165 - Los Preceptos Morales Budistas como Práctica para Estudiar la Vía
167 - If You're Not Making Mistakes, You're Not Practicing

The annual Buddhist festival of Wesak celebrates the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. The ceremony takes inspiration from the Buddha’s mythological birth story, and I describe a version of the ceremony and share some chanting from it. Then I discuss the way Wesak helps awaken our gratitude for the Dharma, for teachers, and for all of those beings who have made our lives possible.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Buddhist Mythology Around the Buddha’s Birth
A Wesak Ceremony (Festival of the Buddha’s Birth)
Gratitude for Teachers
The Gift of Buddhism
The Practice of Gratitude


The Buddhist Mythology Around the Buddha’s Birth

This episode is about the Buddhist celebration of the Buddha’s birth and the Dharma, or teaching, of the ceremony. This ceremony happens in April or early May in Buddhist communities and cultures worldwide. The ceremony is known as Wesak or Vesak; I tend to call it Vesak, even though we spell it the Japanese way (Wesak). The imagination of the ceremony is based on what I consider the mythological story of Shakyamuni’s birth—which, of course, some people in the world will not think of as mythological, but I do.

I will share the story of the Buddha’s birth with you because it will explain some of the reasons why we structure our ceremony the way we do. The following are excerpts from the Buddhacarita, a text composed by Aśvaghoṣa in the 2nd century CE. (This is not the Pali canon version of the Buddha’s birth, although even the Pali canon version includes some rather supernatural aspects.) Here are the excerpts from the Buddhacarita:

Queen Māyā perceived that the time of delivery was at hand. She lay down on an excellent couch, with numerous ladies waiting upon her.

On the eighth day of the fourth month the moment was serene and the atmosphere harmonious. [Queen Maya] observed [a] fast and developed her pure qualities, and the Bodhisattva was born from her right side. Saving the world with his great compassion, he did not let his mother suffer…

As if he had fallen down from the sky, he did not pass through the portal of birth. Having cultivated virtue for countless eons, he was born fully conscious, without any confusion…

Upright and clear of mind, he walked seven steps with dignity. On the bottom of his feet his level soles were well placed. His brightness was as penetrating as the seven stars.

Stepping like a lion, king of the animals, he observed the four directions. With thorough insight into the meaning of the truth, he thus spoke with the fullest assurance:

“As this birth is a buddha’s birth, it is my last birth. Just in this one birth I shall save all!”

At this occasion two pleasant streams came pouring down from the sky. One was warm and the other cool. They poured down on his head, so that he felt physically happy…

Fine powdered incense of sandalwood and a multitude of precious lotus [petals] floated in the sky, blowing in the wind. They fell and scattered in profusion…

The sun and the moon were as usual, but [the Bodhisattva’s] radiance doubled their light… A multitude of wonderful fine flowers blossomed out of season.

The various kinds of fierce beings momentarily had friendly thoughts, and diseases in the world disappeared by themselves, without any cure applied.

The birds and animals with their confused cries fell silent, not making any sound.

The ten thousand rivers all stopped flowing and muddy waters all became clear.

In the sky there were no clouds, and celestial drums sounded all by themselves.

All the worldly beings were safe and happy, just as when a country in upheaval suddenly has obtained a wise and able ruler.

The Bodhisattva was born to save the world from suffering.

Clearly, this is a very ornate myth. How should we relate to it? Now, as I mentioned, some people in the world believe these events truly happened; however, I don’t believe that the 10,000 rivers literally stopped flowing, and all the muddy waters became clear, etc. Relating to myth, here is a comment from Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist:

“As a strong believer in the psychic unity of mankind and its poetic expression through mythology, Campbell made use of the concept to express the idea that the whole of the human race can be seen as engaged in the effort of making the world “transparent to transcendence” by showing that underneath the world of phenomena lies an eternal source which is constantly pouring its energies into this world of time, suffering, and ultimately death. To achieve this task one needs to speak about things that existed before and beyond words, a seemingly impossible task, the solution to which lies in the metaphors found in myths. These metaphors are statements that point beyond themselves into the transcendent.” – Wikipedia, on Joseph Campbell

So, did a man named Siddhartha exist? Did he single-handedly discover and teach all the essential parts of Buddhism? Maybe. Was Siddhartha one person, or a representation of many unnamed people? I think what matters most is that the myth developed because of human endeavor. What messages are conveyed in the Siddhartha myth? Before I intellectually examine that, I want to share with you the Wesak ceremony as we perform it at my temple.


