Monday, June 22, 2015



In modern Japan commemoration of the birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha forms an important emphasis on observed memorials. Interestingly, celebrations in remembrance of death are more significant than birth anniversaries.
In Japan Buddha's birthday is celebrated every year on 8 April. The occasion takes place four to six weeks in advance of that in most other East Asian countries because other countries follow a traditional lunar calendar in which the anniversary usually occurs in May or early June.

In Japan the Buddha birthday commemoration is called Busshō-e or Kanbutsu-e. The ceremony held at many temples features a small statue of Buddha in the form of a child. The figure is sprinkled with scented water or hydrangea tea in a temporary shrine decorated with flowers. An alternative name is Hana Matsuri, or Floral Festival, because the time of year corresponds to the custom of enjoying the blooming of cherry blossoms.

There are two additional annual holidays dedicated to remembering the Buddha, Nehan-e is observed on 15 February, when Shakyamuni is said to have passed into Nirvana. Jodo-e (also known as Rohatsu) falls on 8 December. It marks the anniversary of the time Buddha initially attained enlightenment after years of meditation.

New Year's Eve on 31 December is yet another Buddhist holiday when temple bells are rung 108 times.

In the United States celebration of Buddha's Birthday differs from community to community, depending on ethnicity and nationality. The Japanese celebration on 8 April has been observed in the San Francisco Area for decades.

In 1968 the first walk-around of Mt. Tamalpais to celebrate Buddha's birthday was conducted.

Starting in 1969 at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center Hana-Matsuri, the flower festival, was celebrated each spring. Dressed in formal black robes, the roughly 70 monks and students formed a formal procession to the horse pasture with the leader ringing a small bell. A temporary stone altar was built under an oak tree in a field of green grass and wildflowers, and on it a small statue of a baby Buddha was placed in a metal basin. Then each person would approach the altar, ladle one bamboo dipperful of sweet green tea over the statue, bow, and walk to one side.

Rituals are also held in Japan for nearly all ancestors, who are considered Buddhas regardless of affiliation or actual behavior while living. These commemorative rites include bathing to purify karma, shaving the head to symbolize adhering to precepts, wearing a robe to represent holiness, holding a wake to recall their main life events, and the bestowing of a posthumous ordination name to mark their departure to join the realm of Nirvana.

The dead are memorialized on a daily and yearly basis as well, through personal ceremonies performed by family members. These include honoring of a Buddhist altar installed in a room of the home, regular visits to cemeteries by loved ones, and a range of neighborhood or village festivals.


February 15 is the day that Shakyamuni Buddha died near the town of Kushinagara. A big scroll depicting the Buddha entering Nirvana is hung in the temple and a ceremony expressing gratitude to the Buddha is performed.  A talk called the Yuikyogyo, the Last Teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, is given.


January 26th is the birthday of Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen. On that date two ceremonies are held, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. In the morning ceremony, a scroll with a painting of Dogen is hung in the lecture hall. A pail is placed in front of the painting containing hot water in which aloes or sandal wood have been boiled. Monks perform a special shomyo mantra that is similar to Gregorian chant.




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