A Buddha’s Birth

In the springtime, Buddhists throughout the world hold special observances in celebration of the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha who lived in Northern India roughly 2,500 years ago. Japanese Buddhist communities celebrate Sakyamuni Buddha’s birth on April 8, which is called Hanamatsuri, or the “Festival of Flowers,” inspired by the traditional account that flowers spontaneously bloomed at the moment when Sakyamuni was born. We hope you will be able to join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Hanamatsuri Celebration on Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 9:30 a.m.

Since the time of the Buddha, it has been customary in many Asian cultures for pregnant women to return to their ancestral home to deliver their babies. While on her journey home, the Buddha’s mother Queen Maya stopped to rest in the gardens of Lumbini, a site located in present day Nepal. We are told that while delighting in the beauty of the gardens, she gave birth to her son from her right side while standing up and holding onto the branch of a tree for support. Immediately upon being born, the future Buddha is said to have taken seven steps representing his resolution to transcend the six realms of death and rebirth. It is said that a lotus flower blossomed under each of those seven footsteps. We are told that he then raised one hand to the sky and declared, “As this birth is a buddha’s birth, it is my last birth. Just in this one birth I shall save all!” (Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha’s Acts, translated by Charles Willemen, pg. 4; available online at http://www.bdkamerica.org) Flowers bloomed and rained down as heavenly beings called devas and people of this world paid reverence to him. At that time, two pleasant streams, one warm and one cool, poured down from the sky to bathe the future Buddha.

Although many of the events in this traditional story may be based on events that actually occurred, it is best appreciated as an expression of religious truth, rather than a record of historical fact. For Buddhists, the moment of Sakyamuni’s birth is imbued with marvelous significance because it marks the beginning of the life he lived in our world, during which he realized enlightenment sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree and then dedicated the remaining forty-five years of his life to teaching others the path to freedom from suffering.

During his lifetime, Sakyamuni is said to have taught 84,000 Dharma Gates, providing a variety of teachings according to the needs and temperaments of the people who sought his guidance. Among the vast body of teachings attributed to Sakyamuni, it is up to each person to find the path to freedom from suffering that is best suited to his or her life. I personally find great meaning in the teachings delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha on the Nembutsu and Amida Buddha’s vow to liberate all beings from suffering.

When I encountered the Nembutsu teaching, it spoke so directly to my own life that I felt as if Sakyamuni Buddha came into this world 2,500 years ago just to teach that single Dharma Gate for me. Shinran (1173-1262), the true teacher of the Jodo Shinshu School of Buddhism beautifully expresses this sentiment in the following passage from his Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshinge):

 

Sakyamuni Tathagata appeared in this world Solely to teach the ocean-like Primal Vow of Amida; We, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements, Should entrust ourselves to the Tathagata’s words of truth.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 70)

 

Despite my best intentions to live as “a good Buddhist,” practicing mindfulness and compassion, the karmic force of my bad habits leads me astray on a daily basis. Amida Buddha saw that there are foolish people like me in the world, and for that very reason made a commitment to provide a true teaching precisely for those of us who have a heavy burden of karma. We call that commitment to help the most foolish and misguided beings the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. I may find myself way off track from time to time, but that’s okay. There’s no need to beat myself up about it. The light of Amida Buddha’s wisdom is always shining into my life, illuminating my true path. In the light of the Buddha’s wisdom, I see that even when I think I am way off track, I have actually never left my true path. I find great peace of mind in this Nembutsu teaching, and so for me, when Sakyamuni Buddha taught the vast Dharma gate of Amida’s Primal Vow he fulfilled his promise to save all beings—including me—from suffering.

 

In gassho,