Today we offered a simple celebration to honor Buddha's birthday: by pouring a little water over a small stone in an offering bowl decorated with a single dogwood flower, we mark the birth not only of Buddha, the awakened one, but indeed of all things.
Our ceremony was a little echo of the Hana Matsuri or "flower festival" that traditionally is celebrated on April 8th in Japan. The marking of Buddha's birth has been handed down since early Buddhist times in India, and as Buddhism came to Japan, the ceremony became known as Kanbutsu-e, or "the ceremony of ritual ablution". In this observance, a small baby Buddha is nestled in a flower-bedecked shrine meant to mimic the garden in Lumbini, where he was born. Visitors to the temple pour a little sweet tea over the baby statuette and imbibe a little themselves.
Being short on baby statuettes-- I've got a little boy who is more into trucks these days than dolls-- I chose to represent the infant Buddha with a small pebble chosen from my yard. In this small way, the little pebble honors the awakened nature of all the Earth, including you and me. The Japanese Hana Matsuri is a flower festival to boot, and I think there's no mistake in the time of year chosen to honor Buddha's birth, as the northern hemisphere bursts to life once again with a party of fresh blooms. So the blossom that festooned the water surrounding our little Buddha was that of the dogwood, and other blossoms on the altar came from a pear tree.
Why celebrate the birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha? It might seem strange that a religion that places the most focus on "enlightenment" would bother at all with something seemingly so trivial. There is a lovely essay on that matter at the Zen Friends site that illuminates much about "precious human birth"-- the condition, according to Buddhist teachings, that allows enlightenment to occur in the first place.
But my teacher would caution about not getting too caught up in that idea. Rather, in my practice, honoring this birth day is a precious opportunity to gather in the raw abundance of life itself, to take it in and notice it without too many labels or ideas, and experience it as directly as one can without the noggin' getting in the way of it. What is the Buddha's birthday? Just pour water; just drink tea.
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