The Buddha’s Birthday: How to Celebrate As a Buddhist

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Last Sunday (May 7th), I attended an enlightening birthday party for our one and only, Shakyamuni Buddha!  I can confirm he was still looking youthful after 2,641 years 😉

Kidding aside, Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s birthday to not only show their faith and appreciation to our teacher but also to show these qualities in themselves.

Thankfully, I was able to finally participate in the Dharma service for the Buddha’s birthday, and bathe the Buddha and wanted to share it with you (and what it means!).

Note:  Different schools, sects, and branches of Buddhism practice celebrating the Buddha’s birthday differently.  This article relates to the Mahayana Buddhism tradition of the Buddha’s birthday.  Theravada Buddhism (and some in Mahayana Buddhism) practices the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death in a celebration called “Vesak”.  

The Buddha…Was a Baby?

Buddha’s Birth at Lumbini

Yes, he was!  The Buddha, born as Prince Sidhartha, was a human being.  However, his birth was said to be miraculous.  Hundreds of years before the virgin birth of Jesus, Prince Sidhartha was also conceived supernaturally.  The Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya, was unable to conceive with King Suddhodana for 20 years.

One night, she had a dream of a being riding a white elephant through space towards her, and when it reached her, entered into her body through an opening on her right side and settled in her womb.  at a white elephant’s tusk touched her side and she was then with child…the future Buddha.  Started, she awoke and told the King of the dream.  Not long afterward, she discovered she was in fact pregnant.

When she was ready to give birth, she went to her mother’s home in Lumbini Grove on the edge of Kapilivastu (as often was the custom for a woman to give birth in their native homeland).  She gave birth under a flourishing Asoka tree and gave birth to a boy…Prince Sidhartha.

From there, things got strange…or miraculous (you choose).  Whether this is fact, exaggeration, or fiction (or a mix) is never to be known and left to faith.  The small prince, shortly after birth, walked seven steps!  With one hand pointing to the heavens and the other to the earth (which is why the baby Buddha statue looks like this in the ceremony), the prince said He then looked in every direction and declared “This is my last birth into this world.  It is for the sake of realizing Buddahood that I have come into this world.  I am the greatest enlightened being and am here to liberate all beings.”   At that moment, the Four Heavenly Kings and nine dragons rained fragrant water from the sky, bathing the body of the prince.  We believe that through the Buddha’s birth, realizing our own Buddha-nature is the noblest and the most valuable goal.

All of this is quite impressive (if true) since it took me (and perhaps you as well) several months or a year to master even the basics of walking and talking 😉  Personally, I believe this is mostly a story using “skillful means” to help practitioners in growing their faith and emulating good qualities to become good Buddhists.

Bathing the Buddha, Baby!

Photo by Alan Peto at Hsi Lai Temple

A fun, but symbolic, part of this day is bathing the Buddha.  From a purely outside perspective, it looks quite odd.  You are bathing a tiny Buddha baby with a finger pointed up to the sky, adorned with what looks like a Hawaiian flower lei, and people dunking water over it.  What gives?!

“Bathing the Buddha” is a highly symbolic (and skillful means) way for a practitioner to symbolize these Buddhist concepts, attributes, and goals:

  • Purifying the body
  • Purifying the speech
  • Purifying the mind

So, you’re not really “cleaning” the Buddha (he had his shower today, thank you very much), but instead you are showing that you aspire to “cleanse” your “inner” mind of greed, hatred, and delusion.  It’s easy to clean the “outer” dirt off your body, but your mind is the key to enlightenment (so start cleaning)!

There are benefits for the Buddhist in bathing the Buddha

In the Benefits of Bathing the Buddha Sutra, they are:

  1. Wealth and happiness, good health and longevity
  2. All wishes fulfilled
  3. Peace and harmony for family, relatives, and friends
  4. Never to face the Eight Obstacles of learning the Dharma, nor suffering
  5. Achieve quick enlightenment

Step One:  Showing Respect.

When you first come to the area to bathe the Buddha for his birthday, you kneel (there will be a place to do this) and join your palms before the Buddha.  Many will also bow to the Buddha before they kneel.  Non-Buddhists may think this is worship (over a small baby statue Buddhist-god of all things).  But that’s not what’s really going on.

