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Buddha’s Birthday Celebrated Around the World
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In East and Southeast Asia Buddhism is one of the predominant religions. Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was a royal prince, wealthy and powerful who grew up in the luxury and comfort of the royal palace. But despite the comforts of the royal courts and the fulfilling marriage he had with his lovely wife, Buddha left his family to seek enlightenment at the age of 29, and found it at the age of 35. The remaining 45 years of his life he dedicated to teaching the religious principles he had learned as an enlightened man. Buddha at the age of 80 (Keown 25-26.)
Because Buddhism believes in reincarnation, it is quite difficult to create a chronological, historical biography of Buddha's life, thus, Buddhist around the world focus only to the four most important events of his life: birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and death (Keown 25-27).
The birth of Buddha is celebrated differently throughout Asia. The regional variation could be attributed to cultural interpretation of each country. For instance, the Japanese follow the Gregorian calendar rather than the traditional Chinese Lunar Calendar thus celebrates Buddha’s birth in a different date than the rest of the Asian countries. The rituals and the duration of the celebration were also localized depending on the region or how the country interprets their religious understanding of the teachings of Buddha.
Hana-Matsuri is literally translated in English as “Flower Festival”—Hana meaning ‘flower’ and Matsuri meaning ‘festival’ but is actually is the birth celebration of Buddha. The celebration of Buddha’s birth coincides with the coming of spring and the blossoming of Sakura—Cherry blossom, the national flower of Japan. But more than just a national symbol, Sakura is a reminder of Buddha’s teaching (Ganeri 26-27).
Sakura, Cherry blossoms are very beautiful but they are also very delicate and would easily wither after a few days. This is a reminder to the Japanese of Buddha’s teaching that everything changes, nothing on earth is permanent. Thus, Japanese parks are a sight to behold as Cherry trees that lined up the parks are in full bloom (Ganeri 26-27).
Cherry blossoms are also used as decoration and ornaments during the celebration. Young girls would wear it on their heads; streets are decorated with streamers with cherry blossom themes; and garlands made of cherry blossoms are weaved and offered to Buddha statues on temples (Ganeri 26-27).
Makeshift flower gardens are also set up in the temple courtyards of Vihara to recreate the garden to which Buddha was said to have been born. In the middle of the garden, a statue of a young Buddha is placed were visitors could pour scented tea extracted from hydrangea leaves over the image. This ritual recreates the event when the baby Buddha was bathed by perfumed water from the gods. A large, white, elephant would also be placed near the image of the baby Buddha which symbolizes Queen Maya’s dream while still pregnant with Buddha—an omen from the gods that she would either have a very powerful son or a wise religious teacher (Ganeri 27).
Besides the religious aspects of the Japanese celebration of Buddha’s birth, Hana-Matsuri is an occasion for merriment. Though it is not considered a national holiday, it is greeted with vibrant activities. Performers and acrobats, storytellers, and folk dancers provide for the entertainment of the festivities while vendors selling street food like fish soup and rice balls allow locals and tourists for a gastronomic treat. Paper umbrellas, lucky charms, and other souvenir items also abound during the Flower Festival (Ganeri 27).
South Korea: Sŏkka T’ ansin-il
In Korea, the birth of Buddha, Sŏkka T’ ansin-il is also known as the Festival of Lanterns. It is observed on the eight day of the fourth lunar month and is a national holiday as was decreed in 1976 since it is one of the dominant religions in Korea (Sohn 96). Usually, the Festival of Lanterns would fall between the month of April and May. During this period, Korean Buddhists would hold numerous religious events and ceremonies in their temples to commemorate the birth of Buddha (DuBois 117).
The festivity is marked by the colorful lanterns that are hung on temples, streets, and homes. The courtyard of Buddhist temples are decorated with flowers and vibrantly colored paper lanterns with tags that bear the name of family ancestors who hung the lantern in the temple as an offering. Koreans would come with family members to the temple to offer prayers, flowers, lantern, and incest to ask for Buddha’s blessing. The celebration is concluded with an evening parade of candlelit paper lanterns. The lanterns are symbolic of hope (DuBois 117).
