May Day! May Day!
Since ancient times, May 1st marked a holiday celebrating the beginning of spring in many cultures. This day probably has more holidays than any other day of the year. One example is Walpurgisnacht, the day designated for St. Walburga – who helped St. Boniface bring Christianity to Germany in the 8th century. She had several different days dedicated in her honor, one of which was May 1st. This date actually coincided with an already existing pagan holiday in Germany, which included rituals to protect people from witchcraft. This led to the two holidays being meshed together, and the hybrid legend of witches meeting with the devil on the eve of May 1st.
Some ancient cultures such as in Egypt, India, and Rome held fertility festivals. For example, there is the Roman festival which was celebrated from April 28th through May 3rd, which centered around Flora – the goddess of fertility, f|owers, and spring. There was also the Celtic festival of Beltane, which was a feast celebrating the start of summer. It included rituals involving bonfires, such as dancing around the fires, driving cattle between two fires, and burning witches in effigy. There was also this tradition which involved the baking of “Beltane cakes”, which were broken down into several pieces. One of these pieces would be blackened, and the unlucky person who received this blackened piece would face a mock execution.
May 1st is also known as the International Worker’s Day, or simply May Day, around the world. May Day actually has its origin in the United States labor movement in the late 19th century. Unions across the country went on strike on May 1, 1886. Their demand was simply an 8-hour workday. Something that many people in the US take for granted. These strikes eventually lead to the now infamous “Haymarket Riot”. On May 4th, someone threw a bomb. Nobody really knows who it was, but a lot of anarchists were ultimately blamed and executed without any proof other than their political ideology.
In Zen Buddhism, “samu” is an extension of meditation which is a relevant practice for this particular aspect of May Day. It is bringing mindfulness to work practice. Samu includes the practice of dana (giving or generosity), mindfulness, and devotion. So one doesn’t have to just meditate while sitting (zazen), but they can also meditate while working (samu), walking (kinhin), eating (i.e. seiza), chanting (okyo), listening to Dharma talks (teisho), and even while having private meetings with a teacher (dokusan). The point is to bring mindfulness and clarity to all aspects of our life.
Also, in honor of the spring holidays, the Subha Jivakambavanika recounts a story of an arahant nun who lived alone in the forest, and is hounded by a man who lusts after her insisting that she “delight” in the pleasant season of spring. In this story, the nun Subha was walking through the delightful mango grove of Jivaka. As she was walking, she was approached by a young libertine – who was the son of a goldsmith. He blocked her path so that she couldn’t walk any further. So she asked him what wrong has she done to him, and why is he standing in her way? She also reminded him that she was pure, without blemish, and it wouldn’t be right for him to touch her since she has “gone forth”.
So he tries to convince her to renounce her robes and vows, insisting that she is young and beautiful. So what need does she have for “going forth”? He further insists that she:
“Throw off your ochre robe — Come, let’s delight in the f|owering forest. A sweetness they exude from all around, the towering trees with their pollen. The beginning of spring is a pleasant season — Come, let’s delight in the f|owering forest. The trees with their blossoming tips moan, as it were, in the breeze: What delight will you have if you plunge into the forest alone? Frequented by herds of wild beasts, disturbed by elephants rutting and aroused: you want to go unaccompanied into the great, lonely, frightening forest? Like a doll made of gold, you will go about, like a goddess in the gardens of heaven. With delicate, smooth Kasi fabrics, you will shine, O beauty without compare. I would be under your power if we were to dwell in the wood. For there is no creature dearer to me than you, O nymph with the languid regard. If you do as I ask, happy, come live in my house. Dwelling in the calm of a palace, have women wait on you, wear delicate Kasi fabrics, adorn yourself with garlands and creams. I will make you many and varied ornaments of gold, jewels, and pearls. Climb onto a costly bed, scented with sandalwood carvings, with a well-washed coverlet, beautiful, spread with a woolen quilt, brand new. Like a blue lotus rising from the water, where there dwell non-human spirits, you will go to old age with your limbs unseen, if you stay as you are in the holy life.”
So she asked him what in the world he assumes of any essence in her body, and what it is that he sees when he looks at her? So he tells her that it is her eyes that are “like those of a fawn, like those of a nymph in the mountains.” When he gazes into her eyes, his “sensual delight grows all the more”. He said that even if she were to go far away, he will think of only her “pure, long-lashed gaze”, for there is nothing dearer to him than her eyes.
Upon hearing this, Subha explained,
“You want to stray from the road, you want the moon as a plaything, you want to jump over Mount Sineru, you who have designs on one born of the Buddha. For there is nothing anywhere at all in the world with its devas, that would be an object of passion for me. I don’t even know what that passion would be, for it’s been killed, root and all, by the path. Like embers from a pit — scattered, like a bowl of poison — evaporated, I don’t even see what that passion would be, for it’s been killed, root and all, by the path. Try to seduce one who hasn’t ref|ected on this, or who the Master hasn’t instructed. But try it with this one who knows and you do yourself violence. For whether insulted or worshiped, in pleasure or pain, my mindfulness stands firm.
Knowing the unattractiveness of fabricated things, my heart adheres nowhere at all. I am a follower of the one well-gone, riding the vehicle of the eightfold way: My arrow removed, eff|uent-free, I delight, having gone to an empty dwelling. For I have seen well-painted puppets, hitched up with sticks and strings, made to dance in various ways. When the sticks and strings are removed, thrown away, scattered, shredded, smashed into pieces, not to be found, in what will the mind there make its home? This body of mine, which is just like that, when devoid of dhammas doesn’t function. When, devoid of dhammas, it doesn’t function, in what will the mind there make its home? Like a mural you’ve seen, painted on a wall, smeared with yellow orpiment, there your vision has been distorted, meaningless your perception of a human being.
Like an evaporated mirage, like a tree of gold in a dream, like a magic show in the midst of a crowd — you run blind after what is unreal. Resembling a ball of sealing wax, set in a hollow, with a bubble in the middle and bathed with tears, eye secretions are born there too: The parts of the eye are rolled all together in various ways.”
After saying all of this to him, without any sense of regret, she plucked out one of her eyes. With her mind completely unattached, she gave it to him. She said to him, “Here, take this eye. It’s yours.” As soon as she did this his passion faded right then and there as he begged her for forgiveness. He promised that he will never let this happen again. He said that harming a person like her is like embracing a blazing fire, or having seized a poisonous snake. After this encounter, Subha went to the Buddha. It is said that when she saw the mark of his excellent merit, her eye became as it was before.