Today we walked over to the park carrying parasols festooned with paper streamers and bamboo poles decorated with colorful balloons. It was part of the celebration of Buddha’s Birthday, also known as Vesakha. One aspect of my job this week had been to prepare these decorations, in the way it’s been done for quite a few years here. I enjoyed it, feeling childlike when a tiny balloon wouldn’t fill with air or a streamer would wrap itself around my ankle.
But as we walked, sprinkling flowers on the ground and circling the small City park while chanting about emptiness, I thought that it could be a scene out of Bhutan, or Nepal, or India. So the question arose, what is this practice? What is it that makes this activity transformative? Is this an activity of awakening?
It could be as simple as showing gratitude that Prince Siddhartha was born 2575 years ago, chose to take up the life of a spiritual seeker, and sat in meditation until he discovered something truly new about life. Or it could be as simple as giving ordinary people the opportunity to find themselves involved in practice in a way that doesn’t require them to confront a blank wall, literally or figuratively. But it can also take on another dimension.
It takes a lot of people to pull off even something as simple as walking across the street, offering incense and a chant, and walking back. Studying the responses that arise: one person sweating and barking orders; one person with furrowed brow who irritably brushed off the flower petals that were gently placed on them; one person who stood still and smiled at the 100 or so people who walked and chanted and bathed the baby Buddha statue (as is the typical ritual); one person who directed people’s movements seemingly quite concerned with the efficiency of the proceedings. Afterward, working together to set up and take down the ritual items, and eating the birthday cake, we talked about what it was like.
Aha. Those who understood their viewpoints to be simply expressions of preference found there was less “stickiness” to their feelings. That is, if you are aware of your feeling about the procession ~~ irritated about the chaos or blissful but detached ~~ and aware that your feeling is a conditioned response, in the most fundamental sense of the phrase, then you don’t have to put a lot of stock in it. You don’t have to explore it and explain it and attach some judgement and some protagonist/antagonist story to it. It can simply be what it was and be done (or be done differently next time). But if you choose to take it up as truth, then it becomes another reinforcement of the conditioning, giving you the “I told you so” reaction. Which do you prefer?