Every year in spring, one of Buddhism’s most important observances is celebrated at Buddhist temples throughout world. People throng to temples and also participate in other celebrations honoring the birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Historic Buddha, Sakyamuni.
If you belong to the Tibetan Tradition, your celebration is held in May or June. The Theravada Tradition generally holds its celebration in May. Japanese Buddhists observe his birthday in early April. Although the date varies depending on the calendar being used, the reason and purpose are the same: to honor and celebrate the birth of one of the world’s great religious leaders, the Honorable Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who was born nearly 2,600 years ago in Lumbini Garden which, today, is part of Nepal.
King Suddodana and Queen Maya, his proud parents, gave their newborn child the name “Siddhartha.” Siddhartha is variously translated as “He who has achieved his goal” and “Every Wish Fulfilled.”
Many of us can relate to this because when we were born, our parents, likewise, very carefully selected a name for us, or, as parents, we took great care in selecting the names of our children. In some cases, it might have been the name of a person our parents admired or respected. In the case of the Prince, we are told that the name Siddhartha was given to him to express the great joy of his parents. King Suddodana and Queen Maya had everything they could ever want, except a child to love and an heir to the throne. With a child now born unto them, their joy was unfathomable. Thus, the name Siddhartha, meaning “Every Wish-fulfilled,” was given to the Prince. It thoroughly expressed the great joy and happiness of the King and the Queen and the entire Sakya Kingdom.
However, I believe, there is more (meaning) to the name Siddhartha. It expresses not only the joy and happiness of Prince Siddhartha’s parents, but also pointed to the spiritual journey of the Prince as an individual. The Prince, through lifetimes of endeavor and cultivating of virtues, had reached a stage in which he was ready to attain Enlightenment or become a Buddha, an Enlightened Being/Person. No more would he find himself transmigrating in the realms or existences of suffering and sorrow. In this lifetime, he would attain enlightenment by becoming awakened to universal truths such as Dependent Origination, the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way, and would attain Nirvana, that which is eternal, pure, true self/ultimate reality and great joy. The Prince was on the verge of achieving a most remarkable goal and, thus, the name, “He who had achieved his goal,” expressed this reality. Of course, many did not know this at the time of the Prince’s birth, but in the comments of the Sage Asita, we find traces of this fact.
But there is more. The aspiration for enlightenment also includes a deep compassionate concern for others. True Enlightenment is not about only attaining enlightenment for oneself. It also includes the aspiration that all others may also discover, experience and attain a life free of suffering and sorrow and attain the peace and happiness of Supreme Nirvana. Herein lies the deep meaning of the Prince’s words when he said, “In heaven above and on earth below, I am the most honored one. I shall dispel the suffering that fills the world.” How do you understand this statement or declaration by Prince Siddhartha at his birth?
The Prince is emphasizing the nobility of an enlightened life. In my opinion, he is not attaching any importance to himself. The focus is on enlightenment. For the longest time, I understood this statement only objectively. However, through the active guidance of Wisdom and Compassion, including the many good teachers who have guided me, I have come to realize that in the statement above is a message for me. In the Prince’s words, “I shall dispel the suffering that fills the world,” is the noble aspiration of the Prince to bring peace and happiness to all life. The soon-to-be-Buddha is saying personally, to me, that my life of suffering and sorrow will soon be coming to an end, too. The statement is not only an objective and general statement made by the Prince, but is actually a promise being made to each of us. This statement, uttered soon after his birth, is looking ahead at the Prince’s attainment of Enlightenment to become Sakyamuni Buddha, the 45 years of sharing the Dharma that would soon unfold and the many sutras that would expound numerous Dharma teachings, enabling others to also attain the same joyous Supreme Enlightenment.
In our historical time period, it begins with the birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama. For Japanese Buddhists, who commonly use the Gregorian calendar, April 8 of each year is celebrated as the Historic Buddha’s birthday. Today, the birth of the Prince is commonly referred to as Hanamatsuri, or Flower Festival, referring to the use of flowers to decorate a shrine or pavilion housing an infant image of the Baby Buddha to recreate the birth scene at Lumbini Garden. Interestingly, this tradition of referring to the Buddha’s birthday observance as Flower Festival, or Hanamatsuri, did not originate in Japan, but rather in Berlin, Germany, in 1901. It was later adopted by Buddhists in Japan.
The custom of pouring sweet tea over an image of the infant Buddha to recreate the auspicious birth, 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 seventh century Japan.
Whether you refer to Buddha’s birthday as Kanbu-tsu-E or Hanamatsuri, let us (anyone who appreciates the Buddha and the Dharma) gather at the temple to offer our gratitude and pay our respects to the Great Sakyamuni Buddha, the World Honored One, whose message of equality, mutual respect, nonviolence, self-reflection, interdependence, peace and harmony has guided, inspired and provided hope for millions of people throughout history and the world. To one and all, a very happy Buddha Day! May we go to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for guidance.
Bishop Eric Matsumoto of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii is president of the Hawaii Buddhist Council.