Flowers to Celebrate Buddha’s Birth
By Chandana Ranaweera
In Japanese, the term Hanamatsuri is a combination of two words; hana (flower) and matsuri (festival) and hence, Hanamatsuri refers to the Flower Festival in Japan which celebrates the birth of Buddha. In Buddhism the birth of Siddhartha took place at a garden rich in flowers and fruits and therefore, it is apt to celebrate the birthday of Siddhartha during a time when flowers start to bloom.
According to historians, Japan may have adopted the flower festival traditions from Ancient China. In ancient Mahayana Buddhist texts it is mentioned that flower festivals celebrating the birth of Buddha were held in China many centuries ago. According to Japanese historical texts such as Nihon Shoki and Mishukahami Japan has celebrated its first Flower Festival in 606 CE during the reign of the Empress Suiko.
As it is mentioned in the records of the travelling monk Faxian (337 CE – 422 CE), the Flower Festival was celebrated in ancient Japan every year on 8 April. In Todai-ji – the popular Buddhist temple in Nara – there can be found a statue of Prince Siddhartha. Since Flower Festival is affiliated with the birth of Siddhartha, experts opine that the Hanamatsuri traditions might have started in Japan either during Nara Period (710 CE – 794 CE) or a few years before. It is believed that in the beginning the Flower Festival was only limited to monks and chief devotees of the temple and was not celebrated by the lay people.
According to Theravada scripts, as Siddhartha was born in the Lumbini Park flowers started to bloom on tree tops and as the young Siddhartha took his first steps just after he was born, lotuses sprouted out from the ground cushioning his feet. Evidently, flowers have played a major role in Buddhism since the birth of Buddha. Even now, it is one of the things devotees bring along when they are visiting the temple. Beautiful and unblemished flowers are used as offering to Buddha in veneration, and the uncertainty of the flowers teaches Buddhists the fundamental truth of Buddhism – the uncertainty of all living things. Just like how it is in countries where Theravada Buddhism in prevalent, Japan too celebrates the birth of Buddha with flowers. Now let’s take a look at how the birth of Buddha – the Flower Festival – is celebrated in Japan.
In every temple in Japan there is a small statue of Siddhartha, depicting his walk on the lotuses. On 8 April every year, this statue is brought out of the shrine and placed in a special chamber built in front of the shrine. The devotees make sure the chamber is as enchanting as ever by decorating it with flowers. The devotees who take part in the Flower Festival then bathe the statue in scented tea. In some temples the Siddhartha statue is paraded along with a statue of a white tusker, before it was bathed in scented tea. An eye-catching element of this parade is the Japanese children dressed in their traditional wear (kimono). These kimonos take many different vibrant colours, adding a dash of ‘spectacular’ to the parade. The children also take part in various traditional games in celebration of the birth of Buddha.
Since Hanamatsuri marks the birth of Buddha, the celebrations of it are given an extra importance in Japan’s event calendar. The Siddhartha statue is bathed in scented tea as the Japanese believe a scented rain fell in heaven as the Buddha was born. Although when the origins of this tradition are traced, it is revealed that the same tradition was carried out in ancient China as well.
Unlike in Theravada Buddhism, Japanese believe the birth, attaining Buddhahood, and the death of the Buddha happened on three different days. In some Buddhist shrines in Japan – especially Zen Buddhist shrines – the birth of the Buddha is celebrated on 8 December. Accordingly, the Flower Festival is held on 8 December in those temples. According to the Japanese belief, the death of the Buddha happened on a 15 February on the day which a special religious festival called Itaiko is celebrated across Japan.
Unlike many social festivals in Japan Hanamatsuri is a religious festival that is usually celebrated in a relatively dialled down tone. However, the big temples in Japan such as Senso-ji in Asakusa, usually make a spectacle out of the Flower Festival celebrations since it attracts lots of devotees and tourists to the temple. The devotees offer flowers to the Siddhartha statue and pour sweet, scented tea (amacha) over the statue. Special amulets and religious trinkets are available at temples for the devotees to buy. The Flower Festival is celebrated in almost every Buddhist temple in Japan but the bigger and much popular ones attract the most number of visitors. It is advised to get to the temple as early as possible because sometimes the crowds can be a bit ubiquitous.
(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)