Throughout much of Asia, spring is the time to observe the Buddha’s birthday in Mahayana Buddhism. For Japan in particular, the ancient “8th day of the 4th month” has been updated to match the Western calendar, and thus every year on April 8th is the holiday of Hanamatsuri: the Festival of Flowers. The name derives from the story of the Buddha’s birth, when the gods of India scattered flowers from the sky in joy. Flowers are an ancient symbol of joy and celebration, and the birth of a Buddha is said to be extraordinarily rare in the world, so much so that the next Buddha (Maitreya) will not appear in the world for billions of years. The occasion is thus something not to be missed.
Throughout Japan, you will see small shrines in every Buddhist temple, featuring an image of the baby Buddha with one hand pointing upward, while the other points downward. This derives from the legend that as the baby was born, it took six steps and proclaimed, “Above heaven and below heaven, I alone am the world-honored one,” referring to his unique status as a Buddha-to-be. The baby statue is laden with flowers all around, and children and adults can pour a ladle-full of sweet tea over the statue as an offering and gesture of respect.
Unlike other Buddhist holidays, which can be more of a solemn affair, the Buddha’s birthday is festive through and through. I can remember in 2010, while staying in Tokyo, my wife, daughter and I spent Hanamatsuri at a famous temple downtown. In the morning, a service was held and new members were sworn in to the temple. But once this was over, the parking lot outside was treated to a parade from down the street, including a giant life-sized statue of an elephant, a royal symbol in India, and children dressed up and marching with batons. But this was only the beginning. The parking lot soon swelled with food stalls, including delicious Indian curry from the local Indian community in Tokyo, stalls selling Buddhist wares such as rosaries, prayer books and images, and even booths from the community firefighters and police force. Children could dress up as firemen, or ride in a real fire engine. Elsewhere in the parking lot, performances enlivened the atmosphere with Taiko drumming, demonstrations of the Tea Ceremony and so on. In the spirit of Buddhist compassion, one could also find other stalls where charity causes distributed flyers and pamphlets and sought donations for places like Afghanistan and Africa.
In the warm April heat, I remember my little one wearing her pink sun bonnet and enjoying ice cream, while being admired by Japanese grandparents who sat nearby. Her exotic looks and good behavior earned their adoration, but she didn’t seem to notice. She was too busy dancing to the Taiko drums. As for me, I wished I had brought some sunscreen that day as my European ancestry was becoming a liability in the hot Tokyo weather.
Of all the days I could remember in Tokyo, this was in some ways the most Buddhist. It was a gathering of the local community, all united in celebrating the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha, and enjoying the warm weather. As the Buddha wished for all beings to be well in the famous Metta Sutta, the spirit of the Buddha’s birthday is about happiness, sharing and wholesome, family-oriented fun.
Even with the tragedy in Japan right now, I know that from what I’ve seen in the past, people will come together for this one day and find some joy and relief in the world even in the midst of their loss.
While they cannot control what’s happened, they can still find peace through one another and strength through adversity. Even if the celebrations are not as lavish as they once were, it’s the people that matter. Life will carry on with or without the extra trimmings. This is something the Buddha taught and embodies the beauty of this holiday.
And for Buddhists around the world, may this coming holiday be a merry one for you too.