Today is Wesak Day, Buddhists around the world join together to celebrate and commemorate the birth, enlightenment and Nirvana of Gautama Buddha (釋迦牟尼佛). So, Wesak is one of the most sacred religious festivals for billions of Buddhists of the world.
On this day, the majority of Buddha’s believers will pay their homage to Buddha at temples, practise vegetarianism and precepts and even have a whole day meditation and abstain from sex and alcohol as well. While for other believers, Wesak is merely an off-day to get oneself refreshed from workloads.
Gautama Buddha, also known as Siddhārtha Gautama, was the founder of Buddhism. Undeniably, he was also a religious teacher and wise sage who has far-reaching influenced our human civilization. However, after thousand years of his departure, some of his modern believers, unfortunately, only known the metaphysical role of Buddha, and certain sects even deified him to become a cult object to satisfy people’s private desires.
I bet you do not know that, our Buddha was one of the greatest socialist reformers (社會主義改革家) of his time or even for these millennia. The ideas or initiatives proposed by Buddha could be considered as ‘advanced’ until the early 20th century despite Buddha lived in year 500 BCE. As we known, in Buddha’s time, the world, particularly India of that time, was full of oppression and exploitation.
The society was practising a strict caste system (種姓階級制度) which had divided mankind into four distinct social classes, i.e. Brahmins (priests 祭司), Kshatriyas (nobilities 王族), Vaishyas (civilians 平民), and Shudras (slaves 奴隸). All these castes were hereditary. That’s means if a person born to be a slave, he always be a slave and his sons and grandsons will be slaves too, for generations. There was no right for you to choose to be what you want to be during the era of caste system.
|The Buddhist flag|
Buddha was the first man dare to openly oppose this barbaric caste system of Indian society. At that time, he actively promoted social reform especially on the liberation of caste and broke through social taboos of the caste system by allowing numbers of slaves to become his disciples (Upali 優婆離, who was one of the ten principal Buddha’s disciples, was a slave before his renunciation). In his Sangha community (僧團), disciples from different castes were living together peacefully, such as Purna (富樓那), one of the ten principal disciples was from Brahmin.
The initiative of Buddha to eliminate the caste system had expectedly provoked the uneasiness and anger of the ruling Brahmin class. Out of fear, Brahmins had launched several assassinations and persecutions against Buddha (all attempts failed) in order to preserve their interests. Nonetheless, Buddha had no fear of those in power and their oppressions, instead he carried out his ideal of social reform, boldly.
Gautama Buddha, was not a socialist who just liberated the caste, but he was a feminist (女權主義者) too. Buddha had set up a nuns’ unit in his Sangha community, allowed women of every caste (even prostitute) to join the Sangha and conferred the nuns same rights with the monks. Utpalavarnna (蓮華色), a prostitute who had turned into a famous Buddha’s female disciple, was a symbol of huge breakthrough for that conservative society.
Buddha’s feminist thinking and actions, no matter in India or other parts of the ancient world or even if compared to today, was still an unprecedented move because discriminations on women still exist in certain sects currently. In fact, all social reforms carried out by Buddha had came from his compassion and proposition that all sentient beings are created equal (衆生平等).
In addition, Buddha had successfully established a classless social order and common ownership of the means of production in his thousands population of Sangha community. This system was quite similar to modern socialism. At the meanwhile, his advocacy of abstinence life had pioneered the ideology of LOHAS (健康與持續性的生活) and green environmentalism for more than two thousand years. Even in his metaphysical teachings, he had challenged theocratic Brahmin which been perennially detaining people’s thought and proposed that everything comes from the theory of cause and effect (因果論). The initiatives taken by Buddha had reflected the pursuit for freedom of thought from dogmas.
Gautama Buddha, a crown prince who abdicated his kingship, a religious teacher who denied the Brahmin theocracy, an social activist who defended the civil rights and a man who valued women’s rights, was definitely a great socialist reformer at all times. But ironically, for many years, Buddhism has been typically depicted as a religion which is indifferent to politics and worldly affairs. This is a wrong image conceived by the public toward Buddhism due to some historical reasons.
For your knowledge, more than 20% of Malaysian are Buddhists. Why don’t we stop praying before Buddha’s statue just for our own personal desires, but go and learn the spirit of Buddha which has no fear of the authoritarian regime and defends the rights of the people.
Last but not least, I wish Buddhists all around the world: Happy Wesak.