Zombie Jesus and Buddha’s Birthday
April 8th was Easter to a lot of people in the West, but in Japan the 8th was the first day of Hanamatsuri which celebrates the Buddha’s birthday. Many different traditions celebrate the Buddha’s birth on different dates, such as Vesak which marks the birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha.
However, Hanamatsuri literally means “flower festival” and it is celebrated from the 8th until the 13th of April. It is traditionally known as bussho-e, tanjo-e, kanbutsu-e and Shakuson gotan-e. It commemorates the birth of Siddhartha Gautama (who became enlightened as Sakyamuni Buddha) to King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. The first Hanamatsuri celebration was held in Hibiya Park, Tokyo, in 1917 and it was headed by Ando Ryogan and Watanabe Kaikyoku. A common practice on this day includes the pouring of ama-cha (a tea prepared from a variety of hydrangea) on small Buddha statues (tanjobustu) decorated with flowers, as if to bathe a newborn baby. In Buddhist temples, monasteries and nunneries, more involved ceremonies are conducted for practicing Buddhists, priests, monks and nuns. There are also public festivals in some areas.
So, I have decided to address some questions many people have regarding Buddhism. More importantly, what the heck is a Buddha, anyways? A Buddha is literally an “Awakened One”, as it refers to any being who has become fully awakened (bodhi) – thus attaining Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana; or Unbinding). The historical Buddha, meaning the founder of what is presently called Buddhism, was an ex-prince named Siddartha Gautama (Pali: Siddatha Gotama; ca. 563-486BCE). He was born to a noble family of the Shakya clan in Lumbini Grove, Nepal. Other names of Siddartha Gautama, besides Buddha, include: Arahant or “Worthy one”, Bhadanta or “Most Virtuous”, Bhagava or “The blessed one”, Shakyamuni or “Sage of the Sakyas”, and Tathagata or “Thus gone.”
People often wonder, “Isn’t he like a God? Don’t people worship him as such?” Well, the short answer is no, that isn’t necessarily the case. When Buddhism spread across Asia, it was usually incorporated with the already existing cultural norms of that society. Therefore paying homage and respect to the Buddha is often practiced in most traditions, but this does not constitute worshiping the Buddha as a deity. The Buddha himself spoke against such things, stating in the Vakkali Sutta, “He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.”. Therefore Buddhists have faith in the Buddha as an enlightened teacher, and often show their respect for his teachings in the form of symbolic offerings.
“Master, are you a deva (god)?”
“No, brahman, I am not a deva.”
“Are you a gandhabba (regarded as ‘heavenly musicians’)?”
“… a yakkha (a nature spirit)?”
“… a human being?”
“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”
“…Then what sort of being are you?”
“…Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened.’
A lot of people often mistake the historical Buddha as “that one fat guy”. Actually, that one fat guy is a Chinese monk named Ch’i-tz’u or Qieci, also known as Pu-tai or Budai (Jp: Hotei) which refers to a hemp bag he is often depicted carrying. According to some traditions, he is popularly seen as an incarnation (bodhisattva) of the future Buddha Maitreya. Therefore his figure is often used in artistic expressions of the future Buddha.
Another question is that since there are so many different Buddhas, aren’t they all the same? What makes this Siddartha guy so special? It is true there have been many Buddhas in the past, and more to come in the future. Shakyamuni Buddha, born Siddartha Guatama, was the last Sammasam or Samyaksam Buddha of this particular world-system or kalpa. The previous were Kakusandha Buddha, Konagamana Buddha, and Kassapa Buddha. The next Buddha is currently a Maha-Bodhisattva, probably residing in the deva realm of Tusita, known as Maitreya.
However, there are essentially three types of Buddhas. There are the Sammasam Buddhas (Skt: Samyaksam Buddhas), such as Siddartha Gautama, who attain Buddhahood and then decide to teach others what they have discovered. There is actually only one Sammasam Buddha for any given world-system, because they basically “rediscover” the Dharma at a time when it has been completely forgotten. The Bahudhatuka Sutta states that,
“It is impossible that two rightfully Enlightened Ones should be born in the same world element at one and same time.
It is possible that a single rightfully Enlightened One should be born in the world element at one time.”
The next Sammasam Buddha will be Maitreya, who will appear when the teachings of Siddartha Gautama have been completely lost and forgotten. In the Infinite Life Sutra and the Amitabha Sutra, Amitabha Buddha is also a Buddha from another world-system that existed ten kalpas ago. Then there are also what are called the solitary or silent Buddhas, known as Pacceka Buddhas (Skt: Pratyeka Buddhas), who do not teach the Dharma to others for they do not even have the desire to do so. Finally, there are the disciples of a Buddha who realize enlightenment and Nirvana called Savaka Buddhas (Skt: Sravaka Buddhas) which basically means “Hearer Buddha”
Any present day Buddha would fall into one of the latter two categories, as the teachings of Siddartha Buddha are still obviously around – meaning he is still the current Sammasam Buddha of this era. This is why the emphasis is laid on Siddartha Gautama, because it is still his teachings which lead other beings to awakening. The Buddha Sutta states:
“The Tathagata — the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one — is the one who gives rise to the path (previously) unarisen, who engenders the path (previously) unengendered, who points out the path (previously) not pointed out. He knows the path, is expert in the path, is adept at the path. And his disciples now keep following the path and afterwards become endowed with the path.”
So what differentiates a Buddha, anyways? How can you tell a Buddha apart from some other enlightened teacher? Well, the Maha-sihanada Sutta lists ten “powers” or “factors” of a Buddha (tathaagata-balaani) which he understands in actuality:
1. The possible as possible and the impossible as impossible, that is causes and conditions and their results;
2. Past, future and present deeds and their results;
3. The practices leading to good and bad destinations;
4. The world (of the aggregates, etc.) in all its diverse elements;
5. The various (good and bad) dispositions and inclinations of beings;
6. The state of the faculties (indriya, of faith, energy, etc.) of other beings;
7. The cleansing of defilements and the emergence in regard to the jhanas, liberations, concentrations and attainments in meditation;
8 The recollection of many former births and the remembrance the various experiences he had in them;
9. The witnessing of beings arising and passing away according to their deeds;
10. The knowledge of destruction of the mental effluents/pollutants/fermentations/etc. (asavakkhaye ñana), dwelling upon and abiding in the deliverance of mind (cetavimutti) and deliverance through wisdom (paññaa-vimutti).