Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, a book that tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb in forty concise chapters. Today’s post introduces the celebration of Vesak Day and the life of the Buddha.
In many countries around the world, today is a very special day: it is Vesak Day, the most important day in the Buddhist calendar. Buddhists come together to commemorate the life and teachings of the Buddha, the ‘Enlightened One’. They celebrate in a number of ways: bringing symbolic offerings to lay at the feet of their spiritual teacher, singing hymns while the Buddhist flag is raised, and going around their community to perform good deeds. Buddhists believe that the good that you do on Vesak Day will multiply itself many times over; thus, they want to spread joy and happiness on this holy day, and they do so by helping the less fortunate such as the poor and the handicapped. As Buddhism is the second-largest religion in Southeast Asia, many countries in this region—such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia—will celebrate Vesak Day.
The story of the Buddha is an interesting one, going as far back as 2,500 years ago. Here is an extract from A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich that introduces the Buddha’s journey:
‘The story goes that Gautama, whom they were later to call the ‘Enlightened One’, the ‘Buddha’, grew up in Eastern luxury and splendour. It is said that he had three palaces which he never left – one for summer, one for winter, and one for the rainy season – and that they were always filled with the most beautiful music. His father wouldn’t allow him to leave their lofty terraces because he wanted to keep him far away from all the sorrows of the world. And no one who was sick or unhappy was ever allowed near him, However, one day Gautama summoned his carriage and went out. On the way he caught sight of a man, bent with age, and he asked his driver what it was. The driver was forced to explain that this was an old man. Deep in thought, Gautama returned to his palace. On another occasion he saw someone who was sick. No one had ever told him about illness. The third time he went out he saw a dead man. This time he didn’t go home to his palace. Coming across a hermit in the road, he decided that he, too, would go into the wilderness, where he would meditate one the sufferings of this world which had been revealed to him in the forms of old age, sickness and death.
For six years he led the life of a hermit and penitent. But his meditations were deeper and his sufferings greater than those of any other hermit […] For he didn’t only reflect on the nature of the world, and whether all things were really one. He thought about its sadness, of all the pain and suffering of mankind – of old age, sickness and death. And no amount of penitence could help him there.
[…] one night, as he sat beneath a fig tree in a beautiful clearing in a wood, understanding came. Suddenly he realised what he had been seeking all those years. It was if an inner light had made everything clear.’
The essence of what the Buddha realised in that moment of enlightenment was this: ‘if we want to avoid suffering, we must start with ourselves, because all suffering comes from our own desires […] If we can stop wanting all the beautiful and pleasant things in life, and can learn to control our greed for happiness, comfort, recognition and affection, we shan’t feel sad any more when, as so often happens, we fail to get what we want […] If the appetite goes, the pain goes with it.’
Today, millions of the Buddha’s devotees try to follow in his footsteps and achieve the state of Nirvana, which frees one from all pain and suffering in life.