How to honor your birthday, or the birthday of a loved one, in the Buddhist tradition. Hint: it’s about death. Okay, it’s more about “life is precious, be of benefit.”
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 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.
And the all-time classic:
Image: Sharon Woods/Pixoto