For more than two thousand years, Buddhists around the world have been celebrating Buddha's birth day, or more precisely, the birthday of Siddhartha Gautama.
According to Buddhist tradition Siddhartha was born on the 8th day of the 4th month, 1'029 BC, at the foothills of the Himalayas. However, modern historians date his birth to a later period - 563 BC. Regardless of which of these assumptions is more likely, according to legend, somewhere between 11th and 5th century BC, Siddhartha have reached liberation from the illusion and thus became Buddha.
The Buddha mean “the awakened one” or “the enlightened one” which indicates the existence of more than one Buddha. Nevertheless, the name is also used to describe the first awakened being in an era, and since Shakyamuni Buddha is considered the Supreme Buddha of our age and the founder of the Buddhism, when we talk about Buddha, we address awakened Siddhartha Gautama.
Due to various interpretations and calendar calculations, an exact date of Buddha’s birth is not clear. As a result, it is celebrated in some countries (South and Southeast Asia) on the full moon day of the fourth month of the year; in some other countries(East Asia) on the 8th day of the 4th month of the Chinese lunar calendar; and in countries that follow the Gregorian calendar, on April 8th.
How Buddha’s birthday is celebrated depends largely on Buddhist school or cultural and local differences. This cultural influence can also be seen in Japan, where the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday is merged with the old folk festival known as Hana-matsuri (Flower Festival).
Despite some differences, all Buddhists and people involved in Dharma communities use this day to visit local temples, make offerings of food, candles and flowers to the monks and listen their chants and teaching. This practice of the virtue of mutual giving has powerful effect that creates fruitful karmic conditions.
In ancient times, local priests of some Zen temples had celebrated Buddha’s birthday behind the closed doors in privacy of the monastic walls. Today, however, the celebration is used as an opportunity to connect with the laity and communities. Although temples throughout the country offer extensive services and processions on this day, the so-called “Buddha Bath Ritual” plays a central role in the ceremony.
For the "Buddha Bath Ritual" monks prepare a special platform, which is decorated with a beautiful and colourful flowers. On it is a plate filled with Amacha, a sweet herbal tea, in the middle of which stands a statue depicting an infant Buddha. During the ceremony, monks, nuns and laity pour fresh Amacha, with a water ladle (Hishaku) over the statue of the Buddha, rinsing it at the end with purified water.
In general, the ritual symbolises the inner purification with the message that: we should strive to eliminate our own inner stain of greed, anger and ignorance, just as we wash away physical dirt. But the symbolism is multifaceted and does not stop here.
So, the flowers symbolise the garden of Lumbini, and brevity of their lives offers the opportunity to contemplate on impermanence. The Buddha statue, with one arm pointing to the sky and another to the earth, reflects the legend of Buddha’s birth, but also symbolises the interconnectedness of heaven, human and earth. Further on, the Amacha symbolises the sweet rain that is said to have fallen on the day of Buddha's birth over 2’500 years ago, but also purification of karma.
The performance of this ritual is our vow to cultivate spiritual maturity and attain purity though the purification of the body, speech, and mind, by washing away anger, greed and ignorance of past, present, and future. The genuine devotees go even further and vow to be reborn, life after life, and walk the bodhisattva path, until all beings are free of suffering.
All this makes the Buddha’s birthday ritual more than simple tribute to the birth of Siddhartha. It presents our prayer to acquire Buddha’s wisdom and our vow to work toward that goal. Moreover, when performed with reverence and a purified mind, the ritual is elevated to the level of pure Zen practice, promoting inner stillness, harmony and inner balance, ultimately leading to a fulfilling, wholesome, blissful and enlightened life.