United Celebration of the Buddha’s Birthday (2003)

On May 10, 2003, about 50 Buddhist institutions (monasteriesA monastery is the residence of monks, or monastics; the term is commonly used in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions. Monasticism refers to the life of work, study, and discipline led by monks and nuns., meditationMeditation is the disciplined practice of quieting and focusing the mind or cultivating the heart’s attention. Different meditation practices commend focusing attention on a word, a prayer, a form, or the breath as a way of practice. Meditation is commo... or dharmaDharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings ... centers, community, etc.) across Greater Boston gathered at Copley Square, facing the TrinityThe Trinity is the Christian doctrine of the three natures of the One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The language of the Trinity bespeaks the complexity of God, who can be spoken of as the transcendent creator, the one who accompanies humanity as the ... ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... and John Hancock Tower, in down town Boston to celebrate jointly the 2547th birthday of Sakyamuni BuddhaBuddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that ther..., the founder of BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther.... This celebration is also known as VesakThe anniversary of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama is a major Buddhist celebration, although the date of observance differs in the various traditions. For the Theravada tradition, Visakha (or Vesak) usually falls in May and celebrates simultaneously three..., a festival that combines the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, the day of his EnlightenmentEnlightenment means awakening to or realizing the true nature of reality. The term is used with various nuances in the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions to express the spiritual awakening that is the goal of religious life. “The Enlightenment” also... and the day of his entering into NirvanaIn religions of Indian origin, nirvana means “blowing out,” i.e. the cessation of greed, hate, delusion, attachment, and desire —all the fuel of rebirth. In Buddhist philosophy, it refers both to Truth of the “far shore,” and to th. state of gre.... It is believed by Buddhists that these three days happened to fall on the same day (the full moonThe different phases of the moon’s cycle are significant in some Pagan traditions, especially in Wicca, where the moon is associated with the Goddess. Wiccans believe the inherent spiritual power in nature is greatest on the night of the full moon. They... day) in May. The united celebration this year is a ground-breaking event in Greater Boston. Formerly scores of Buddhist templesBuddhist temples differ considerably from one another depending upon culture and particular school, but most are associated with the residence of the sangha of monks. Theravada temples focus on one or more images of Sakyamuni Buddha. In Mahayana and Vajra... and centers traditionally each held the celebration in its own place of congregation.

The idea of having a joint celebration originated from Venerable Dr. Yifa and Dr. Pat Marshall. It dated back to fall 2002 when Venerable Yifa hosted a memorial on September 11, inviting as many Buddhist institutions as she could in Boston to attend. In winter that year,Venerable Yifa started the organizing committee to translate their plan into reality. Very strict and formal procedures had to be undergone to meet the municipal requirements regarding safety and order. The Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center (GBBCC), where Venerable Yifa is the abbessAn abbot or abbess is the title of the superior of a monastery or convent. Some scholars and practitioners have used these titles to apply to the ranking monk or nun of a Buddhist monastic community as well., deposited an insurance in the amount of one million US dollars for using the venue at Copley Square. Pat signed on a 10-article Rules and Regulations set forth by all the applicable departments of the municipal government. “Any violation may result in a denial of a future permit.” This spring, at least two major preparatory meetings were called to map out and discuss the exact protocol, representatives, activities, and duration for each activity as well the general theme and significance of the event.

On the evening of May 3, the last preparatory meeting was convened at GBBCC. Present were about 50 people representing ethnic Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Lao, Sri Lankan, Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese and American/Western followers of the Dharma, a collective term for anything that is Buddhist. All the point persons (master of ceremony, journalists, etc.) and leaders of different denominations and institutions attended the three-hour long plenary session. The three denominations—MahayanaMahayana, the “Great Vehicle,” is a form of Buddhism the originated in India and spread to Central and East Asia, encompassing schools in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Its primary characteristics include a more supernatural view o... (the Great VehicleMahayana, the “Great Vehicle,” is a form of Buddhism the originated in India and spread to Central and East Asia, encompassing schools in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Its primary characteristics include a more supernatural view o...), VajrayanaVajrayana emerged in the 7th century CE as a subset of Mahayana sometimes seen as the third major stream of Buddhism. This tradition is most prominent in Tibet and its surrounding regions, although forms of it are found in China and Japan. Vajrayana, lite... (TantricTantra is a term used in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions to refer to esoteric systems of knowledge and practice which emphasize the paradoxical non-duality of all things, often symbolized by the union of male and female elements. In the Buddhist tradit... or better known as Tibetan) and TheravadaTheravada, literally “the way of the elders,” was one of the eighteen earliest sub-schools of Buddhism. Today, the term designates the various traditions of Buddhism most prominent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Although these traditions differ in i... (the Elderly Tradition, a major existing sub-sect of what was retrospectively called Hinayana, meaning lesser vehicle, by Mahayana)—were represented (a broader classification would tie Vajrayana into Mahayana). Mahayana and Theravada have much to share but they also differ from each other significantly. On the understanding of Sakyamuni Buddha alone, Theravadists hold that the Buddha is just a historical figure, an enlightened human, whereas Mahayanists believe the Buddha is not only historical but also eternal and cosmic, manifesting in a threefold body: the spiritual body, rewarding body and transformation body.

