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.