A Wesak Ceremony (Festival of the Buddha’s Birth)

Ceremonies exist to help us access our emotions. We have ceremonies in our cultures; for example, we have weddings, and we have funerals. Memorials such as funerals are meant to process grief. At funerals in particular, we sing songs—sad songs—and we read sentimental poems. We speak about those who have passed and do things that are tearjerkers, things that deliberately reach within and and pull out our grief. Every ceremony tries to help us access something. Now, we’ll examine what the Wesak ceremony is trying to help us access. 

In our Wesak ceremony, we reenact the mythological scene of the baby Buddha, who, immediately upon birth, stands up, takes seven steps, and then makes a proclamation about how this is his last birth. He states that he is a Buddha and will attain enlightenment. The phrase for this that we tend to use in our lineage is, “I alone am the world-honored one.” Then, we say that sweet tea rained from the sky, and there were many flowers. 

To begin the ceremony, we set up a special altar and place a small baby Buddha statue on it. The statue depicts a baby Buddha standing on a lotus. One of his hands points to the sky while the other hand points toward the earth. We put the statue in a bowl and fill the bowl with sweet tea, then we ladle the tea over the Buddha statue. Next, we create a bower, which is a structure that we decorate with all kinds of flowers until the underlying structure is no longer visible—it becomes just one big canopy of flowers. 

Then, as we do for most ceremonies, we start off with bows.

The celebrant of the ceremony processes in and offers incense at the altar, and they may offer additional things like tea and cakes. Then, we sing a song that actually is used in our children’s Sunday school, “The Holy Day of Wesak,” which is very sweet. After that, we do some chanting, and we process as a Sangha around the whole zendo, up and down the rows, in a formation that means everybody ends up walking in front of the altar and, eventually, returning to their seats. 

During the procession, when you approach the Baby Buddha altar, you make a bow. Then, you take a ladle full of the sweet tea and pour it over the top of the Buddha’s head to mimic the rain of sweet tea from the myth that flowed down from the sky upon his birth. In my lineage in particular, we chant an offertory, which I’m going to share with you, just to give you a little taste.  This translated version of the offertory is very similar to the traditional Soto Zen dedication that is done at the festival Wesak, but this has been set to a kind of plainsong chant by my Dharma grandmother, Roshi Jiyu Kennett. This offertory is chanted after all participants have processed by the Buddha, offered the sweet tea, and returned to their seats.

From Great Compassion | comes forth the Pure Dharma | Body. ::

Unborn, Uncreated. ||

We pray | that the darkness of our de | lusions ::

May be illuminated by | True Compassion. ||

On this __ day of April | we are gathered here to offer sweet tea, flowers, candles, water, and cakes — to celebrate the birth of our Great Master, — Shakyamuni | Buddha. ::

Out of gratitude we wish to offer the merits of the recitation of  “The Litany of the Great Compassionate One,” the Wesak Hymn and “Universal Gate- | way of Compassion.” ||


The wonderful Undambara flower bloomed u | pon this day. ::

And the meaning of this | festival is found within its | blossom. ||

Even as its sweet fragrance fills the whole world, – – so does | Buddhism cover the earth. |||

The birth of Shakyamuni brought the sun of hope to a world of | darkness. ::

And illuminated the whole | Universe. — He took upon Himself the form of a human being, — was born with the 32 marks of a | Buddha, ||

And for immeasurable time pursued works of | Great Compassion. |||

He found and transcended the cause of | suffering. ::

All beings whether saints or laymen praise this magnificent under | standing. — His 300 sermons are for us as rain is for the | trees and grass. ||

Just as rain causes drooping flowers to flourish – – so his words | touch our heavy hearts. |||

At this very moment the rain of the | Dharma ::

