Gautama Buddha, was born in 563 BC in the gardens of Lumbini, a city in Nepal to the Indian king Shuddhodana and his wife Queen Maya. He was known as Prince Siddhartha and led a prince’s life, married Princess Yashodhara and had a son Rahul. At the age of 29, while on a trip in his kingdom, he was deeply moved by the sights of poverty and illness of his subjects and he renounced his princely life to lead the life of a mendicant. At the age of 35 he attained enlightenment while meditating under a Peepal tree in the Indian city of Gaya. He came to be known as Gautama Buddha, the Awakened one and his preachings came to be known as Buddhism and his followers Buddhists. Buddhism then spread to various countries in East Asia and the local influence led to the development of various branches of Buddhism.
Buddhism came to Japan through China and Korea somewhere in 6th century AD. I have written about Buddhism's influence on Japanese culture and society earlier, so am not going in to the details this time.
Buddha’s birthday is celebrated in most east Asian countries on the 8th day of the 4th month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. As such the date varies every year. However, in Japan it is celebrated either on the 8th of April or 8th of May. Japan follows the Gregorian calendar and the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar is translated to either April or May and hence either of these two dates are chosen by the Buddhist temples in Japan to mark Buddha’s birthday. The first celebration was reportedly held in 606 in Nara’s Asuka-dera.
Buddha’s birthday is known by the name of Hana Matsuri, which literally means “Flower Festival. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the day falls in spring, a season when a variety of flowers are blooming all over Japan. The celebration is known by a variety of other names – “Kanbutsu-e”, “Goutan-e”, “Busshou-e”, “Yokubutsu-e”, “Hanaeshiki-e” etc. Buddha’s birthday ,however, is not a national holiday in Japan and is only marked by rituals and ceremonies in Buddhist temples.
Today I attended the Hana Matsuri at my daughter’s kindergarten. She attends a kindergarten which is managed by a Buddhist temple in Iwaki. It was an interesting experience for me. The children arrived at the temple and prayed. The priest then addressed the gathering , explaining the significance of the day.
They then changed into colourful attire, not the regular kimono’s but dresses which are usually worn by priests and shrine maidens.
After this they performed a dance in front of the temple.
After the dance, they were led to a small adjoining building, which had a small prayer hall with an altar.
In front of the altar , small flower decorated altars, known as “ Hana mido” were placed.
Inside the Hana-mido, small statue of Buddha was placed in a shallow metal bowl. The statue represents the infant Buddha. It is believed that immediately after his birth, Buddha raised and took seven steps forward and while pointing his right hand to the heavens, he is said to have proclaimed – “Tenjou tenga yuiga dokuson” which means “ I am honoured in heaven and on earth”. It is also believed that the infant Buddha was sprinkled with perfume by the dragon kings “Ryuu” and also a gently perfumed nectar rain had bathed infant Buddha. As a re-creation of these beliefs, the Kanbutsu-e ceremony was performed wherein the children poured “Ama-cha” a sweet tea prepared with hydrangea leaf.
After this ceremony, the children posed for a commemorative photograph in their colourful attire.