On May 10, the day of united celebration, by 11:00 a.m., GBBCC staff and other volunteers had finished the whole setting- up. A rehearsal began at noon. At 2:00 p.m., Sumi Loundon, the master of ceremony, called the celebration to order. To begin, Thick Thien Hue and another Vietnamese monkA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... struck the bell and beat the drum. Shortly, approximately 100 men and women dressed in traditional bright beautiful costumes from the Vietnamese delegation, representing Pho Hien (Samantabadhra) Meditation TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref..., marched in, each holding a banner on which were written Chinese characters (Mahayana was introduced to Vietnam from China in the medieval age and the Buddhist Canon Vietnamese use remains in traditional Chinese) meaning Celebrating Buddha’s Birthday. Rearing the long march-in were twenty children carrying flowers with them. This delegation, the largest by number of participants, ended their march flanking the celebration venue, which was walled by row after row of participants: monksA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... and nunsA nun is a woman who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully or... wearing different colors of robes, laypersons and guests.

Five minutes later, the offering began from six delegations, each consisting of sixteen people. The procedure of offering is a three-fold one: at the first bell, everyone holds the offering over the head, a respectful sign that the offering is to be for the Buddha who is higher than one’s self; at the second bell, the offering is held in front of one’s chest, signifying sincerity in offering; at the third bell the celebrant presents the offering with both hands at the altarAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said.. Candlelights, flowers, fragrance, fruit, tea and incenses were offered respectively by Chinese from Massachusetts Buddhist Association, Koreans from Sounsa, Vietnamese from Pho Hien, Thais from WatA wat (Thai) or watt (Cambodian) is a Buddhist temple-monastic complex. Thai and Cambodian temples typically have two sections, one in which both monks and laity worship the Buddha, and the other reserved for the monastic community. The former typically i... Nawamin, Chinese from GBBCC and children from GBBCC. The whole offering protocol ended with fifty children from Pho Hien tossing flowers around the baby Buddha statue that sits high on a simulated stupaA stupa is a dome-shaped structure that serves as a reliquary and memorial to the Buddha and other Buddhist worthies. Originally these structures were hemispherical mounds of stone or brick, surrounded by a low fence. In East Asia, the superstructure abov... which was wreathed by calligraphy in eight languages marking the Buddha’s birthday.

The fifteen-minute offering ceremony was followed by prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. and chanting. Each of the six representative groups had five minutes to perform the ritual in its native language: PaliPali is an early middle-Indic language in which Buddhist texts were written. The group of Theravada Buddhist texts is collectively referred to as the Pali Canon., Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tibetan and English. The Buddhist ritual states that at the end of a prayer, chanting or dharma event, the performers need to transfer the merit thus collected to the BuddhasBuddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that ther..., Bodhisattavas and all sentient beings. The Chinese group led by Kwang Xian from Thousand Buddha Temple and Yifa from GBBCC performed this dedication ritual to complete the 20-minute prayer and chanting.

If the protocols so far were purely religious rituals, the next two items—speeches and artistic performances—saw a marked variation. In Venerable Yifa’s keynote speech, she said that it is indeed a wonderful occasion that all the Buddhists institutions in Greater Boston could meet to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday. She hoped that this first ever event of united celebration will carry on in the years to come. As a principal organizer, Yifa thanked each participating institution for responding and contributing actively to the success of this historic Buddhist congregation. She finally stressed the significance of this groundbreaking ecumenical Buddhist celebration and prayed for peace in the Middle East and SARS- stricken Asian countries and regions. Dr. Chris Queen, a senior lecturer of religion at Harvard University, recounted very briefly the biography of the Buddha and the history of Buddhist development. Then he focused his speech on engaged Buddhism. He encouraged Westerners to join Buddhists as Buddhism moves to the West. A well-established instructor and activist in engaged Buddhism, Queen expressed his wishes for Buddhist peace to be pursued at a broader social level as well as personal and spiritual level. In his speech, Boston University professor John Makramsky addressed how different faith traditions looked at Buddhism, which remains largely unchanged over the past 2500 years. He also explained the symbolic meanings of some of the rituals in Buddhism. Malaika Thorne, a young Latin American woman, reported how she was brought up in her family in the United States as a Buddhist.