A Buddhist bows or prostrates to the Buddha, we show our humility, appreciation, and respect, for the Buddha as our teacher…not a god (the Buddha was a human being, after all).  Why bow?  Yes, it is an Asian tradition (you will see school children bow in respect to their teachers, but that doesn’t mean they are gods!) and it also allows us to take our super-inflated ego down a notch!  We show respect for the Buddha as our teacher because:

  • The Buddha is a teacher because he understood the true nature of things and taught others
  • He became a respected person because he vowed to liberate all sentient beings from suffering
  • He showed humanity how to better themselves by teaching love, kindness, and compassion

When a Buddhist bows before the Buddha, they are doing the following:

  • Reminding themselves of their own Buddha-nature
  • Examining their own mind
  • Renewing their vow to remove any obstacles from their mind and life that prevent them from becoming enlightened
  • Manifesting kindness and compassion
  • Vowing to benefit all sentient beings
  • Letting go of their own ego

There are those who do not see it this way and are taught to “pray” to the Buddha (as if he is a supernatural being) for health, wealth or other things the person wants.  This, of course, has nothing to do with Buddhism.

Yet, through the Buddhist concept of skillful means, a practitioner can slowly learn about the true meaning and concepts of Buddhism and progress on the path.

Step Two:  Make a Wish (upon a star?)

In a bit of cultural mix, it is often said you can “make a wish”.  That is a bit of “skillful means” and has nothing really to do with Buddhism.  The Buddha isn’t going to make you win the lottery (sorry), but if you “wish” for your body, mind, and intention to do good deeds, speak good words, and think good thoughts…you have already taken the first step to fulfilling those wishes!

Step Three:  Bathe the Buddha!

And from there you can take the long-handled wooden ladle and use the bowl of water beneath the Buddha to pour water slowly over him.  You sincerely pray for the merits of bathing the Buddha, purifying our afflictions and defilement of greed, desire, anger, and hatred (the three poisons/fires).

You should pray for world peace, end to violence, deceit, and evil.  For those who practice Pure Land Buddhism, also pray for our troubled world to be transformed into a pure land so all minds can be guided to the Bodhi path.  This is the meaning of bathing the Buddha!

What Kind of Mind Should We Have When Bathing the Buddha?

  1. Faith: “we should give rise to a joyful mind and have deep faith in the merit of bathing the Buddha. When we pour water over the Buddha, we are also cleansing our own minds.
  2. Sincerity: “When we bathe the statue of the Buddha, it is as if the Buddha is before us and we have cultivated the greatest merit in the world. We should transfer this merit to all sentient beings, grow in wisdom together, and create positive conditions.
  3. Righteousness: “We wish to be rid of karmic obstructions and to purify our minds. We wish for the merits of bathing the Buddha and pray for peace in the world and happiness for all humanity

Now let’s get to bathing the Buddha (and ourselves):

  1. Vow to speak good words, then bathe the right shoulder.
  2. Vow to have good thoughts, then bathe the left shoulder.
  3. Vow to do good deeds, then bathe the right shoulder again.

And then you are done!  Go forth and be a good Buddhist 😉

Can you do this at home?  Yes, by preparing e a tonic with fragrant herbs and spices you can bathe your own Buddha statue(s) for a celebration of the Buddha’s birthday.  While it is best to engage in the actual service and experience at a temple, there may be situations where that is not possible.  Some temples may e

Dharma Service

While many Buddhists may just come by to take part in bathing the Buddha, there is often a Dharma service which involves a talk by the Abbot or leading Monastic, chanting and reciting sūtra, and then bathing the Buddha.

For a 2020 update to this article, many temples are closed.  Here are some online options from Fo Guang Shan (FGS) including a way to bathe the Buddha virtually!

  • Fo Guang Shan Worldwide Bathing Buddha Dharma service
    Taiwan Date/Time: Thursday, April 30, 10AM
    Los Angeles Date/Time: Wednesday, April 29, 7PM
    🌿 https://youtu.be/xGnoyQCAxAY
    This YouTube live link will be available from Thursday, April 30th, 10am ~ Sunday, May 3rd 12pm. (Taiwan time)
  • Fo Guang Shan Worldwide Online Bathing Buddha
    🌿 http://buddhasbirthday.fgs.org.tw/
    Available from: Tuesday, April 28 to Saturday May 16. (Taiwan Time)

Gatha for Bathing the Buddha

Here is a Gatha for bathing the Buddha:

I now sincerely bathe all the Tathagatas,

As pure wisdom adorns the ocean of merits.

May sentient beings distance themselves from defilements,

And realize the pure Dharma body of the Tathagatas.

 

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