During May, Buddhists around the world celebrate Vesak and this year it falls on Friday 5 May.
The term Vesak refers to the month of the Buddha’s birth. It's a time when Buddhists celebrate the birth, awakening and final liberation of the Buddha. In some Buddhist traditions it is only a celebration of the Buddha’s birth.
Buddhists will often visit temples on this day. They will observe the Buddhist precepts, such as refraining from killing living beings, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct and drinking alcohol. They will meditate and eat only vegetarian food.
Birth, Awakening and Final Liberation
Buddhists believe that the Buddha’s birth as a prince in India was a momentous event, with universal significance. Immediately after his birth, the Buddha is said to have surveyed the earth in all directions, observing humanity, then taken seven steps to the north and roared his lion’s roar ‘I am the greatest in the world, I am the highest in the world, I am the foremost in the world, there is no more rebirth for me.’ This indicates that later in life he would free himself from the endless round of reincarnations, which is pervaded by suffering.
Vesak also celebrates the Buddha’s awakening, known as his Nirvana. At the age of 35, the prince became a Buddha, an awakened one. He knew, without any doubt, that he had overcome all suffering. He had done what is quite incomprehensible and done the impossible. He had overcome rebirth. Nirvana signifies the ending of all greed, hatred and delusion. In the Buddhist understanding of existence; greed, hatred and delusion are the fuel which perpetuates suffering and rebirth.
When he achieved Nirvana, these were replaced by generosity, kindness and wisdom. A Buddha is one who is awake. He knows what suffering is, its cause, which is craving and the path to its eradication. This is the Buddhist path itself, known as the Noble Eightfold Path, celebrated during Vesak.
Finally, Vesak celebrates the passing of the Buddha. At the age of 80, in a deep state of meditation, calm and clarity, the Buddha passed away. This is not a point of sorrow for Buddhists, but of profound importance. The Buddha had achieved his final awakening, when all suffering subsided, and he came to an end, like a flame being extinguished.
On this holy occasion, Vesak Day, we should remind ourselves of our ability to be tolerant, love each other and be kind upon each other, feel sympathetic joy with one another and be tolerant of others. This would make our community and society move forwards with peace and happiness. This outlook benefits our society as a whole where Buddhism’s primary qualities promote tolerance and inclusivity between different religious and ethnic groups.- Phramaha Prasert Prommala, The Dhammapadipa Temple
Compassion, Kindness, and Acceptance
At Vesak, Buddhists are celebrating both the victory of the Buddha, but also the possibility of creating a better world in which discrimination is overcome. One of the central teachings of Buddhism, and one of the aspirations celebrated during Vesak, is to regard all living beings as equal. It is to show them kindness and compassion, regardless of race, colour or ethnicity. This quality is termed ‘loving-kindness’ known in Buddhism as metta. In a famous text metta is described in the following terms:
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
There is an important and essential message in these words, that express how Buddhists should relate to other people, without anger, and with trust and understanding. These are the ideas which Buddhists celebrate with the birth, awakening and final liberation, celebrated during the Vesak festival.
Calmness and Stillness
While playing football we can also find Buddhist themes. The Zen Buddhist monk, Reverend Master Favian Straughan, explains that ‘to play well, you needed to be present, grounded and focused in your own body while at the same time, holding a wide awareness of the other players on the pitch and the dynamic relationships playing out around you.’ This is a great illustration of some of the key ideas celebrated during Vesak, marking the concentrated stillness of the Buddha, living in the present moment, away from the distractions of greed and anger, of intolerance and discrimination.
A connection to football throughout the pyramid
Before Leicester City FC ‘did the impossible’ and won the Premier League in 2016, Thai Buddhist monks visited the club’s changing room and blessed the team. The blessing by a senior Thai monk was intended to instil confidence and good fortune in the team. It certainly appears to have had a tremendous influence.
This example shows how religious figures can come together with the football community. Of course, football is about winning, but it can also be a celebration of each other’s qualities. The Buddhist monks were, in a sense, promoting good qualities in the Leicester City players.
During Vesak, Buddhists will often visit temples and make offerings to images of the Buddha. In some cases, this may be thought to cleanse the individual of the negative influence of previous karma, of bad actions that one has performed in this life or even a previous life. All of these ceremonies mark a turning away from negative actions and to lead to a purification of acts of body, speech and mind. Both footballers and Buddhists can benefit from the celebration of Vesak.
Aldershot Town FC, who play in the National League, are a unique club in that they have a Buddhist centre attached to their stadium.
“Aldershot is the home of the British Army and the Gurkha regiment who have formed part of our community for over 100 years," revealed Shahid Azeem, Aldershot Town's chairman.
"We have a proud association with the army and the local community, we have hosted his holiness Dalai lama at the club where he delivered a speech to over 7000 people. We have hosted matches with all the armed forces and sent our academy to Nepal to participate in a tournament, raising 30k for charity after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. This is all about building a connection with your local community who we want to see playing and watching games with us at the club. We look forward to celebrating Vesak day with our community each year.”
Lower down the pyramid, and into the Isthmian Premier League, Karen Dobres, who is a Director at Lewes FC, speaks openly about how Buddhism influences her and the club.
“What I do affects the next person and what they do affects me. It's the same with the environment. At a deep level, we are one and the same as manifestations of life itself. This principle (often called 'two but not two') motivates me in meetings, conversations, relationships and importantly, in vision.
"At Lewes FC I very much believe we have a chance to change the world with our pioneering gender equality work, and, if I'm honest, much of my strong belief and vision comes from the religion I've practised since 1991. The qualities of the Buddha are compassion, wisdom, courage and life force. I chant every day to be able to show these qualities in my life and find them in the lives of others.
"Football, with its massive influence and great global following, has felt like a very good place to play out that mission, and it has certainly taught me a lot about power and privilege and how it operates."
Even at the bottom of the English pyramid, outside of the national league system at grassroots level, one of the biggest football tournaments in the UK is the Gurkha Cup which is held in Aldershot and each year attracts thousands of spectators predominantly from the Nepalese community.
This year the tournament will take place on Sunday 28 May marking its 21st anniversary. This is the biggest South East Asian football tournament in the UK and organised by the Napali community organization Tamu Dhee UK. The event showcases Nepalese culture with food, dance and music and attracts people and players from all over the world.
Last year, the FA brought together members of the Buddhist and Nepalese community at Swindon Town FC to celebrate Vesak day. The event featured a live Q&A on faith and football, coaching and refereeing workshops, Buddhist prayers and dance. Over 100 people attended who were all given a brilliant insight into Buddhism, an opportunity to network and celebrate with all the Buddhists on their holy day.
Thank you to Shahid Azeem, Paul Fuller, Karen Dobres and Phramaha Prasert Prommala for their contributions to this piece.