|Vesak: Meeting the Challenges of an Age|
Shakyamuni renounced nobility and devoted his life to preventing others from falling into ruin.
19 May, the May full moon this year is Vesak, the symbolic birth, enlightenment and parinirvana (passing into a complete state of nirvana as his death is considered) of the Buddha. The date is symbolic much as 25 December is celebrated as the birth of Jesus. There are no records of the events. Traditions differ but 463-383 BCE are widely accepted as the life span.
The term Buddha means the Enlightened One, a way-finder, a discoverer of the path of deliverance which will free all. It is taught that there were many Buddhas prior to Shakyamuni and that there will be Buddhas in the future as long as there are being in need of liberation.
However, Shakyamuni, called Siddhattha by his father who was the chief of an area Sakyas, now in southern Nepal, thus giving the name Shakyamuni (a person from Sakya) as his son became known.
Skahyamuni is representative of what the German cultural historian and philosophy Karl Jaspers called the "Axial Age" - a period around 500 BCE - when the great philosophical traditions were born: Confucianism and Taoism in China, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism in India, Zarathustra in Persia, Socrates-Plato-Aristotle in Greece, the prophetic tradition in Judea.
All these Axial Age religions and philosophical teachings embodied elements found in the teachings and ethics of the tribal groups from which they arose. However, when societies became more complex, and there was more interaction with people from other cultures, a more universalistic ethic was needed. By 500 BCE, society in many parts of the world had grown in complexity. Communications and trade put very different types of people into contact. The earlier tribal ethics were no longer adequate to deal with more socially complex situations. Thus, there grew philosophies that were to provide a more universalistic ethic - a way to deal with everyone, not just those belonging to the same tribe. The need for a new ethic was there, and individuals with insight, recognizing the need, formulated the religious philosophies to serve as a framework for multi-cultural contacts.
As Karl Jaspers recognized in calling for a "new Axial Age", the world finds itself roughly in a similar situation as in 500 BCE. For the first time, there is a growing realization that all people on earth are in contact with each other - through trade, communications, finance and power politics. Thus, today, there is a need for a universalistic ethic, one that takes in all of humanity. There is a need for a new explanation of nature that will encompass all the findings of science - from the knowledge of sub-atomic particles of energy to the vast reaches of the cosmos now known through astronomy's discoveries.
The planetary challenges we face oblige us to think of ourselves as Citizens of the World. At the heart of every age there is a unique impulse out of which through the course of events and under favorable conditions, emerges a new cultural force which exists first in the consciousness of only a few individuals who create out of their perceptions ideas which begin first as heresy and end up as heritage.
Today, there are an increasing number of people who are awakening to a new consciousness of the need for harmony and a sense of responsibility for our planetary home. There is a need to develop within each person's consciousness a shift from a narrow nationalistic position to a view of responsibility for the right use of the resources of the planet in a spirit of joy, which we can all celebrate with the May full moon.
Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens