It’s rare for a Buddhist to hold any single day higher than any other day. Every moment is precious and should be valued as such. What sets December 8th aside for most Buddhists is that our practice wouldn’t exist the way it does now, had a particular event not occurred some 2500 years ago.
Many Buddhist traditions, particularly mainstream Mahayana traditions, recognize December 8th as the day the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha, having spent most of his life in the extremes of indulgence and asceticism, resolved to meditate underneath a Bodhi tree until he found the root cause of suffering and the way to eliminate it. This act of meditation, formed from all of Siddhartha’s prior experiences, gave birth a philosophy designed to help all living creatures by emphasizing truth and moderation over falsehood and extremes. This philosophy, which encourages us to avoid swinging back and forth between the extremes of pleasure and pain, is appropriately known as the Middle Way. The results of Siddhartha’s discovery led to the formation of one of the world’s largest religious traditions, a global community with an estimated 588 million followers.
Bodhi Day serves as a reminder and inspiration to practicing Buddhists around the world of Siddhartha’s sacrifice and dedication. What’s important to remember is that, despite his birthright, Siddhartha Gautama had no outstanding or otherworldly qualities. When he was exposed to the four sights – the old man, the sick man, the dead man, and the monk – he renounced his personal belongings and his status as a prince to become an ascetic. He literally had nothing more than the shirt on his back, yet his accomplishments and teachings continue to resonate across the globe over two millennia after his death. Embedded in his message is a simple and profound statement which he emphasized throughout his life, even until his final moments: if I can do it, you can too.
There are many other holidays in the Buddhist tradition, mostly celebrating the life and achievements of Siddhartha before and after his enlightenment. What’s important to remember is that the subject of these holidays – enlightenment, teaching, good practice – should be emphasized all year round. Imagine a world where Christmas is celebrated every day; every gift is a new way of experiencing reality, a new way of exploring the world. Bodhi Day isn’t a reminder that today is special, but that every day is special. The fact that we can experience each moment the way we do now, as conscious sentient beings, should neither be taken for granted nor exploited. The key is to keep calm, look around you, and enjoy the sensation of experiencing this moment.