He had been meditating for 49 days.  Sitting crossed-legged under a Bodhi tree at Buddha Gaya in Northern India, Siddhartha Gautama’s mind suddenly became clear, and understanding began to emerge. He could see his past lives—slowly at first—and then they began to multiply, until he could see them in the thousands.

As Siddhartha Gautama continued meditating, he saw the cycle of life and death—how beings change from one form to another, across different levels of consciousness. And finally, he was able to grasp the concept of infinity, as well as the origins and causes of human suffering.

Siddhartha Gautama understood the extent of desire and temptation—and just how futile and fleeting these attachments are. With his mind completely purified, he was transformed. He was something beyond human. He had reached Enlightenment, or nirvana, an unearthly state of mind between physical existence and death.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama was now Gautama Buddha.

At this time of year, Buddhists celebrate the Visaka Bochea, informally called Buddha’s Birthday, an annual holiday honoring the birth, death and enlightenment of Gautama Buddha, their spiritual teacher.

The event is one of the most important in the Buddhist calendar, and exact dates of the celebration vary depending on country, Buddhist tradition and lunar calendar.

For Theravada Buddhists, who use the Buddhist calendar, Visaka Bochea falls on the first day of the full moon in the fifth or sixth month of the year.

In other countries, traditions vary.

Buddhists in some regions take part in the “Bathing of the Buddha,” where water is poured over the shoulders of statues to represent the importance of a pure heart and mind. In others, houses are decorated prior to the holiday, and gifts are given.

In Cambodia, 95 percent of the population follows the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, considered the “southern school” that reveres Gautama Buddha and his predecessors.

The Visaka Bochea “is a time to show how we respect [the Buddha], his teachings-—the Dharma—and his example,” said Chin Channa, a former monk of 10 years.

“He inspires us to become a person who believes in oneself, and shows us how we [are mistreating] ourselves when we don’t,” he said.

On the holiday, Chin Channa said, monks and other observers come together in their respective pagodas to pray and make offerings to the Buddha. Monks will gather fruit and alms, and chant certain sutras.

Many Buddhists also attend a mass celebration at Wat Odong, one of the most historically relevant and architecturally complex temples in the vicinity of Phnom Penh, before visiting their own pagodas later in the day, he added.

Some Buddhists, usually of the older generation, China Channa said, practice the 10 moral precepts, or rules of restraint or behavior, which are followed by Buddhist monks and some laity.

Those following the precepts will refrain from eating after noon, or at the wrong times during the day, and some refrain from eating meat.

“In this mundane world, people are all the same,” Chin Channa lamented. “Their mind is attached by their love, their property, their knowledge. They long for anything considered attachment,” he said.

For this reason, he said, it is especially important to remember the Buddha’s teachings on the Visaka Bochea.

Born into a royal family circa 563 BC, Prince Siddhartha Gautama himself was privy to a world of attachment. At age 29, according to some translations, he left his palace in Kilavastu, a former region of ancient India, to experience the world. And though his father attempted to keep the sick and impoverished off the streets, Siddhartha Gautama is said to have seen an old man, a diseased man and a decaying corpse on his journeys. Disturbed and deeply depressed by these sights, he decided to become an ascetic. Denouncing his life of privilege, he left his kingdom, and after studying under different teachers—and, in one instance, nearly starving himself to death in an effort to gain understanding—he discovered the “Middle Way” to enlightenment, a path devoid of extremism.

Before his passing, at the age of 80, nearly 55 years after his enlightenment, Gautama Buddha announced that he would enter parinirvana—a deathless state where the earthly body is abandoned.

Short after this announcement, Chin Channa said, the Buddha and his disciples visited the village of Nagara, in the Indian state of Karnataka. While there, a villager named Chunda, he said, gave Gautama Buddha a dish of mushrooms mixed with pork meant as an offering and sign of respect. After consuming the meal, Gautama Buddha became nauseous and seriously ill, and shortly thereafter, he passed into parinirvana.

The offering was subsequently considered a source of highest merit, as it served as the Buddha’s last meal, Chin Channa said.

Buddhists of the Theravada tradition, unlike those of the Mahayana tradition, or the “northern school,” believe the Gautama Buddha was a human and not a god, though they believe he possessed supernatural or psychic abilities.

Kong Sareth, a monk from Wat Than pagoda in Phnom Penh, said that because the Buddha had a transcendental mind, his insights are integral for spiritual understanding.

“Buddha advised people to do good [to receive good],” he said, “and to have a pure heart towards other people.”

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