George Furukawa
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Hanamatsuri, also known as Wesak in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, is the day that the founder of Buddhism was born. It’s also the same date that Buddhism started, according to Rev. Sol Kalu of Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin. “This day, besides being a day of joyous celebration, is also the day for Buddhists to stop and reflect on what the religion or belief system symbolizes as well as its role in people’s lives,” explained Rev. Kalu. 

Hawaii Betsuin Hanamido. (Photo by Rev. Baba)

The Birth of Buddha

Why do Buddhist temples exist today? “The main purpose of having the temples and supporting them is to learn the Dharma, the teaching, that was rediscovered and expounded by someone who was born a human being (Shakyamuni Buddha),” Rev. Kalu said. “It is said that at the exact moment that the Buddha was born 2,500 years ago, in Lumbini Garden, in what is now the country of Nepal, sweet rain fell from the sky to wash the newborn baby and perfumed blossoms fell on mother and child. Thus, it was the first Hanamatsuri or Flower Festival,” he said. 

So, because of that legend, we have flowers and we pour sweet tea on the statue of the baby Buddha, according to Rev. Kalu. “The custom of pouring sweet tea over an image of the infant Buddha recreates the auspicious birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the soon to be Shakyamuni Buddha, when sweet rain is said to have fallen to bathe the infant Buddha, originated in China. Japanese records state that the first ceremony of this kind, known as Kanbutsu-e, was observed in 17th-century Japan,” he added. 

Rev. Kalu continued: “It is also said that upon his birth the baby Buddha stood up, took seven steps, and with one finger pointing up and the other down, proclaimed “I alone am the World-Honored One!” Newcomers to Buddhism tend to dismiss the Buddha birth myth as so much froth. It is perceived as a story about the birth of a god, but the Buddha was not a god. In particular, the declaration “I alone am the World-Honored One” is a bit hard to square with Buddhist teachings on non-theism and anatman – no soul, no such thing as an independently existing “I.” 

“I alone am the World-Honored One,” was not a statement of arrogance – the Buddha was not speaking for a group or multitude of people but only about himself, according to Rev. Kalu. “Mahayana Buddhists interpret ‘I alone am the World-Honored One’ in a way that ‘I’ represents all sentient beings throughout space and time — everyone,” Rev. Kalu said. “It affirms the absolute value of humanity. In that statement the baby Buddha was speaking of the Buddha-nature that is the immutable and eternal nature of all beings,” he added. 

Nirvana Outside of the Six Realms

According to Rev. Kalu, the seventh step that the baby Buddha is said to have taken right after birth symbolizes the goal or aim of one’s being born into this life, the goal that signifies nirvana outside of the six realms of suffering or the world of samsara. “The Buddha’s birth seems mystical, magical, or supernatural but the stories about his birth are not to be taken literally,” Rev. Kalu emphasized. “They are symbolisms that point the way to arriving at the truth, although by later becoming the Buddha or the Awakened One, Shakyamuni transcended that which is ordinary and attained a higher level of spirituality,” he noted. 

It is said that before Siddhartha, the name of Shakyamuni as a prince, became enlightened, he experienced many previous lives for kalpas (long periods of time in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, generally between the creation and recreation of a world or universe), and many eons of rebirths, according to Rev. Kalu. 

Hawaii Betsuin Hanamatsuri, 2022. (Photo by Alan Kubota)

“Some of his previous lives were in the form of animals and this is where the compilation of the Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha’s life as animals, that have moral lessons and usually taught to children, evolved,” Rev. Kalu said. “The important thing to learn is that, in all of Shakyamuni Buddha’s cycle of rebirth, it was only in human form that he attained enlightenment or nirvana, not in the other five realms of the suffering world,” he noted. 

The Traditional Date of Buddha’s Birthday

According to Rev. Kalu, the traditional date of the Buddha’s birthday varies according to the countries that are predominantly Buddhist. But in Japan it is around April 8. “In the Theravada tradition, Hanamatsuri or the Buddha’s birthday is known as the Wesak, with a slight difference being that the Wesak commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Shakyamuni Buddha,” explained Rev. Kalu. 

“In Hawai‘i, the assumption is that the various Buddhist temples early on, including eventually Buddhist organizations such as the Hawaii Buddhist Council, began to observe Buddha’s birthday regardless of what it was called, Kanbutsu-e (Pouring sweet tea over the Buddha Ceremony) or Hanamatsuri (Flower Festival)” said Rev. Kalu. 

