October 21, 2008

How to Celebrate one’s Birthday in the Buddhist Tradition.


Particularly if you grew up in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, please comment below and add some info or ideas—I did my best but am not known for my memory.


In the Buddhist tradition, our birth-day is considered a particularly important, spiritually-powerful day. It’s considered important to mark it, and mark it properly—with a sense of appreciation, sadness, poignancy…and celebration.

Growing up in an American Buddhist family, my ma would always start the day the good ol’fashioned American way—with an embarrassing, sweet, love-ful waking me up and singing the whole song to me while, embarrassed and touched, I rubbed my eyes and sat up in bed so she could put down the yummy breakfast-in-bed tray she’d prepared.

I think that’s important—not to get too conceptual about “how-to-celebrate-one’s-birthday-in-spiritual-manner,” but to remember that basically you’re marking the occasion of the first lighting of the little brilliant fragile flame that is your life. And, of course, the day serves as a poignant reminder that this endless cycle of sun and moon, week and weekend, seasons upon seasons…isn’t so endless. This life is short—why, just yesterday I was a boy. Now (technically, if not emotionally) I’m a man.

Image: Stephanie McCabe https://unsplash.com/photos/nTqbkNSxICw

The Elixir of Life:  A Birthday Practice: “Upon rising in the morning, prepare saffron water, which represents purity and the Great Eastern Sun…” So begins this short sadhana written to be performed on one’s birthday. It makes a great birthday present.

The Elixir of Life Birthday Sadhana [sadhana=song, like a hymn or chant one does to remind oneself of important spiritual truths] is a birthday practice. So, as instructed, I start my every birthday by sitting down in front of my Buddhist shrine, ringing the gong three times to start the day, lighting candles and incense, and chanting out the Sadhana (the details of which are all about remembering the preciousness of this short, brilliant life—check the actual text, which is public and available to all).

You don’t have to do any of the above if you’re not Buddhist—the main point is to have a small area of one’s home where you can meditate or pray, and have a few pictures and perhaps candles, incense, gong, to help establish an altar (cardboard box with cloth over it, if you like) that can serve as a personal place of focus for you. Don’t go nuts on decorations—no crystals, no photos of family—keep it simple, simple.

So meditate for a few minutes, then contemplate—a focused, deliberate sort of thinking—your life. Think about what it’s for, and where it’s been, and where you might have gone off the path of being genuine and trying to be helpful to yourself, to others, and to our fragile planet. Don’t waste much time in regret, which Trungpa Rinpoche said was a valuable emotion but one that you “should only spend three seconds on” after making a mistake. Think about where you’re going, how short your life is and what it is for (“benefiting all sentient beings, including oneself” is a good place to start if you’re coming up empty).

Then, celebrate the day with your community—genuine friends and close family. Presents, cake, it’s all to the good.

*One final note: Chogyam Trungpa always had everyone sing “Cheerful Birthday,” not “Happy Birthday,” saying that Happiness was a state of mind that had Sadness or Unhappiness on its flip side. Cheerfulness, he said, better described a fundamental way or attitude of being. So, growing up in the Buddhist tradition, we always sang Cheerful Birthday to you... Either way is great, as long as you consider that you’re not wishing a temporary state of being based on circumstances—but rather that you may truly continue to become friends with yourself.


Bonus round:

And the all-time classic:


Image: Sharon Woods/Pixoto

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Chris Jul 15, 2019 9:11am

Gofundme, whether they know it or not got a little Buddhist when they started a birthday poll where you can ask all your friends to donate to a charity on your big day. I also like to volunteer for a couple hours, last year brought a cake to the homeless shelter. You don’t have to have money in order to give.

Rebecca B. Feb 15, 2016 10:11pm

At 46 years, every past birthday has been an emotionally painful day. My mother, although she didn't want to, kept me. She spent every birthday I had disappearing, getting drunk, or just forgetting I was alive.
As an adult all of this has caused me to hide on my birthday or pretend it's just another day with a lot of fake smiles and thank yous to those that wished me well on the day.
I am grateful for this article. It has brought about some new ideas and views for how I might handle my birthday this year at the end of March. Maybe it's my job to celebrate my original flame. Maybe I can make a new tradition to show myself more love on my birthday.
Both of my birthparents are still alive, but neither desires any relationship with me and I know that is what is best for me. I've known for a long time that people cannot possibly swim in toxic soup and expect to grow and have health of mind, body, and soul.

SunshineYogi Sep 23, 2013 3:17pm

Hi Waylon:
Are you sure the Elixir of Life: Birthday Sadhana is in the public domain? Your link goes to the Shambhala website so that it can be ordered, but the words are no where to be found. Help!

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Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of Elephant Journal & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat.” Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword’s Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by “Greatist”, Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: “the mindful life” beyond the choir & to all those who didn’t know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, touches on modern relationships from a Buddhist point of view. His dream of 9 years, the Elephant “Ecosystem” will find a way to pay 1,000s of writers a month, helping reverse the tide of low-quality, unpaid writing & reading for free online.