Buddhist Festivals: Buddha’s Birthday Celebration

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to Dharma friends around the world! Welcome to another episode of English Dharma Services.

Kathryn: Hi Venerable Zhi Tong, Buddha’s Birthday is right around the corner! What celebrations will the temple prepare this year?

Ven. Zhi Tong: Hi Kathryn! Good to see you in the temple again. Yes, Buddha’s Birthday is this Sunday on May 8th. Of course, the main celebration will be Bathing the Baby Buddha, as well as food fair, cultural performances, and a grand parade at night.

Kathryn: Oh wow! I can’t wait to return to the temple again on Sunday! Venerable Zhi Tong, I understand that we are celebrating the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, on every Lunar Eighth, but I do not fully understand why do we bathe the baby Buddha? Does it have something to do with his birth?

II. The Birth of Prince Siddhartha

You are right, Kathryn, the Bathing the Baby Buddha tradition originates from the birth of Prince Siddharta. According to the Biography of Sakyamuni Buddha, when Queen Maya was about to give birth, she traveled back to her hometown for her labor, as was the custom. Along the road, Queen Maya passed by the Lumbini Garden and was taken by the beautiful scenery, so she stopped traveling to walk about the garden. Suddenly, she felt that she was going into labor, and soon enough gave birth to Prince Siddharta under the asoka tree.

Just then, the sunlight shone brilliantly in the sky, the flowers bloomed beautifully, and the air was filled with joyous birdsong, as the world was celebrating the birth of the prince.

The birth was accompanied by other miracles as well. Shortly after birth, the child walked seven steps. After looking in every direction, the child pointed one finger to the sky and the other to the ground, and declared, “This is my last birth into this world. It is for the sake of realizing Buddhahood that I have come into this world. I am the greatest enlightened being, and am here to liberate all beings.”

After these words, two streams of water fell from the heavens, one warm and one cool. The prince bathed in them, leaving his body and mind free and at ease. 

To remember this auspicious day, we celebrate the birth of the Buddha by bathing his image, just as how the baby was bathed by waters from the skies.

Kathryn: Oh, this is a beautiful story. Basically, we are re-enacting the event of the Buddha’s birth.

Venerable Zhi Tong: Indeed, we are paying our respect and gratitude to the baby Buddha, who came to this world to teach us the virtue of compassion, give us the light of wisdom, and show us the path to liberation

III. Procedure in Bathing the Buddha

Kathryn: What are the steps to bathe the baby Buddha? How should we conduct ourselves?

When you stand in front of a baby Buddha, you can first join your palms respectfully. You can contemplate on the Buddha’s kindness or have faith in the Buddha. When you are ready, you can bow once to the Buddha. Next, you can kneel down on the cushion before the Buddha. Then, take up the ladle and fill it with fragrant water. There are three steps:

First, sprinkle water from the right shoulder of the Buddha and vow: I vow to stop doing unwholesome deeds (i.e. do good deeds).

Next, sprinkle water from the left shoulder of the Buddha and vow: I vow to cultivate wholesome deeds (i.e. speak good words).

Lastly, sprinkle water from the right shoulder of the Buddha again and vow: I vow to liberate all sentient beings (i.e. think good thoughts).

When you are ready, stand up, and bow again to complete the ceremony.

IV. Four Types of Kindness: Kindness of Sentient Beings

Since beginningless time, all sentient beings throughout their numerous lifetimes have been each other’s parents. In addition, sentient beings have shown us kindness through the various comforts and conveniences that they provide. To show our gratitude for the kindness of sentient beings, we can practice the bodhisattva path in order to help sentient beings be liberated from the cycle of birth and death. 

V. Fourfold Significance of Bathing the Buddha

  1. While bathing the Buddha, we are cleansing our afflictions. At that moment we vow to get rid of greed, hatred, and ignorance, and purify our body, speech, and mind. We also resolve to do good deeds, speak good words, and think good thoughts so as to reveal our good nature and realize the pure Dharma body of the Buddha.
  2. In our daily lives, we use water to clean our bodies and wash our dirty clothes. To purify our afflictions, we need to use Dharma water. Bathing the Buddha will help us purify our minds by diminishing our afflictions.
  3. Bathing the Buddha reminds us to always keep a pure mind. When bathing the Buddha, we can contemplate whether our mind is pure or muddled. By praying to transform defiled minds into Bodhi minds, we are seeking to fill our minds with wholesome virtues. If everyone acts, speaks, and thinks wholesomely, we are creating a peaceful and harmonious society and transforming the world into a pure land of truthfulness, virtue, and beauty.
  4. Besides paying respects to the Buddha, we can dedicate the merits of bathing the Buddha to our parents, to friends and family, to the people we know or do not know, and to all sentient beings in the six realms to liberate them from suffering.

