The tradition of celebrating the birth anniversary of a great being begins with recalling the innate qualities of awakened beings – which we too possess – so that, in turn, we can reconnect with the qualities that are present in us.
May 6th, 2018 marked the 35th birthday of the Crown Jewel of Refuge, Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa. In the Tibetan rendering, where the year is counted from 1 year on the day of birth, this is the 36th birthday. Taking this opportunity, I would like to convey a message on the significance of this event.
The birth of a person marks an important day for everyone. According to the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BC), a contemporary of Socrates, the most important event in Persian people’s lives at that time was the celebration of one’s birthday. The ancient Romans observed birthdays ostentatiously, according to Kathryn Argetsinger, an author in Classics. In China, similarly, observing a birthday goes together with customs of wishing for longevity. We could understand that, recalling and celebrating the birth, the beginning of one’s life, exists in almost all cultures – there are, however, many exceptions. But in the modern-day world, the birthday is undeniably the most important day in one’s life for many, observed all around the world.
We are grateful to have the precious human life for its potential and usefulness to cultivate altruism and reach awakening. But in Buddhism, the birth, the event in itself, is not necessarily considered to be celebratory. In fact, just as death is said to be an episode of suffering, so is birth – we have birth, old age, sickness, and death. Following the law of causality, the suffering of death is originally caused by birth. If we were never born, we would never go through old age. We would never be sick. And we would never die. But the custom is that we grieve at death and we celebrate the birth.
In terms of intention, we often could choose to die however we want to. The will, funeral arrangements, and all other plans, we could try to arrange, but the birth – that, we never intended. Arguably no one of us intended to be born the way we were. This marks another important aspect of our births: Under what conditions are we born? Was our volition ever involved for our birth? Most sentient beings are born because of a force – the word used here is karma. In the same way, we die because of a force. Thus, we go on experiencing the cycle of birth, old age, sickness, and death, repeatedly, without any control over it. That is said to be because we never have any control over that which is going through the cycle – our mind, our consciousness, the experiencer. While we are alive, our desires and aspirations are mostly self-centred and ego-driven, and our actions mostly stem from such bases, led by and engaged in attachment, aversion, and mistaken views. But our wish, nonetheless, is to be in peace and have stability. In our effort to fulfill our wish, though, we can forget our innate potential to be compassionate. We can come to better understandings of which causes actually lead to happiness with the support of our teachers.
Among the various categories of venerable teachers, it is believed that there are beings – bodhisattvas – who are born intentionally, because they, unlike us, have power over their minds. More importantly, their intentions, throughout the course of their lives, are benevolent. This sheer benevolence then becomes the causation to be born, again and again, for the benefit of sentient beings.
While alive, with their benevolent minds, with great knowledge, power, and compassion, they lead the course of their lives benefiting others. Imbued with great transcendental qualities such as patience, generosity, ethics, and so forth, they engage in enlightened activities, life in, life out. These are some attributes belonging to bodhisattvas in general, and there are specific figures who we designate as Bodhisattvas, such as Karmapa. At the same time, we also believe that bodhisattvas are omnipresent.
Therefore, the birthday celebration of a noble bodhisattva cannot be equated to a simple observance of a person’s birth anniversary at a certain age. Karmapa is not an entity that has developed in 35 years, nor was Karmapa born aimlessly, driven by ego. For that reason, the template phrase for such an occasion, “Happy Birthday”, may effectively and rightly express the joy and happiness we have in our hearts, but from our default unchecked position, we may not always be grasping the nature of the event, to its full extent.
If we think about it, our usual “Happy Birthday” wish is like saying congratulations for being born and staying alive, and let us celebrate having done that. It is an accomplishment to stay alive, of course, but there is something a little silly about congratulating someone for having been born without volition. We should continue doing this, because it’s a way of showing appreciation for one another, but the celebration of the birth of a great bodhisattva has other elements. The tradition of celebrating the birth anniversary of a great being begins with recalling the innate qualities of awakened beings – which we too possess – so that, in turn, we can reconnect with the qualities that are present in us. We would benefit from being in the presence of the exemplary teacher as he continues to help us cultivate these qualities, again and again. So therefore, we take the opportunity to make wishes for the teacher’s good health and longevity. The day of a teacher’s birth is also a particularly apt time to remember and appreciate the legacy of benevolent teachers of the past, like Shamar Rinpoche. Because of their contributions, we are well-equipped with the knowledge of what is to be adopted and what is to be abandoned in our own lives. There may be some ceremonial aspects to the birthday event, but the qualities of the teacher, and our capacity to cultivate them, are the core notions behind the ceremony.
Some modern-day ceremonies are ubiquitous. Cake-cutting and singing congratulatory wishes with the 19th-century American tune “Happy Birthday to You” are prevalent in practice globally. Multicultural Buddhist communities exist within the pluralistic societies quite harmoniously, so these universal practices are enthusiastically observed, and often appropriated in the languages of the celebrators. Above all, it is a joyous occasion. Just as we can be joyful for the fact of possessing our sense faculties, in the same way, we are celebrating the joy of having the continued support of an honorable teacher.
From ancient times to today, and well into the future, the majority of us will invariably celebrate a birth and mourn a death. As we follow along with these customs, we can always keep in mind that some great beings are born and die extraordinarily, and we can aspire to that capacity for great altruism.