Pours into the lake of | Kindness. ||

The merit of His life may be likened to the wind which, — as it bends the grass and fans the leaves, — blows the good seed of the Dharma to take root in the hearts of people all over the world, — e | ven after 2,000 years, |||

And | will continue to do so — not only in this | world but also in the next. |||


We the followers | of our | Great Master ::     | Shakyamuni ::

Bow | in gratitude to Him – for His goodness and com | passion ||

As we | celebrate His birthday. |||

We pray | that His halo, — which is the | light of the Dharma ::

Will illuminate the darkness of the delusion of those | beings of this world — | who have not heard His name. ||

We pray that all beings may be saved and thus prosper — | for all eternity. |||

We pray | that the seed — of | Buddhahood ::

Will bud and blossom into the | flower of enlightenment ||

So that its beauty — may | fill the universe. |||

At Dharma Rain, where I trained—and probably in many Buddhist communities—there are many children involved in this ceremony. It’s something very easy for them to relate to; there are flowers and petals scattered all over. Afterwards, at Dharma Rain (and, hopefully, at Bright Way someday when we further develop our children’s program), there is a birthday cake for the Buddha, which gets divided up. Plus, we have a piñata of a white elephant because it is part of the story of how the Buddha was conceived: according to the mythology, Queen Maya had a dream about a white elephant who entered her side. So, at our Wesak ceremony, we have a piñata of a white elephant with six tusks that the kids get to break open and then have candy.


Gratitude for Teachers

So, what is all this about? What is the ceremony’s significance? What emotions are we trying to access with Wesak? If you have some skepticism of ceremony or devotion, you might think that the purpose of Wesak is adoration for Shakyamuni. In a sense, that may be true, but it’s not the kind of hero worship or cultivation of awe for a founder or leader that is meant to keep you in line. It is not meant to give you a sense that this being is, or was, greater than you are, and that you are lesser. 

For a moment, let’s assume Siddhartha Gautama actually existed. Let’s assume he was born, and he went on a spiritual search and struggled with all of the religious spiritual tools of his day. Then, he discovered a different way, and he spent his life teaching it. Think about what that made possible in your own life. What have you learned, discovered, escaped, transcended, or accepted because of Buddhist teachings and practice? Of course, we can’t know what would have happened on a different trajectory of unfolding if we hadn’t encountered Zen meditation or mindfulness, or if we had never encountered the moral precepts and our way of working with them, or the Paramitas, or the emphasis on Sangha—we can’t know. 

However, I personally feel like Zen gave me my life; that is, Zen in the sense that it is the particular form of Buddhism that I connected with. I was about twenty-four years old when I first got into Zen. I was going on a trip to India, and I looked in the guide book and read about the history of Buddhism ahead of time, before the trip. Buddhism is part of the history of India, even though it’s not very widespread there now. I read about the Four Noble Truths, and I found it so remarkable that the first thing this whole tradition admits is that life is marked by dissatisfaction. It wasn’t that there was something wrong with me; it’s just that is the way it is. Further, not only is life marked by dissatisfaction, but there is a reason for it, and there is something you can do about it.

I was totally hooked. It had never occurred to me before to wash the dishes without just trying to get them done and go on to the next thing. It never occurred to me to be mindful for its own sake. Certainly, I could be mindful if I was enjoying something, or if something was pleasurable or fascinating—but just to be paying attention at other times as well was radical to me. Meditation started to give me a different way to relate to my experiences that actually allowed me to change some of my dysfunctional behaviors. I don’t know what I would have done without my connection to Zen; I was despairing and anxious and depressed, and I think I would have been pretty stuck and miserable. 

Buddhism and Zen really let me open up to my life. Therefore, of course, I felt great gratitude to my own teacher, to the Sangha I became part of, to all of the people who made that possible, and to all of the teachers who passed this on person to person. The reason I encountered Buddhism—the reason that I had the opportunity to practice—was due to all of these other people. All these teachers, whether formal or not, were the people who enabled me to connect with Zen. They kept the practice alive.