Unlike Japanese’s celebration of Buddha’s birth which is a blend of both religious ritual but lean more to the side of festivities, South Korea commemorates Buddha’s birth in a more solemn and formal tone.
Thailand: Visakha Puja
Thai Buddhism also has its own cultural identity as expressed in its celebration of Buddha’s birth. Called locally as Visakha Puja, it is celebrated during the month of May and is considered the holiest of all Buddhist days, it is a triple holiday that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha (Marty and Appleby 658-659).
Thai Buddhist celebrates Visakha Puja in a very religious, symbolic, and ceremonial manner. It is a holiday that revolves around monastic religiosity and lifetime of ordination. The event highlights the monkhood of a handful of young men that would be ordained to a lifetime commitment to the Buddhist Sangha. This is considered the climax of the religious event (Marty & Appleby 658-659).
Other religious rituals are also observed. For instance, the festivity is also marked by the mass release of caged birds. This symbolizes the reincarnation of the spirit, the freeing of the spirit from its mortal body or achieving enlightenment. Sacred chants and fasting are also observed during Visakha Puja (Gupta & Gupta 1001).
Myanmar: Thrice-blessed day
In Myanmar, Buddhists celebrate Buddha’s birth in the month of April or May. Just like the Thai Buddhists, Myanmar also celebrates Buddha’s birthday together with his enlightenment and the day he entered nirvana or nirbbana. Thus, it is known as the ‘thrice-blessed day.’ The festivity is marked by the ritual washing of the banyan tree. The banyan tree is where Queen Maya rested on her journey and eventually gave birth to Buddha.
If celebrating in Myanmar, the best place to observe the ceremony is at yangon's Shwedagon Paya. Here, a procession of girls carrying earthen jars parade to the pagoda. In the Pagoda’s courtyard are three banyan three where the ceremonial watering would take place (Reid & Grosberg 340).
Other Asian countries
Other Asian countries that have predominant Buddhist heritage or influence also have various ways of celebrating Buddha’s birth. In Malaysia for instance, Buddha’s birth is called Wesak Day and is commemorated with the freeing of caged birds to symbolize the freeing of captive souls.
In Cambodia, Buddha’s birth is called Visak Bauchea and is celebrated during the full moon in the month of April or May. It is considered the most sacred Buddhist holiday and is celebrated as a triple holiday that commemorates his birth, enlightenment, and state of bliss.
Though Buddhism is a worldwide religion observed by people from various countries—not just in Asia, we could see that despite its very Asian roots, Buddhism have experience regionalization. As countries infuse their local culture towards interpretation of Buddha’s religious teachings, it affects and transcends to the way they celebrate and commemorate the important facets of Buddha’s life.
As we could see from the various ways that Buddha’s birth is celebrated in different countries, it is important to note that no one culture is better or more correct than the other. It is their own way of interpreting their belief.
Japan’s culture interprets Buddha’s birth as a time of merriment and festivities while Thai culture interprets it as a time to be consecrated for meditating and achieving enlightenment. Likewise, Korea’s culture see the balance between merriment and religious ritual; reserving the merrymaking on the latter part of the day to preserve the solemnity of the holiday.
Thailand and Malaysia would celebrate Buddha’s birthday together with his enlightenment and death while Japan and Korea would commemorate each of Buddha’s important life events in different occasions. Either way, it is important to note that each culture celebrate Buddha’s life events the way that is appropriate to their culture and the way they have incorporated Buddhist believes to their way of life.
DuBois, Jill. Korea. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2004. Print.
Ganeri, Anita. Buddhist Festivals throughout the Year. Smart Apple Media, 2003. Print.
Gupta, K. R. & Gupta, Amita. Concise Encyclopedia of India, Volume 3. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2006. Print.
Keown, Damien. Buddhism. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2009. Print.
Marty, Martin & Appleby, Scott. Fundamentalisms Observed. USA: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Print.
Reid, Robert & Grosberg, Michael. Myanmar (Burma). Lonely Planet, 2005. Print.
Sohn, Ho-min. Korean Language in Culture and Society. USA: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. Print.