Today, the Buddhists worldwide celebrate Vesak – the day that marks the birth, attaining of Buddhahood, and the Parinirvana (death) of Buddha. Thanks to the labours of the Sri Lankan diplomat Lakshman Kadhirgamar who notably wasn’t a Buddhist, Vesak Day was recognised by the United Nations as an international public holiday since 2000 onwards.

For us Theravada Buddhists, it is common to celebrate Vesak on the Full Moon Poya Day in May every year but in other countries where Mahayana and Zen Buddhism are practiced, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on a slightly different day. For example in Japan Buddha’s birthday is celebrates much earlier than it is in South Asia.

On 8 April every year the Japanese celebrate Hanamatsuri – the Buddha’s birthday. The word Hanamatsuri is a combination of two words; Hana (flower) and Matsuri (festival), which makes the festival’s literal meaning, ‘the flower festival’. This is somewhat appropriate considering how the veneration of Buddha in any Buddhism-practicing region in the world, often involves offering of flowers.

Since late February and early March every year, Japan begins to experience spring – the most awaited season of the year. With the arrival of spring flowers start to bloom and the Japanese connect the blooming of flowers with the birth of Siddhartha, which according to Theravada scripts happened at a park full of trees with blooming flowers. Flowers play an integral role in any Buddhist celebration of an observance. The beauty and simplicity of flowers used in Buddhist religious observances manage to calm our minds and the withering flowers remind us of the uncertainty of all worldly objects, which is one of the main teachings of Buddhism.   

According to some experts, the origins of Hanamatsuri are from ancient Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. There is written evidence that supports the belief that the flower festival or Hanamatsuri was celebrated in China, long before it became common practice in Japan.

According to ancient texts such as Nihonshoki Mishukahami, Japan first observed Hanamatsuri in 606 CE as the Empress Suiko first rose to the throne. The Chinese explorer-monk Fa-Xien in his records mentions a flower festival celebrated in ancient Japan on 8 April. An ancient statue believed to be of Prince Siddhartha is found in Todai-ji temple in Nara so, the experts believe that the celebrations of Hanamatsuri – the birthday of Siddhartha Gautama – must have originated in Japan during Nara Period. It is believed that initially, Hanamatsuri was observed only by the monks and the chief donors of temples.

Unlike in Sri Lanka of other south-east Asian countries where Vesak is celebrated, the celebrations of Buddha’s birthday in Japan are unique and different in its own way. Every Buddhist temple in Japan has a statue of Siddhartha. On 8 April this statue is brought out and placed in a special chamber erected in front of the temple. This chamber is a vibrant one decorated with different kinds of flowers. The participants of the observances then bathe the statue using scented tea. In some temples a statue of a white tusker and the statue of Siddhartha are paraded prior to this bathing. This parade often has Japanese children wearing kimonos taking part in it. It is quite the spectacle and the children who take part in the parade often play games and enjoy the festival.

The bathing of the Siddhartha statue with scented tea is symbolical as the Japanese believe the heavens let down a scented shower on the day Prince Siddhartha was born. This practice is observed in Japan as well as in China during Hanamatsuri celebrations.

Unlike in Theravada Buddhism which believes the birth, the attainment of Buddhahood, and the Parinirvana; all took place on the same day; the Japanese believe the three landmark events took place on three different days. They believe the Buddhahood was attained on 9 December and the Parinirvana took place on a 15 February. The Japanese observe the birth and the death of Buddha separately on different days and the observances of the latter are called, ‘Itaiko’ – which is another special religious festival observed in Japan.

Since Hanamatsuri happens during the spring time in Japan it often coincides with the iconic blooming of Japanese cherry blossoms. Japan is a country filled with a myriad of season-specific festivals celebrated in many different spectacular ways but the main observances of Hanamatsuri is done on a rather sombre note with relatively less crowd taking part in it. One of the main temples in Japan where Hanamatsuri is celebrated is the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. If you happen to be in Japan in early April, make sure to pay a visit to Senso-ji to see and admire wonderful flower displays put up by the devotees.

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera