Thursday, 8 April 2010

Happy Hanamatsuri

Today is the Japanese Flower Festival or Hanamatsuri, a celebration of the Buddha's birthday. The date of the Buddha’s birth varies from one tradition or school of Buddhism to another. According to the Japanese, Buddha was born on the eighth day of the fourth month of the traditional Chinese calendar, and although this date will vary on the international calendar, the Japanese have translated the date to the 8th of April. The nature of the festival varies greatly from region to region, and often appears to have the characteristics of older spring festivals: driving out devils or praying for the coming harvest.

Shakyamuni Buddha was born over 2,500 years ago under the Bodhi tree in the garden of Lumbini (Nepal) to the Sakya King Suddhodhana and his queen, Maya. When the child was born it is said that flowers bloomed, birds sang and sweet rain fell from the heavens above.

The infant Buddha took seven steps in the four directions and with one hand raised to the sky and the other pointing downwards proclaimed, "Whether above the sky or below the sky, I am most noble and high. I am here to bring peace to all the sentient beings in the world who are suffering."

The event is commemorated in Buddhist temples across Japan. The day is celebrated with parades featuring images of the baby Buddha, the white elephant seen by his mother in her dream just before his birth and cherry blossoms carried by children dressed in traditional Japanese clothes. A special altar—the Hanamido—is erected and decorated with flowers representing the garden in Lumbini. A statue of the infant Buddha is placed in a pan and, in a ritual known as kanbutsu, water or sweet tea known as 'amacha' is poured over it by children in remembrance of the “sweet rain” that descended from heaven at the moment of the birth.

Coincidentally, the sakura (cherry) trees bloom at this very time, and so their flowers are given as offerings to adorn the nativity celebrations.

The original Japanese Flower Festival (hana, ‘flower’, matsuri, ‘festival’) was observed to encourage fruit trees to flower; at the time the farming community believed that the longer the blossoming, the more prosperous the harvest. Buddhism spread to Japan in the 6th century CE, and sometime around 600 CE the Hanamatsuri festival became incorporated into the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday.

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