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Buddhists Prepare To Observe Bodhi Day, When Siddhartha Gautama Became Buddha

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

These winter holidays are a time for fellowship, joy and, for religious people around the world, worship. For many Buddhists, Bodhi Day is December 8. And tomorrow starts the celebration. Bodhi Day marks the day that Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha. Takashi Miyaji is a professor at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and a minister at Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church in Union City, Calif. And he joins us now. Dr. Miyaji, thank you so much for being with us.

TAKASHI MIYAJI: Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: I had the joy of having many Buddhist friends in high school who took me to their temples. And I've always been impressed that Guatama gained wisdom through his experience of suffering.

MIYAJI: Yeah. You know, Siddhartha Gautama is the story of the historical Buddha who figured out a path to the resolution of why people suffer. And I think millions of people to this day are influenced by what Siddhartha Gautama, or what we know as Shakyamuni Buddha, was able to discover.

SIMON: I think there are many people who throw around that word, enlightenment. Help us really understand it, if you can.

MIYAJI: Buddhism teaches that all things have Buddha nature or the potential to become a Buddha. And so Buddha is the enlightened one. It is a state of true liberation from this world of confusion and delusion. So you might ask, you know, what is the purpose for becoming a Buddha? Well, the Buddha is one who has kind of realized the universal truth and can see the true nature of existence just as it is. And we call this in Buddhism to attain the state of true wisdom.

SIMON: Does that mean a Buddha knows the meaning of life?

MIYAJI: Yes, in the sense that this life is one of suffering, actually, is one of difficulty. In finding that resolution, in finding the true wisdom that helps us to overcome that suffering, then yes, that one has found the meaning of life.

SIMON: Overcome that suffering or learn something from it, live with it, become better by it?

MIYAJI: I think it's a little bit of both. I think it is - in finding that resolution or learning to accept oneself for who you truly are, that is, in a way, laying down the groundwork towards enlightenment.

And so Siddhartha Gautama lived in northern India. And he was a prince, and he was destined to be the next king. Siddhartha got older. And so he goes through this path of being a mendicant monk and abandons his life of luxury and lives in the woods. But the practice that he engaged in was extremely rigorous, and he almost killed himself. The life of luxury and lavishness, on the one hand, the one of hedonism, isn't going to give him the answer to life. And on the other end of that spectrum, the life of rigorous practice where he is engaging and hurting himself, his body, is also not going to allow him to awaken to the truth. And so this is where he awakens to the middle path and the path of moderation. And then he goes to underneath a Bodhi tree and says to himself, I am not leaving from this place until I attain awakening and finally does so one morning. And we say that that day is on December 8.

SIMON: Any particular rituals that you'll be observing for Bodhi this year?

MIYAJI: Yeah. For Bodhi Day, what we do is we have a special service. And normally everybody would come to the temple, and we would have a service where we do chanting basically.

SIMON: May we ask you to chant something?

MIYAJI: Sure. Yeah. (Chanting in non-English language).

(Singing) Homage to him, the exalted one, the enlightened one, the supremely awakened one.

(Chanting in non-English language).

(Singing) I go to the Buddha for guidance. I go to the Dharma for guidance. I go to the Sangha for guidance. (Speaking non-English language).

SIMON: Thank you so much for filling us with the sounds of that chant. What's giving you comfort over these past few vexing and trying months, in particular?

MIYAJI: For me, what Buddhism teaches me is that we are, indeed, imperfect people, you know, that we do try our best, but we fall short a lot of times. And the key, though, is to understand and not to beat yourself up and to be depressed over this, but rather we are embraced within this true reality. There is no judgment. And everybody is going to make it.

I don't know if you recall of this movie "Backdraft" where, you know...

SIMON: Firefighters.

MIYAJI: Yeah, the firefighter movie.

SIMON: Sure, I remember.

MIYAJI: Yeah. With Kurt Russell, yes. And in that movie, at the last scene, he doesn't want to let go of this one guy. And he says, you go, we go, right? And so that's essentially what the Bodhisattva path is. Everyone's got to make it. And if we're not all going to make it, then no one's going to make it.

SIMON: Takashi Miyaji of the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church, thank you so much.

MIYAJI: Thank you very much for your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEELY DAN SONG, "BODHISATTVA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.