The glamorous artistic shows that followed the speeches brought the festivity of the celebration to a height. There was a Thai dance from Wat Nawamin, a Chinese palace dance from GBBCC and a Korean Choir by Munsusa. The Thai dancer performed the meditative and elegant dance on a platform of about nine feet square. The platform was shouldered by seven people during the entire dance, which lasted about ten minutes. The audience had a chance to get a glimpse of the wealth of diversified, idiosyncratic art performance from Asian cultrues. This festive atmosphere took a sudden turn into solemnity when a one- minute silent meditation of the whole assembly was called. With the striking of the big bell, all came out of meditation and extended peace to people in areas which have been struck by war and SARS.

Next came the last but most significant portion of the celebration: the showering of the statue of the baby Buddha. Monastics followed by other participants all lined up in two parallel columns. It took over two hours for approximately one thousand people to shower the statue. Whoever is to shower or bathe the Buddha makes a half bow before the Buddha. He/she then scoops up a ladle of the pure water from the basin in which the Buddha statue stands. Slowly and meditatively he/she then showers the baby Buddha statue by sprinkling the water from the top of the head down the shoulder. Others seemed to prefer showering from the waist and moving upward. Despite the diversified preference of formal manner, everyone is expected to contemplate or visualize the showering as if it is cleansing one’s own defilements accumulated from time immemorial. According to Venerable Yifa, when one is showering the baby Buddha, he/she is renewing a vow to “live as the Buddha taught. In return, participants may receive such karmicKarma means action and the consequences of action, both in the world and for oneself. It is important in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions where rebirth is presupposed and karma shapes one’s ongoing life. Every action leaves an imprint. In the Ja... merits as longevity, happiness and prosperity for themselves and all sentient beings. The shower itself pays respect to the Buddha in a symbolic reenactment of the heavenly shower of nectar that fell at the time of his birth. It also serves as a reminder to us to use Buddha’s teaching to cleanse our minds and cultivate wisdom, to work for the benefit of society and the relief of all suffering.”

The size of the celebration and the beauty of the festivity, replete with dazzling colorful costumes and wonderful performances, all contributed to the success of this historical event. “I think it is just beautiful,” said, GroveSacred groves have historically been among the most important sites for Pagan worship. In Druidism, trees are thought to have specific attributes that contribute meaning to the site where they grow. Contemporary Druid groups are often called “groves.”... Harris, the administrative director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard. And yet participants’ opinions remained divided on a few issues. Among them is the question of whether the celebration should remain a strictly Buddhist one and thus refrain from any kind of politicization or social involvement. Those who are against “politicization” don’t want to incur unnecessary suspicion or trouble in a time of heightened sensitivity to alien religions or cultures. On the other hand, people who are regarded as “politicizing” by extending peace to war- or SARS- stricken people and regions contended that peace itself is the essence of what the Buddha taught. If prayer and meditation are not for peace, individual and social, then what on earth are they for? Another issue is whether the event should include not only Buddhist adherents but also Buddhist scholars and even followers of other faiths, not only Buddhist monastics but also lay followers in prayersPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. and chanting, not only Asians or Asian Americans but also Caucasians and indeed whether it should be ecumenical. Proponents of the vision led by Venerable Yifa believe that Buddhists in America need first and foremost to foster communication and unity within their own community, which then may develop into a more significant voice in the society. Yet, encouraging Caucasians to participate provides a very rare chance for both sides—Westerners and Asians alike—to learn from each other. Westerners or Western Buddhist converts will learn that Buddhism consists of much more than just meditation. Moral precepts (sila), meditation (dhyanaDhyana is the Sanskrit term for meditation practice, which became known in China as Chan and in Japan as Zen. It consists of disciplines of sitting, breathing, and mental concentration which enable the mind to develop insight into its real nature. Chan an...) and wisdom (prajna) are practiced with one leading or at least linked to the other. Each is an integral part of Buddhism. Asian Buddhists or Buddhists of Asian descents, on the other hand, need to learn how to adapt Buddhism to American culture and make it localized. United celebration of this kind provide such a chance of mutual learning. No true understanding of essentially different faiths and cultures seems possible without reciprocal exposures and experiencing the differences side by side, generation by generation.

