Happy Hanamatsuri Everyone,
I would like to say a few words about Hanamatsuri (Buddha’s Birthday) and its significance in our Zen Practice.
The story of the Buddha’s birth begins in northeastern India at the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. The year is around 564 BC. King Suddhodana was the ruler of this Shakya Kingdom with Kapilavastthu its capital. The King and his wife Queen Maya were attending a midsummer festival. Queen Maya became tired and decided to lie down for a nap when she dreamt a vivid dream.
She felt herself being carried away by four devas high up into the mountains to Lake Anatatta. After bathing her in the lake, the devas clothed her in heavenly cloths, anointed her with perfumes, and bedecked her with divine flowers. Soon after a white elephant, holding a white lotus flower in its trunk, appeared and went around her three times, and entered her womb through her right side.
Upon awaking, Queen Maya knew that she had been delivered and important message, as the elephant is a symbol of greatness in India. The King summoned wise sages to interpret the dream. They said that the Queen would give birth to a son and that if the son did not leave the household (lived a secular life), he would become a great world ruler. However, if he were to leave the household (renounce secular life), he would become a fully awakened Buddha. There was great joy and excitement throughout the kingdom with this news. The King and Queen had been married for 20 years but without any children.
When the time for the birth was drawing near, it was the custom for the mother-to-be to return home to her family for the birth. Queen Maya was from the nearby Koliyas Kingdom, where her father was the King, and the capital was Devadaha. On there way to Devadaha, Queen Maya’s entourage passed the Lumbini Gardens where Maya wanted to stop and rest. It was a beautiful spring day and the prevalent Ashoka trees were in full bloom. It is told, that Queen Maya reached out to embrace the flowers from a tree and at that point the baby prince was born. The baby was washed in warm tea water that had been prepared.
Our ceremony, honoring the birth of the Buddha, is known as Hanamatsuri, festival of flowers and is a reenactment of this joyous time and reflection on the beautiful Lumbini Grove of Ashoka trees in full bloom. Can you imagine how joyful and optimistic this time must have been? There were spring flowers, a new birth and much hopefulness.
Thus, our ceremony of bathing the baby prince with tea and offering flowers became a significant part of the baby Buddha’s birthday celebration. I remember when I first came to a Hanamatsuri Special Service at the Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago in the early 70s, with Matsuoka Roshi officiating, the alter was full of beautiful flowers and each of us came up to the alter while chanting to offer a fresh cut flower and pour tea over the statue of the baby buddha. This reenactment of the Buddha’s birth helps us cultivate joyfulness and gratitude in our lives and deepen our understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on the interdependence and oneness of all things.
Reflect on the following words from Matsuoka Roshi on Hanamatsuri’s significance.
“On this occasion, sweet tea is ladled over the infant statue as an act of devotion to the fully enlightened one. When we pour the sweet tea over the figure of the infant Buddha it symbolizes the cleansing of our own body and mind. Zen is Shu Sho Ichi Nyo, Practice and enlightenment are one. The dust in our bodies and minds separating us from enlightenment are swept away by the sweet tea. It is on this day that we joyfully remember the birth of the Buddha and his life on earth. We are joyful because his life taught us how we can become enlightened, too. We think of his birth and his life on earth like the beautiful unfolding petals of a flower in the warm sunlight, and we honor him by placing a flower on the alter at the foot of the statue”.
The young prince was given the name Siddhartha, which means ‘every wish fulfilled’ and ‘one who accomplishes ones aim.’
The legend of the Buddha’s birth indicates that amidst the flowering in the garden, the infant Buddha took seven steps, and then pointing one finger to the heaven and the other hand to the earth exclaimed, “I alone am the most honored one in heaven and earth”. This is the image of the infant Buddha on the alter, bathed with tea and surrounded by flowers.
These words foretell the teachings of the Buddha after his awakening. During his lifetime, the Buddha taught that all in the Universe is one. He observed the nature of the Universe in his complete awakening when he was 35 years old. He declared, “How beautiful, all beings are endowed with this inherent Buddha-nature”. This, is what Buddha is declaring when he exclaims the he alone is the most honored one. From the perspective of our inherent Buddha-nature that we all have in common. This is the most honored one in heaven and earth.
All things in the Universe have an interdependent place in the grand scheme, from the lowest to the mightiest, and all are equally precious. When the Buddha was enlightened, he realized that all beings can become awakened like him. When you become enlightened, you too will see the Buddha light shining within all things. You will clearly perceive the Buddha nature in everything.
So, at this time of Hanamatsuri, this time of joyfulness and gratitude for Buddha’s birth and teachings let us reaffirm the oneness of all things, the oneness of practice and awakening, and rededicate ourselves to our (sweet tea cleansing) Zen practice, for the benefit of all.