I woke up again in the middle of the night, due to Baby kicking me in the back,* so I thought I’d talk about the Buddha’s Birthday, which we celebrate today in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
In Buddhism, there are two holidays to commemorate the Buddha’s Birthday: Vesak which is pronounced “way-sack”, and Hanamatsuri, depending on which sect of Buddhism you’re following. Hanamatsuri (花祭) is the Flower Festival in Japanese, though in East Asia it’s known by many names.
The difference between Vesak and Hanamatsuri is basically which sect you follow, with people in Theravada, South-East Asian cultures celebrating Vesak, and Mahayana East-Asian cultures typically celebrating Hanamatsuri. This is not always the case though, but just a rough guide.
In any case, Hanamatsuri commemorates the day the Buddha was born. In the Buddhist texts, there are varying stories about what happened when the Buddha was born. It was said as a baby, he immediately took 7 steps (for the six-realms of rebirth, plus one more for Nirvana) and told the people present that he alone was the World-Honored One. This last statement requires some explanation.
A Buddha, or fully awakened one, is said to be incredibly rare in Buddhism. Such beings, who become Enlightened after many, many rebirths and who started as Bodhisattvas** and fulfill their vows are quite extraordinary. Such beings are either called Samma-sam-buddho or Samyaksam-Buddha in Pali and Sanskrit language respectively.
So the Buddha, named Shakyamuni meaning “of the Sakya clan”, is the Fully-Awakened One of this era. It’s because of him the Wheel of the Dharma has been turned so that beings can benefit from it, either through attaining Enlightenment for themselves, or through benefitting others lifetime after lifetime as a Bodhisattva. Because of the Buddha’s accomplishments, this is possible to us today and it’s for this reason he said that he alone was the World-Honored One. 🙂
In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we take this one step further by saying that Shakyamuni Buddha is a manifestation of Amida Buddha, so although we honor Shakyamuni Buddha we also express gratitude to Amida. I used to think this teaching was really weird when I first went to the temple, but as my understanding of Amida changed it made more sense. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism tends to trim out a lot of the figures in Buddhism (bodhisattvas, Buddhas, guardian kings, etc), so that there are really only two*** figures we focus on: Amida and Shakyamuni.
Shakyamuni appeared in this world and pointed the way out to us, while Amida dwells in the Pure Land and calls beings to Enlightenment. Shakyamuni Buddha is the physical historical Buddha, or nirmanakaya in Sanskrit, while Amida is the timeless primordial one, or dharmakaya in Sanskrit. This notion of a physical, historical Buddha and a primordial Buddha by the way is not limited to Jodo Shinshu at all, but is found in some level or another in every sect of Buddhism.
In more practical matters, our temple celebrates Hanamatsuri with a nice display of fresh flowers, and pouring Japanese sweet-tea (amacha or 甘茶) over the “baby Buddha” statue in the middle with a ladle. Followers also drink sweet-tea which is actually pretty good. In general I am not much of a tea drinker, but I do like sweet-tea, and I remember also drinking it on the day of my wedding, when my mother-in-law made it for us home-made style.
Also, I will practice shōjin today. I’ve talked in the past about Buddhist dietary habits, but let me quote from the Jodo Shinshu Handbook for a better explanation of shōjin:
In Buddhism shojin means persevering devotion and refraining from evil deeds, adherence to good and adoration of the Dharma. But the common understanding is that shojin is abstaining from eating animal flesh and this is a very small and narrow interpretation of the original term.
Therefore, in the observance of shojin , as for instance on a memorial day, it is not just the partaking of vegetarian food alone, but is the reappreciation of all life by abstaining from taking any life, dedication to the Buddha-dharma and single-heartedly hearing the compassion of Amida Buddha with persevering devotion.
That about sums it up for me. Out of respect and gratitude toward the Buddha will try to follow shōjin today. We have a potluck today at the temple, which I hear is vegetarian, so that being around a group of people dedicated to the same effort is a big help. Also, I will just spend the day in wholesome pursuits, such as spending time with Baby, and helping around the house.
Happy Hanamatsuri Everyone! 😀
* – As most parents know, the smallest one takes up an inverse proportion of the bed. 😉
** – In the Pali Canon, the Buddha often refers to himself in his past lives as the Bodhisatta, the Pali rendering of Bodhisattva. Scholars often mistakenly teach that the term Bodhisattva was invented by Mahayana Buddhists, but Mahayana Buddhists simply expanded the term to refer to other beings like the Buddha, who take the “long-route” and help and teach beings along the way.
*** – We also acknowledge the Bodhisattvas named Kannon and Seishi because they are attendants of Amida Buddha so to speak. However, in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, Kannon symbolizes Compassion, Seishi symbolizes Wisdom. In a sense, they are the right and left hands of Amida Buddha.