—Caifang Zhu, Pluralism Project Research Associate


Appendix A: List of the participating institutions

  • Boston Old Path SanghaThe Sangha is the community of monks or, more broadly, the community of Buddhists. To formally become a Buddhist, one takes refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), and Sangha. In its widest sense, “sangha” refers ... of the Community of Interbeing, 38 Temple St., Boston, MA
  • Western Buddhist Peace Fellowship, 183 Central Street, Somerville, MA, American, www.bpfboston.org
  • Cambridge Insight MeditationVipassana is a form of Theravada Buddhist meditation, also called “insight mediation.” This method directs the attention toward the moment-to-moment workings of the mind and body, thereby developing “mindfulness” of the contents of consciousness a... Center, 331 Broadway Street, Cambridge, 02139, American, www.cimc.info
  • Cambridge Zen Center, 199 Auburn St., Cambridge, MA 02139, Korean/Western, www.cambridgezen.com
  • Dzogchen Center, 5 Longfellow Park, Cambridge, MA 02140, Tibetan
  • Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center (GBBCC), C-1, 950 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. MA 02139, Chinese, www.gbbcc.org
  • GuanyinAvalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva who looks down with compassion upon the suffering of all beings. In East Asia, this bodhisattva came to be popular in female form as Guanyin (China), Kannon (Japan) or Kwan Um (Korea), holding a willow branch and vase sy... Temple, 2169, Southern Artery St. Quincy, MA 02169, Chinese
  • Insight Meditation Society, 1230 Pleasant Street, Barre, MA 01005, Theravada/Western, www.dharma.org
  • Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, 68 Magoun Ave., Bedford, MA,02155, Tibetan, www.kurukulla.org
  • LamaLama, the Tibetan term meaning “superior” refers especially to those of superior spiritual attainment. It is a translation of the Sanskrit word “guru” and is used for any venerable monk or qualified spiritual teacher. Yeshe Wisdom Archive, Tibetan
  • Lam Rim Buddhist Center, Christ Church Longwood, 70 Colchester St., Brookline, MA , Tibetan, www.Lingshed.Geshela.org
  • Massachusetts Budhi Siksa Society, 53-55 Massachusetts Ave, Quincy, MA 02170, Chinese
  • Massachusetts Buddhist Association, 319 Lowell St., Lexington, MA 02420, Chinese
  • Mun-su-sa Korean Temple, 231 Salem St. Wakefield, MA 01880, Korean, www.munsusa.org
  • Myogyoji Buddhist TempleBuddhist temples differ considerably from one another depending upon culture and particular school, but most are associated with the residence of the sangha of monks. Theravada temples focus on one or more images of Sakyamuni Buddha. In Mahayana and Vajra..., 1207 Boylston St., Newton, MA 02464, Japanese
  • Pho Hien Meditation Temple, 155 Quincy Ave., Braintree, MA 02184 ,Vietnamese
  • Rissho Kosei-Kai Buddhist Center, 64 Hemenway Street, Boston, MA 02115, Japanese/USA
  • ShambhalaFormed in 1973 by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambhala Vajradhatu is a worldwide organization with its headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, two other main centers in Boulder, Colorado and Marburg, Germany, and more than 100 meditation centers around the w... Buddhist (Meditation) Center, 646 Brookline Ave. Brookline, MA 02445, Tibetan, www.shambhala.org/centers/boston
  • Soka Gakkai InternationalSoka Gakkai was founded in Japan in 1930 by an educator named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Soon after its founding, it became associated with Nichiren Shoshu, a sect of Nichiren Buddhism. In the early 1990s, all formal ties between Soka Gakkai International and... Cultural Center, 545 Main Street, Waltham, MA 02452, Japanese/Western, www.sgi-usa.org
  • Sounsa Buddhist Temple, 3 Camp Street, Paxton, MA 01612, Korean
  • Thousand Buddha Temple, 53-55 Massachusetts Ave., Quincy, MA 02170, Chinese, www.thousandbuddhatemple.org
  • Triratanaram Temple, 21 Quincy Ave. Brookline, MA, Cambodian, Laos, Burmese
  • Wat Nawamin, 125, North Road, Bedford, MA 01430,Thai
  • Wat Nawamintararachuits, 1765 Comm. Ave 2nd floor,Thai
  • Won BuddhismWon Buddhism is a form of Buddhism founded by the Korean Sot’aesan Pak Chungbin (1891-1943) in 1924 in response to the doctrinal and institutional challenges presented to Korean Buddhism by its Neo-Confucian critics and Christian missionaries. According..., 7 Hill Street, Somerville, MA 02144, Korean