This is why, when we do our regular morning chanting service, we chant a long lineage of names starting with Shakyamuni Buddha and Makakasho, and we go through a list of something like eighty-five names until we get to the last teacher in our lineage, who has passed away. It may seem kind of boring (unless you’re super mindful!). So, why do we chant the names every time? It is a part of this gratitude, part of this realization of our good fortune in encountering the Dharma in this life. It’s a similar kind of thing that we’re trying to access in the Wesak ceremony.

Now, what about other human beings, without whom you would not have the life you do? You can expand this beyond the idea of teachers, exactly, to people whose help, wisdom, and compassion has been given to you, and without which you would not be who you are; you might be miserable, you might be dead, or you might not exist at all. This may include your parents, friends, or perhaps the creator of AA and all the people who have kept that tradition alive. For most of us, Alexander Fleming should be a subject for gratitude—he spent many years tirelessly researching antibacterial substances until he finally discovered penicillin. How many of us would still be alive and healthy without antibiotics, and how many of our loved ones would still be around?


Wesak Celebrates the Gift of Buddhism

Part of our special respect and awe for Shakyamuni is the idea that he discovered the basic truths and the path more or less on his own. It is not just a matter of him being compassionate and generous, and making it possible for us to practice; he was also a creator.  In that sense, he was a little more like Alexander Fleming, not just a teacher. Through his great determination, he discovered something that is essential to us. The Buddha certainly had some spiritual training based on what was done at his time. He didn’t create everything, but Buddhism definitely departed from what was done before, and it innovated in some important ways.

If I had to boil down Buddhism into one sentence, it would be this: “Your experience of life is dependent largely on the state of your own mind.” So, although life is marked by Dukkha, there is a way to become free. There is an effective path of practice to bring this about so that really, no matter what happens to you—and, inevitably, there’s going to be loss and illness and old age and disease and death—your experience of life is still largely dependent on the state of your own mind. Not that it’s easy to be free of Dukkha, but it is possible. 

In terms of practices, would it ever have occurred to you to sit? Just sit still for prolonged periods of time, for no particular reason? Or to turn toward things without judgment, in a way that is different from what our culture generally says—that is, if you can’t immediately solve something, then just deal with it by ignoring it or distracting yourself? Or that the emptiness you intuit is real but not the scary thing you assume it is? Would it have occurred to us to walk the dynamic way between extremes? This apparent paradox, for example, of interdependence with Sangha, that we cannot do this without Sangha, and yet not relying on others, in some sense, and not looking outside ourselves for any satisfaction or confirmation of what is most important? Would we have on our own discovered the profound liberation of gratitude and acceptance, or would we have gone to the same degree of emphasis on spiritual rewards that mean access to joy and peace no matter what happens in our lives? 

There is gratitude, and it is not just an intellectual gratitude calling to mind, “Oh, here’s something that somebody gave to me, and I’m grateful that they gave it to me.” Rather, it stems from a deeper level when our bodies are involved, and especially when there is mythology, imagery, and ceremony. It is something very healing, important, wholesome, and true.

For example, every time I participate in the Wesak ceremony—I have planned it, I poured the tea into the bowl, I put the ladle there, I helped with the bower—I know what’s coming! Yet, when I go and take my turn in front of that altar, and I make a little bow, and I take that ladle full of tea and pour it over the Buddha’s head, and it trickles down and then falls back into the bowl: I’m enacting something. I’m making something real in a way that I just don’t at any other time. When that experience, that feeling, when that truth is awakened in me, I recognize, “Oh, yes, that’s a good thing to remember. That’s a good thing to feel.” 


The Practice of Gratitude

Wesak isn’t only about expressing awe and thanks to the teachers and supporting them (although, if that’s possible, that’s great!). The ceremony is really more about the state of our own heart, and our profound recognition of interdependence. It is celebration, appreciation, and wonder at what we have and at what we are. It is a sense of abundance instead of lack, which leads naturally to generosity, and a willingness to pay it forward that leads us to take stock and value the Dharma. We think about the ways we can facilitate the passage of the Dharma to others.


165 - Los Preceptos Morales Budistas como Práctica para Estudiar la Vía
167 - If You're Not Making Mistakes, You're Not Practicing