He noted: In 1963, Buddha Day came to be recognized by the Hawai‘i State Legislature and is listed in the Hawai‘i Revised Statutes as “§8-4 Buddha Day. April 8 of each year shall be known and designated as ‘Buddha Day,’ provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday.”

Relinquishing a Life of Luxury and Wealth

The Buddha relinquished a life of luxury and wealth because he realized that despite having everything, people still suffer, according to Rev. Kalu. “He too, realized that he was not different from the ordinary person and their suffering is the same — that is, birth, sickness, old age and death,” Rev. Kalu explained. “He sought to find the way to end suffering and enable people to live happily as true human beings,” Rev. Kalu said. 

He added: “That is the greatness of his love and compassion to all beings. He first sought his own liberation or enlightenment and after his enlightenment or the awakening to the truth of the universe, the Buddha spent the next 45 years teaching many people the way of enlightenment that he rediscovered, through many years of spiritual practice.” 

According to Rev. Kalu, The Buddha did not invent or discover the Dharma or nirvana. “He merely rediscovered the old way to attain liberation,” explained Rev. Kalu. “The Dharma and nirvana have always been there; they were neither created or can be destroyed. The Buddha lived to 80 and died peacefully in the place in India called Kushinagara,” he said. 

“After his death, his faithful disciples continued his work of spreading his teachings through word of mouth or other means, to many people and lands in Asia, eventually reaching China, Japan and Korea and now there are Buddhist temples in the continental U.S., Hawai‘i, Brazil, and many other parts of the world,” noted Rev. Kalu. “Buddhism is considered one of the world’s major religions, alongside Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism,” he pointed out. 

Buddha Day celebration at Kapi‘olani Park in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, circa early 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii)

Relevance of Teachings in the Modern Age

Shakyamuni Buddha lived and died more than 2,000 years ago but today, his teachings remain relevant in this modern age, even more so, with wars, injustice and other causes of human suffering occurring, Rev. Kalu emphasized. Although Buddhism has taken many forms and ways of practice, the basic teachings of wisdom and compassion prevail, according to Rev. Kalu.  

“Wisdom is to be able to know life as it really is, viewed not from the self-centered ego, but through the wisdom eye and with that understanding, compassion follows, which is the ability to feel the pain and suffering of others and the desire to relieve such pain and suffering,” Rev. Kalu explained. The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is for all sentient beings to realize the inherent Buddha nature and attain enlightenment, according to Rev. Kalu. 

Buddha Day Celebration at Kapi‘olani Park in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, circa early 1960s. (Photo courtesy Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii)

Truly, the man who gave up becoming a king to become the greatest teacher of humanity, deserves this special day of recognition and reverence,” said Rev. Kalu. “Namo Tassa Bhagavato, Arahato, Samma Sambuddhassa. Buddham saranam gacchami, Dhammam saranam gacchami, Sangham saranam gacchami! I go to the Buddha for guidance, I go to the Dharma for guidance, I go to the Sangha for guidance.

For up-to-date information about Hanamatsuri and which temples are celebrating Hanamatsuri, please contact Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii at 808-522-9200. Hours are Monday through Friday 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Saturday 8:30 a.m. – 12 p.m., and closed Sundays. You can find Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii online at

George Furukawa is a freelance writer based in Pearl City. He has been a professional journalist for more than 40 years and has worked in various editorial positions for daily, weekly and monthly publications. His articles have appeared in local as well as national publications including the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (now the Star-Advertiser), Building Industry Digest, Engineering News Record, Porthole, Nature Conservancy, Amateur Chef, Credit Union Times, Fresh Cut and Corporate & Incentive Travel.

Rev. Sol Kalu was born and raised in the Republic of the Philippines. He received his bachelor’s in nursing there in 1980, and served as a nurse in the U.S. for many years, specializing in dialysis. On a visit to Kyoto, Rev. Kalu encountered the Jodo Shinshu Teachings and eventually followed the call to become a Buddhist minister. He received Tokudo ordination in 2007 and Kyoshi ordination in 2010. Currently, he is a minister at the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin (Buddhist Temple) at 1727 Pali Hwy. in Honolulu. 


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