Kathryn: Thank you for your explanation, Venerable Zhi Tong. Bathing the Buddha isn’t just a ceremony, it is also a chance for us to self-reflect. I think more importantly, to cultivate the virtues of the Buddha so that we can be a light to other people as well.

Venerable Zhi Tong: You’re right. The Buddha doesn’t need to be bathed by us. Rather, we are the ones who need to have a heart-to-heart connection with the Buddha.

VI. The Buddha’s Birthday Parade

 Kathryn: I will be mindful when I bathe the Buddha on Sunday! Venerable Zhi Tong, you also mentioned about Buddha’s birthday parade. I like that we are also keeping up with modern times by having parades and floats on Buddha’s birthday!

Venerable Zhi Tong: Actually, Buddha’s Birthday parades have a long history in Buddhism. Let me show you a painting. This painting is titled “Northern Wei Parade of the Buddha” by artist Ms. Nancy Cowardin

In China, Buddhists have been holding Buddha’s Birthday parades as early as the Eastern Han Dynasty, which is about AD 189, grand celebrations were held to commemorate this day. During the Northern Wei Dynasty, which is the early 6th century, the parades would involve over a thousand images and carriages that were decorated in the most elaborate manner with gold, jade, and other jewels. Even the emperors would join the celebration by standing at the city gate and scattering flowers to the Buddha images as carriages paraded past them. Besides carriages, there were also parades of music, performances, acrobats, and even exotic animals. People would flood the capital city, not only joining the celebrations but also making offerings and praying to the Buddha in hope that their wishes will be fulfilled.

Kathyrn: This is amazing! To think that it happened over 1,500 years ago! What about these black and white photos? Is this Venerable Master Hsing Yun?

Venerable Zhi Tong: Yes, Venerable Master began to organize Buddha’s Birthday Parades in the township of Yilan, where he was based a few years after arriving in Taiwan. The first celebration was held in 1954. Before the day of the event, Venerable Master would have volunteers announcing the time and date of the celebration around the town. And on the actual day itself, there were parades, Chanting Buddha’s Name Dharma services, slide shows, Bathing the Buddha ceremonies, and Buddhist dramas and music. The event grew to be so popular that in 1958, the Buddha’s Birthday parade stretched for ten kilometers. [Slide 25]And in 1959, more than 30,000 people participated in the celebration of the Buddha’s Birthday celebration in Yilan. This was unprecedented as Yilan was only a small town with 50,000 people. You can imagine that almost the entire town participated in this event.

Throughout the years, Venerable Master was also the first Buddhist leader in Taiwan who suggested that Buddha’s birthday should be a national holiday in the same way as in other Buddhist countries. He hoped that Buddhists would deeply appreciate the meaning of bathing the Buddha on Buddha’s birthday.

After years of effort, in 1999, the Ministry of the Interior officially announced that the 8th day of the fourth lunar calendar was designated as the National Buddha’s Birthday. It was celebrated together with Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May. This was indeed a big progress for Buddhism.

Kathryn: Wow, I never knew this part of history. The reason we are able to celebrate the birth of the Buddha is that there are Buddhists who kept this tradition alive. I am thankful that we live in a time and age where the Buddha is still fresh in our memories. And thank you to the Venerable Master for showing us the significance of bathing the Buddha.

VII. Conclusion

Venerable Zhi Tong: Thank you for dropping by the temple today, Kathryn. Before you leave, let us chant this Verse of Bathing the Buddha, to prepare you for Sunday’s events:

I now sincerely bathe all Tathagatas,
Gaining merits of pure wisdom and majesty;
May beings be free from defilements in all,
Thereby attain Tathagata's pure Dharma body.

May the scents of sila, dhyana, prajna, and right view
Constantly pervade temples of the entire world;
May the fume from this incense too,
Accomplish boundless works buddhas do.

May the Three Lower Realms’ wheel of suffering halt, 
Bringing coolness to the fires of burning pain;
May all generate the supreme Bodhi mind,
Forever free from the river of passion to the other shore.

Venerable Zhi Tong: Through this external action of bathing the Buddha, we are bathing our inner buddha. By participating in the parade, we are sharing the virtues of kindness, compassion, respect, and morality with the people around us. May we find inner peace on this auspicious day, and may there be harmony and stability in the society.

Kathyrn: Thank you Venerable Zhi Tong, and thank you to you who tuned in to this video.

See you next week! Omitofo!