Home News and Features Celebrating the Buddha’s Birthday in the Season of Planting

Celebrating the Buddha’s Birthday in the Season of Planting

Altar for bathing the Buddha at Shao Shan Temple. Photo by Damian Costello.
On May 7, about 40 people gathered at Shao Shan Zen Temple in Woodbury to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday, joining millions of people across the globe. In much of Southeast Asia, the celebration occurs during the beginning of the monsoon rains and the time of planting. 

At Shao Shan, the green of spring had still not fully emerged, making the blue sky and bright colors of the prayer flags that much more vibrant. 

The birthday began with a silent procession. Other than bells, the call of a conch shell, and a drum, the only sound was the unmistakable woosh of the red pines above. People carried parasols and ribbon wands down to the dirt road and back across the stream, past granite boulders left by the glaciers and the garden-like red pines in their geometric layout.

In front of the small temple, Reverend Kenzan, Zen priest and in-residence abbot of Shao Shan, said a few words about awakening and commented on a short reading from Dogen, a 12th century Japanese monk, about the “grandmotherly intimate heart” expressed in the Buddha’s birth. “Together with the pure great ocean assembly, let us enter the Buddha Hall and perform the ceremony.”

Inside, a small statue stood in the middle of an altar of flowers. Each person bathed the Buddha with three cups of sweet tea water. Kenzan explained the meaning, how bathing of Buddha can represent the cleansing of our mind, body, and speech,” then asked, “What to think? Well, one way is to not think about it at all.” 

The joke got at the heart of the Dharma, or teaching of the Buddha. Human beings think way too much, and the purpose of the spiritual journey and the goal of awakening is to move beyond getting caught up by our thinking. 

Montpelier resident Michaël Friedman attended with his two children, 11-year old Satya and 8-year old Krishna, who were the first to bathe the Buddha. “The cake is the best part,” Krishna said with a smile during the meal afterwards. “I like the calm,” Satya added.

Michaël explained why the calm was so important to him as a parent. “Silence is a great teacher, and so is ritual. Such a simple way of teaching the kids about living well and practicing kindness, and no one is excluded from that.”

Buddhism is classified as a “religion,” yet it is often seen, at least in Vermont, as an embodied philosophy, since it is not so much based on belief but on the practice of meditation and attracts followers from a wide range of traditions. 

“Zen Buddhism is not about adhering to a set of beliefs, but instead about our own experiential practice,” Kenzan said. “Shao Shan Temple provides a place of practice where we can explore the nature of reality within community.” 

The story of the Buddha — the young prince who sees suffering for the first time and escapes the palace to search for its cessation — is such a pithy distillation of the human spiritual journey that it works itself into other traditions, such as in Catholicism as St. Josaphat, and into every corner of Vermont, where the Dharma has now been for a few generations. It is common to see Buddha statues and prayer flags in yards and businesses. Yet it rarely, if ever, feels divisive. It feels more like the wind through the red pines, a unitive presence that seems to float above many of our divisions, the call of a great ocean assembly reminding us to cultivate grandmotherly hearts.