July 11, 2014
The annual festival of Guru Purnima celebrates teachers of all stripes, and the capacity to lead others to enlightenment.
Guru, usually translated as “teacher,” suggests a transition from darkness (gu) to light (ru), meaning “that which dispels the darkness of ignorance.” One pictures a Hindu holy man with a long beard—charismatic, perhaps tipping toward authoritarian excess. Yet the subtlety of the term, with its Latin cognate gravis (heavy, matured), indicates a process rather than a person, a fruit (enlightenment) that ripens to become sustenance for others.
For many Hindus and Buddhists, the sharing of enlightenment is celebrated every year at the full moon (purnima) in the month of Ashadh (June 22–July 22) with a festival called Guru Purnima, dedicated to thanking one’s spiritual and academic teachers. In Nepal, a predominantly Hindu country, Guru Purnima is celebrated within the secular context of school, with students of all ages honoring their teachers by organizing parades and offering sweets, garlands, and handmade hats called topi.
Celebrated this year on Saturday, July 12, contemporary celebrations of Guru Purnima are a bit like New Year’s Day for Buddhists: the holiday is a time for lay practitioners to rededicate themselves to their spiritual training and adopt more ascetic practices like giving up alcohol, meat, or cigarettes. After giving his first discourse, the Buddha is said to have spent his first rainy season in Sarnath, and Guru Purnima is therefore also associated with the beginning of this season of intensified practice and contemplative retreat. Practitioners generally observe the eight precepts and meditate on this holiday under the guidance of their teachers, ripening, becoming like fruits growing heavy in the rainy season, ready to fall.
For Buddhists, the festival celebrates both the possibility of awakening and its transmission within a community. The holiday especially commemorates the first discourse of Gautama Buddha, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which he gave after 49 days of silent deliberation, concluding that the path to enlightenment could be taught to others. This teaching, offered in Sarnath to the five ascetics who were the Buddha’s former companions, consisted of a crucial first description of the four noble truths and introduced the fundamental Buddhist concepts of the Middle Way, impermanence, and dependent origination. The story goes that the five who listened to the Buddha’s discourse understood his teaching immediately, and as a result, became enlightened. At the Buddha’s request, they too began to teach.
The paradox at the heart of the student-teacher relationship, that every teacher continues to be a devoted student, makes Guru Purnima a celebration of the entire Buddhist community of practitioners as a collective, extending back into history.
Kythe Heller is a poet, multimedia artist, and doctoral student in religion at Harvard University.
Image: Mitchell/Flickr, slight alteration made to image.