Starting today and continuing on various days over the next week, Buddhists throughout the world commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Prince Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – on a day of great celebration and joy known as Vesak. But we must ask: which Buddha is honored on this day? The answer depends on which branch of Buddhism does the celebrating.
In the Theravada tradition, the historical Buddha is honored. In Mahayana Buddhism, one encounters the doctrine of Buddha’s three bodies (Trikaya), where Gautama is honored as a physical personification of the Nirmanakaya, or “appearance” body of the cosmic Buddha. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Nirmanakaya is equated with the Vajra body of the Buddha, symbolizing the abstract ideal of indestructible pure actions. So every tradition views Buddha in a different light.
But even more significant is how Gautama’s enlightenment is viewed. In each of the main schools of Buddhism, Buddha’s illumination becomes increasingly expanded. From nirvana in the Theravada school; to an all-compassionate bodhisattva in the Mahayana lineages who postpones his or her own enlightenment until all beings are liberated; to the Tibetan concept of an all-encompassing transcendent nondual Awareness comprising wisdom, compassion, and indescribable bliss.
And so, practitioners in each tradition will attain the type of enlightenment propounded by each path. One could easily conclude that one path builds upon the other, as some Tibetan Buddhists have maintained. But in practical terms, each path is complete unto itself, without the need for a hierarchical structure. It would be a slight to suggest to a dedicated Theravada monk that their practice is deficient because it lacks the trademark Mahayana element of compassion, as the concept of metta or lovingkindness is enjoined throughout Theravada teachings as one of the Ten Perfections. If one is drawn to the more advanced, esoteric Tibetan practices, that practitioner will attain the results according to the intensity of their practice. Thus, each branch is suitable and wholly appropriate for a variety of practitioners based on their innate temperament, proclivities, and aptitude.
But none of this would be possible without the historical personage to whom Vesak is dedicated: Prince Siddhartha. Thus, Vesak celebrations this week pay homage to the founder of one of the world’s great paths to enlightenment.