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

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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.

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 Sakyong Mipham’s short sadhana written to be performed on one’s birthday. It makes a great birthday present.

My teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, wrote the Elixir of Life Birthday Sadhana [sadhana=song, like a hymn or chant one does to remind oneself of important spiritual truths]. 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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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.

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anonymous 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.

anonymous 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!

anonymous Mar 23, 2012 4:40pm

Alas, I am entirely too poor to purchase anything but food on top of paying my bills. I don't see that changing anytime soon, so unfortunately I will be unable to use this on my upcoming April 6th birthday. It's all about money all the time isn't it?

    anonymous Nov 19, 2014 12:12am

    Unfortunately it is all about money, hopefully this will change one day….. soon I hope. Cheers!

anonymous Jul 16, 2011 2:49pm

Cheerful birthday to ME!, my birthday is Monday. I will be 61 years on this planet. I like "cheerful birthday". Great idea.

anonymous Jul 7, 2011 5:51am

Waylon, the birthday sadhana can be bought by anyone. No initiation is required. It may have been different in the past, but these are certainly available to everyone interested now.
In case anyone wants to buy this practice, here is the link to do so:
https://www.shambhalamedia.org/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=LSE256
I love this practice too. I hosted a 60 birthday celebration for my father a few weeks ago and we did this practice. He had never heard of it and was delighted by it.
Cheerful birthday!
-Nyima

anonymous Jun 20, 2011 2:17pm

Hi, thanks for thsi post, it was really helpful. I like the simple yet touching ideas!

Blake Wilson Dec 1, 2010 1:51pm

Normally I just get drunk but this is way better!

I kid, I kid! It's nice to hear how others celebrate their birthdays. I never set up a ritual for it but perhaps this year will be different.

anonymous Jul 16, 2010 8:38pm

Happy Birthday Waylon….Birthday Cake!!! When it comes to blowing out the candles…blow them out in the traditional american way or you can not blow them out…either take them off the cake and allow them to burnout on their own or snuff them out by fanning with a paper. "Blowing" them out…I hear shortens one life…in a buddhist sense. They are a light offering in the same spirit as a butter lamp afterall. Though we should enjoy our traditions however we choose. This is sort of an approach Martha Stewart would use if she were buddhist…maybe. Cheers!

anonymous Apr 25, 2010 5:47pm

I have been looking for the Elixir of Life Birthday Sadhana and cannot find it unless I want to purchase it from Shambala. Why is this? Shouldn't it be made public? Why all the secrecy?

    anonymous Dec 1, 2010 6:00pm

    I think it was written specifically for Shambhala Buddhist practitioners. It's not secret, it's just like a college textbook for a particular group in that curriculum.

      anonymous Jul 16, 2011 10:29am

      Update, my bad: this is actually a fully public text as per the Shambhala media office. So practice away! ~ Waylon

    anonymous Jul 16, 2011 4:28am

    Hi, Pat.
    This text is currently public. You can buy it at http://www.shambhalamedia.org. It may have not been more widely available at some point -I don’t know- but it is absolutely public now. Enjoy!!

anonymous Apr 25, 2010 6:44am

Peace & Compassion Everyone !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

anonymous Apr 25, 2010 12:25am

very timely…my birthday is in a few weeks…thanks!

anonymous Sep 28, 2009 2:11pm

To a Buddhist, his or her birthday is to be remembered as his/her mother's suffering day!

    elephant journal Jan 13, 2010 1:39am

    Fun! Let's go with that.

anonymous Oct 22, 2008 5:51am

1. Celebrate your precious human birth.
2. Call your mother, if she lives, and thank her for having you.

anonymous Oct 21, 2008 5:29pm

With birthdays, I’m all about mixing sacred with the profane. Waylon shared a good description of his tradition. It’s important to find whatever works for you in remembering the divine nature of one’s life, it’s unique course and how you are a special being. All too often we go through parts of our lives feeling small, and birthdays are such a way of remembrance of our awesomeness. I too like to spend some time alone on my birthday. And then, just be joyful! This past year after moments of gratitude and reflection all day, I closed with some serious karaoke.

elephant journal Oct 21, 2008 12:39pm

Right! A good quote for Birthdayness might be Marianne Williamson's:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

    anonymous Jul 17, 2012 7:22pm

    Wonderful, wise words, thank you!

anonymous Oct 21, 2008 8:05am

At the risk of sounding completely cheese, my favorite mindful thing to do on my birthday is to write letters to the most important people in my life telling them why they mean so much to me. For years I expected things/cards/presents to come to me–but I was always disappointed because it was never enough or too insignificant or too rushed. I finally realized that it made me feel better to do it the other way around–I was the one, after all, who was in self-reflective mode, so why not take advantage by telling the folks in my life how much I love them?

    anonymous Jan 13, 2010 3:54am

    Wow, I think that is amazing! I am going to try to do the same this year. Thanks!!

    anonymous Jul 14, 2012 3:04pm

    Love your decision and reasoning! I had a friend once whose birthday was April 1. He always gave presents to others. A bit different from you but still, I remember that gesture the most about him.

    anonymous Oct 8, 2013 1:31pm

    <3 wonderful idea