In Japan, April 8th commemorates the birth of the founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as the Buddha.1
According to Buddhist tradition, when the infant Buddha was born, it is said that he immediately took seven steps, then pointing one hand up, and the other hand down, he declared:2
By Heaven above, and the Earth below,
I alone am the Honored One.
This story, like many in Buddhism, is replete with symbolism and meanings within meanings. The seven steps symbolize the six traditional realms of rebirth (Devas or celestial beings, humans, Asuras or warlike titans, animals, hungry ghosts and Hell). The seventh step refers to the Buddha moving beyond the cycle of rebirth toward his (inevitable) attainment of the state of Nirvana and liberation.
But what about his bold declaration?
In the Buddhist religion, there is not a single Buddha, but a multitude of Buddhas that are said to have appeared across countless eons,3 different realms, etc., and will continue to appear in the future. Our historical Buddha is just one in a very long succession. However, the appearance of a Buddha is extremely rare and entails the culmination of a being (a bodhisattva) who strives to cultivate many good roots and many practices over countless, countless lifetimes. So, while the Buddha is a regular person, like you and me (not a divinity), his life is no accident either, and represents the end result of countless rebirths with a single goal: Enlightenment followed by the liberation of others through the teachings of the Dharma (which each Buddha rediscovers, not invents).
Thus in Buddhism it is said that the Buddha “turned the wheel” of the Dharma. Like any wheel, it slows down after a time, but a Buddha comes along and gives it another spin, reviving the teachings to others and liberating many minds in the process.
Regardless of what one believes or interprets, the Buddha was pretty extraordinary teacher, and so his birth is honored with much festivity and fun. Compared to most Buddhist holidays which tend to be a bit bland (sometimes even somber), the Buddha’s birthday is often a joyous occasion.
In Japan, flower displays like the one shown above are frequently used in Buddhist temples, and people are welcome to pour a ladle of sweet tea over the statue, in commemoration of the heavenly divinities that poured blossoms and perfume over the baby Buddha. Thus, the Buddha’s Birthday is colloquially known as Hanamatsuri (花まつり, “the Flower Festival”) in Japan, rather than its more stodgy name Gōtan-é (降誕会, “Nativity Day”).
In any case, happy birthday to the man, a peerless teacher and cool dude, who started it all!
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammāsambuddhassa
(I pay homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Fully-Enlightened One)
1 People sometimes call the Buddha just “Buddha” as if it is a name. It is not. It is a title. Also, note that most Buddhist cultures still rely on the lunar calendar instead, so dates will vary depending on which Buddhist community you are talking about. Most people call the Buddha by his birth name, Siddhartha Gautama, but within the context of Buddhism he is called Shakyamuni (lit. “of the Shakya Clan”) Buddha.
2 In Japanese, this is:
ten jō ten ka yui ga doku son
3 Eons in Buddhism are called kalpas after the Sanskrit term. They are frequently described in color metaphors such as the time taken to empty a pit a mile wide, a mile deep and a mile long of dog-hair, removing one hair every century. Another example is the time taken for an angel to wear down the largest mountain to dust by brushing his robes against it once a century. In other words, a really, really long time. Ancient Indian culture liked to think big. 😆