which was a makeshift seat of grass under the Bodhi tree.  This is a sort of “Good Friday” for Buddhists as well, although it is combined with holidays and celebrations regarding the Buddha’s enlightenment overall.

Both faced difficulties on the path towards their separate destinies.  Yet, each would not have been able to ‘complete the story’ as we know it today without the aid of ordinary people who were bystanders.  As lay practitioners, this is an important thing to remember that it is not always the grand act that is needed.  Sometimes, it is that small, seemingly commonplace act or an act that you don’t want to perform that will have far-reaching outcomes.

The Ressurection

Siddhartha meditating under the ‘Bodhi tree’ until he achieved awakening and become and enlightened being – the Buddha.

Jesus and Buddha both were ‘resurrected’ in different ways, and for different reasons.

While Jesus died on the cross, and was buried in a tomb, the Buddha vowed to meditate under a tree (later to be known as the Bodhi tree or tree of enlightenment) until he achieved awakening.  Yet, both achieved something that resulted in these major religions taking hold.

  • Jesus, after being entombed, rose from the dead after three days for which Easter is celebrated.  This is important because he had to die in order to be resurrected.  Until this occurred, the story of Jesus might have ended right there on the cross and faded from memory.  Yet, Jesus knew that these events needed to take place in order to fulfill the prophecy and what he needed to do for mankind.   This fundamental event highlights both Christianity and Jesus in a way that is not found in the other Abrahamic religions.
  • The Buddha also had to die to be resurrected, but not in the way we might assume.  A fundamental concept in Buddhism is that of non-self, which is a teaching stating that we do not have a permanent, unchanging, independent self.  We are a grouping of temporary things, known as the Five Aggregates (Namarupa), which cause us to believe – deeply – in the idea of self.  In this belief, we are like sick patients due to the Three Poisons of ‘greed, anger, and delusion’, which cause us to create intentional actions (Karma), which in turn keep us trapped in a cycle of rebirth.  This entire process, known as Samsara, is ‘suffering’ (Dukkha).

This is where the “death” of the Buddha comes figuratively into being.

For him to realize this truth at an absolute level, in order to become awakened and enlightened, he needed to stop the activity that causes this belief in self (Namarupa).  For that, he had to settle the mind in order to gain insight – no easy step.  It took him 49 days of essentially battling the mind and it’s clinging and craving to the idea of self and the poisons it creates.  Eventually, he was able to do this as he defeated Mara and his army (which is also likened to our own mental states as described).  Then, at this point where he had essentially ‘stopped’ the chaotic nature of his mind, he had died.  But this death was only to the idea of self.

Now he was awakened – able to see clearly, without delusion, of the true nature of things.  He was able to see deeply into the impermanent nature of phenomena, the dependent co-arising of phenomena, and the truth of non-self.

Then, just like being risen from the dead, he was an enlightened being.  He was no longer the same person he was before – he was now an enlightened being, a Buddha.  No longer was the poisons of greed, anger, and delusion able to infect him.  He ‘died’ to see the cure, and was cured as he arose.

While this resurrection is in no way similar to that of Jesus, both had to “stop” the existence they were on and “restart”.  And when they did, they were not exactly the same as they were before.  They were now able to interact in a way that was different and able to help others as they could not have in the “prior” existence.

Jesus, now in a spiritual body, was not even recognized by his former disciples!  This is a remarkable part of the story, but it also had a purpose.  When they finally realized it was Jesus (apart form Thomas, initially), it set forth the foundation of Christianity and the faith one puts into it.  The ability for all Christians to be resurrected is part of that legacy.  In our world, Jesus’ ministry continues through the Church and gospels in the Bible.

The Buddha, now clear of delusion, was able to see (and remark out loud) that all sentient beings could achieve what he had.  Essentially, all had Buddha nature.  Yet, we are clouded with delusion and can’t see it.  He then set forth to teach for decades, helping many achieve the state of Nirvana as he did.  His teachings continue on with his sermons and the monastic community throughout the world.

The ‘resurrection’ of both, although different, showed the world one thing:  compassion is not only universal, but essential.

Happy Easter!

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