Monday, May. 21, 1956

Buddha's 2,500th

Throughout the villages and cities of Southeast Asia, millions are preparing this week for a celebration that will be a landmark in their lives — the 2,500th anniversary of the death of the Buddha, founder of a religion followed by perhaps a fifth of the world's population.*

In Burma, almost the entire air time of the Burma Broadcasting Service was devoted last week to news of the celebration, and the air force was alerted to drop leaflet notices all over the country. The government of Buddhist Premier U Nu planned to reduce all prison sentences by six months to two years, and to commute all death sentences to 20-year terms. Animals and birds awaiting slaughter will be released, and slaughterhouses, fish markets and butcher shops will be closed. More than 100,000 Burmese will make a pilgrimage to Rangoon, where 2,500 young men will be ordained to the Buddhist priesthood.

In Colombo, Ceylon, workers had rushed to install a $1,500,000 diesel generator to handle the extra current needed for the strings of lights festooning almost every building, and some 50 flat-bed trucks were converted into illuminated floats depicting scenes from Buddha's life—a blazing caravan that will tour the entire island. In Kandy, famed as the site of a temple containing Buddha's tooth, a parade of elephants will carry the tooth, in its casket, through the town, and thousands of beggars will be fed and clothed in honor of the occasion.

To the blare of conch shells, India's Prime Minister Nehru (Hindu by birth and agnostic by practice) will lay the cornerstone of a Buddhist monument in New Delhi. But India's principal celebrations will take place in four sacred places: Lumbini. where Buddha was born; Bodh Gaya, where he achieved enlightenment; Sarnath, where he preached his first sermon; Kushinara, where he died.

The Noble Four & Eight. Buddha was born Gautama, the prince, son of a rajah, who gave him palaces, slaves, dancing girls, every kind of beauty and pleasure. One day, on a forbidden ride outside the palace grounds, he encountered four persons: an old man, an ill man, a dead man and an ascetic. Profoundly troubled by this look at reality, 29-year-old Gautama one night took silent leave of his sleeping wife and son and rode off.

Deep in a forest he met two hermits, with whom he practiced contemplation, until he saw that it led nowhere. Then he attached himself to five ascetics and fasted, until "when I touched my belly I felt my backbone through it." But this, too. proved a spiritual dead end, and at last, after six years of experiment, he sat down beneath a Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in northeastern India and determined not to move until he had plumbed the secret of existence. After 49 days it came—what Buddhists call The Enlightenment. "I knew," said Buddha, " 'rebirth' has been destroyed, the higher life has been led; what had to be done has been done. I have no more to do with this world."

Buddhism evolved out of the complex faith and practice of Hinduism. The Hindu idea that each man leads life after life on an endlessly turning wheel of suffering determined by one's past actions (karma) was assumed by Buddha. The way to escape the turning, he taught, was a practical procedure, uncluttered by theology, liturgy or a pantheon of gods: what held one to the wheel was the ever-changing attraction and repulsion that the self experiences for the things and happenings of the world; the resolute practice of detachment on the one hand, and heightened awareness on the other, could set one free.

Buddha epitomized the human situation in the Four Noble Truths: 1) suffering is universal, 2) the cause of suffering is desire, 3) the cure is the elimination of desire, 4) desire can be eliminated by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The Path: 1) Right knowledge, 2) Right intention, 3) Right speech, 4) Right conduct, 5) Right livelihood, 6) Right effort, 7) Right mindfulness, 8) Right concentration. At the end is nirvana. But Buddha, who talked not at all of God, refused ever to go into details about what is meant by nirvana. His dying words underlined his emphasis on human effort rather than on grace or magic: "Work out your salvation with diligence."

In a Cave. This week in Rangoon, 500 monks chanted through the last of 1,600 hours of reciting aloud the 14,804 pages of the Tipitakas,† the Buddhist scriptures. They sat in a "cave"—a vast jumble of rough boulders on the outside, and a blue, gold and scarlet auditorium within (capacity: 15,000), which was built by Burma's devout Premier U Nu to house the Sixth Buddhist World Council (TIME, June 7, 1954). The council has been going on for two years in this facsimile of a real cave (where the first council was held in 483 B.C.). The monks' chant will end next week on Visakha, the day of the full moon that denotes the end of the 2,500th year since Buddha died at the age of 80.

†"The Three Baskets": 1) Vinaya, the monks' rule of discipline, 2) Sutta, sermons, commentaries and parables, 3) Abhidhamma, metaphysics, psychology and philosophy.

*Buddhists in Thailand. Cambodia and Laos go by a slightly different calendar, will celebrate the 2,500th anniversary next year. Buddhists in China, Japan and Korea, forming the large Mahayana branch of the religion, go by a vastly different calendar, mark this year as the 2,983rd anniversary.

*Great bronze statue at Kamakura, Japan.