Reap the heart-healthy benefits of meditation or focused breathing

Meditation and breathing practice offer the opportunity to slow down and rest, in addition to numerous health benefits.

Welcome to December. A month packed with holidays and parties, gift exchanges, big meals and decorations. While some celebrations come with all the festive trimmings, the month holds one holiday that is observed in a quieter manner.

Bodhi Day, observed on Dec. 8, is a part of the Buddhist tradition and commemorates the day that Siddhartha Gautama, upon seeing the morning star at dawn, experienced enlightenment or Bodhi, and became “Buddha” or “the enlightened one.” According to tradition, the Buddha resolved to meditate until he found the root of suffering and how to liberate oneself from it.

For 2,500 years, the enlightenment of Buddha has been the focus for Buddhists of every school, sect and nationality. Bodhi Day is when they reaffirm their dedication to wisdom, compassion and kindness.

Bodhi Day is observed in Mahayana Buddhist sects, which follow a mix of Buddhist traditions including Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is practiced mostly in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Tibet and Mongolia.

Some Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day with a traditional meal of rice and milk, the first meal offered to the Buddha after his enlightenment to help him regain strength. Many choose to meditate, and other traditions include special readings, chanting of Buddhist texts or “sutras,” study of the Dharma, flower offerings and performing acts of kindness toward others.

For Kerry Knowles of Munster Bodhi Day is a special day for meditation, enlightenment, and connecting with your higher self. A few years ago, she lived in a Buddhist community in Dharmsala, India. Knowles worked in a monastery with exiled Tibetan monks and learned a great deal about Buddhism. 

“Some meditate for a week or throughout the night for their enlightenment,” she explained. “If this is not possible, then at least some form of meditation is utilized to seek enlightenment.”

Knowles explained that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, invites people to practice Buddhism, which doesn't require conversion. Knowles was born and raised Catholic but said she never adhered to the construct of things as being absolute. “Buddhism felt natural to me; we have the answers within us,” she said. “Buddha is not a deity; he’s a man who had a spiritual awakening.”

After becoming interested in Buddhism while working with Hindus during her undergraduate studies, Knowles went to India after completing her graduate work. “I got this feeling of being ‘at home’ and comfortable with myself. Buddhism is a sanction of kindness and mindfulness and being present here in the moment today,” she said. “It’s about being part of a community and expressing kindness. My community is everyone I interact with and I believe in giving that kindness to others.”

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Angie Jones of St. John discovered Buddhism about 10 years ago, when she was going through a difficult time in her life. She was trying to understand the “why” of things, and Buddhism helped her reach the clarity she needed.

“I try to practice the precepts of Buddhism and I meditate, as they keep me grounded, centered and at peace,” said Jones. “I realize that it’s always a work in progress. Only the Buddha was truly enlightened, that is why it is called ‘practicing Buddhism.’ ”

She added that Buddhism is personal. It’s a “Dharma” or “way of life.” By observing Bodhi Day, Buddhists can spend a day in deep meditation and reflection.

Jones’ colleague, who also practices Buddhism, introduced her to philosophy of British-Australian Theravada Buddhist monk, Ajahn Brahm. Brahm is “the popular Buddhist teacher to a growing international audience of people keen to learn meditation and develop a deeper spiritual understanding.”

“For busy people like me, I can listen to him online in the car,” Jones said. “He has truly changed my life.”

Jerry Ashmore of Lake Station is a Senior Dharma teacher, whose group, Empty Circle Zen meets at the Unitarian Church in Hobart. Ashmore is a member of the Kwan Um School of Zen formed by a Korean Zen Master and associated with the Indianapolis Zen Center.

“The most important Buddhist holiday is Bodhi Day or ‘Night of the Enlightenment,’ ” Ashmore said. “The average Korean Buddhist doesn’t meditate; rather they chant mantras and engage in various elaborate ceremonies.”

“Buddhism is an untapped way of life that can be helpful for a lot of people,” said Jones.