Happy Birthday, Shakyamuni

Altar room at Ginkakuji, Togudo Hall

April 8th in the solar calendar marks the birth of the Buddha, Shakyamuni, also known as Siddhartha Gautama according to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.¹ In Japanese this day is colloquially called Hanamatsuri (花祭り, “Flower Festival”) or more formally Gōtan-é (降誕会, “Nativity Day”).² According to tradition, the infant upon birth took 7 steps, and declared:

“Heaven above, and Earth below, I alone am the World-Honored One”

(天上天下唯我独尊, ten jō ten ka yui ga doku son)

…which sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it?  But, you see, Buddhist stories are rife with symbolism!

In Buddhism, the appearance of a fully-awakened Buddha who can teach and set the wheel of truth in motion again is cyclical but extremely rare. The next Buddha, Maitreya, will not appear for millions if not billions of years, for example.

So, the point of celebrating this day is to celebrate the fortuitous appearance of a Buddha, not to worship him as a divinity.

On a more practical level, the man called Shakyamuni Buddha was like a doctor,³ curing the ills of the world through compassion, tolerance, peace, insight and upright conduct. Further, he exhorted all beings, regardless of background, to do the same.

So, anyhow, happy birthday Shakyamuni Buddha!

¹ A lot of countries still use the lunar calendar, so dates may vary.  Japan moved entirely to the solar calendar, hence in Japanese Buddhism it’s always on April 8th.

² The term gōtan (降誕) really just means “birth” but in a more poetic sort of way.  The Nativity of Jesus in Japanese uses the same term, hence I translated in English as “Nativity Day” above.

³ See the example of the Medicine Buddha as an expression of this.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

1 thought on “Happy Birthday, Shakyamuni”

  1. I am interested in what you have said about the appearance and reappearance of an Enlightened One. If it is true that the next, Maitreya, will not appear for millions or possibly billions of years this means that the current state of the Dharma is more than sufficiently established in the world to withstand such a gradual decline over possibly a billion years, such that we can accept that Buddhism is in such decline, and will become a mere speck in the future. Or are you suggesting that Buddhism is on the ascent and that it has not reached its peak, if so, what makes you draw that conclusion? And if it is in such a gradual decline that will continue for millions of years, the concepts of Buddhism will be less influential in the world among the world religions, such as Islam and Christianity, and others old and new, It is shown that those other religions are increasing steadily and in Africa, dramatically. It seems to me to be a form of suffering to cling to something that has lost its authoritative power to get the attention of the world leaders and followers.

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