Buddha’s Birthday

Friday 17 May 2013 (8th day of 4th month in Chinese lunar calander)
Buddha’s Birthday

Today is a national holiday in Hong Kong. Schools are closed, some shops are closed, and most people – though not all – have a well-deserved day off from work. Not me though: I am ‘working’ today, celebrating the day on which the Buddha was born thousands of years ago.

After having had my morning coffee and breakfast, I take the train to Tsuen Wan and a minibus to Wang Fat Ching She, the Mahayana (Chinese) Buddhist temple that I have visited on numerous occasions to join activities, to enjoy wonderful vegetarian lunches (paired with great discussions on Buddhism), or to engage myself in the anthropological method of ‘hanging around’. The program starts at 10am; I arrive fifteen minutes earlier and greet some of the people I know at the temple. Most of them are people I have met before for interviews, and most of them are volunteers today. I enter the main (small) hall of the temple and sit down on a cushion. There are about 150 people gathered in the hall, all waiting for the morning program to start. I try to make small talk with the family next to me (father, mother and young daughter); however, their English is very limited (as is my Cantonese) and all we can do is smile at each other.

The morning ceremony begins and lasts for about 1.5 hours. It involves sutra chanting, and offerings. It is interesting to experience this (Theravada) kind of ceremony, which is much more ‘clean’ than other Buddhist (Mahayana) ceremonies I have seen so far.

Before I continue with this post, I must admit that my knowledge on Buddhism is still very basic. It is hard for me to comment on differences between the three main streams of Buddhism: Mahayana (Chinese), Theravada (Thai), and Tibetan. Although all three acknowledge the same Buddha and the same Buddhist teachings, there are differences in which parts of the teachings are emphasized, on which rituals to perform and how, and on ways of meditating – partly depending on the regional and cultural settings in which a certain form of Buddhism has evolved itself. You can compare it with differences in Christianity: although Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Churches all have the same foundation (Jesus and his teachings), they differ in many other things.

There are 15 (or 18?) monks present at the ceremony. They come from different countries and from different streams of Buddhism. They all engage in the Theravada ceremony that is going on in this temple today – a ceremony that doesn’t include the many kowtows and incense burning I have experienced in other temples. The sutra chanting is in Pali and in Cantonese – two languages I don’t understand. However, I try my best to mumble along, and I’m sure my Pali isn’t much worse than that of the Chinese people around me.

I look around and try to indicate the sort of people that are present here today. The first thing I notice that this is another crowd than I’ve seen during other activities at the temple. In this specific temple (which is a Mahayana temple with a Theravada head monk), different activities attract different sorts of people. Today the crowd is younger than I would have expected. There are even some children, and almost no older women. I wonder where the older women are. Do they not celebrate the Buddha’s Birthday? Or would they rather go to a more traditional Chinese ceremony, which includes the incense burning, offerings and kowtowing that they are traditionally more familiar with?

After the ceremony, the crowd moves outside, in the extremely humid, hot weather – people’s glasses (and my camera lens) get immediately foggy when they step outside. People line up. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, so I walk to a person I know and ask her. She tells me that the people all have brought gifts for the monks, which they will now offer to them. We are asked to kneel down on the wet floor while the monks walk past, holding out their bowls, collecting biscuits, toiletries, dried foods, water, and red pockets with money.

When the offering is over, everybody lines up. I stand in line as well, although I’m not quite sure for what. The persons before and behind me both don’t speak any English, so I can’t ask them (perhaps I should have learned Cantonese instead of Mandarin). Then I see another man I know, and we chat a little. He is happy to see me here at this temple and explains to me why I’m standing in line: I am about the walk up to a small statue of the Buddha and pour water over him, in order to bath him.

According to Buddhist scripture, when the Buddha was born from the side of his mother, he could immediately walk. He made three steps in each direction of the wind (North, South, East and West). The Heavens were so happy that he was born that certain animals (I forgot which) showered him with water. Washing the Buddha on his birthday is a Mahayana practice of remembering this.

I approach the small statue of the Buddha. It is a statue of a child, standing, holding up his hand and pointing to the sky. The statue stands on a small altar. Before the altar is a cushion. I bring my hands together before my chest, bow, and kneel down. I take up the spoon with long handle and pour water over the Buddha in the same way I’ve seen the woman in front of me do. Then I get up, bow once more and walk away. The woman standing next to the statue looks at me smiling, and thanks me for washing the Buddha. I smile back. Another woman gives me a small bag with some food things: three pieces of candy, a small bag of rice, and some peanuts.

It is around 12pm when I finish. Lunch time. I walk outside in the humid heat and find my way to the back of the temple, where a simple vegetarian lunch is served. Most people have already eaten, so it is easy for me to find a stool to sit on. I see the cook running around, apologizing: she didn’t know so many people would come today and she fears the food is not enough. I decide to sit next to a woman my age, and start talking to her. It’s her first time to come to this temple, and her first time to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday. Actually, she is not a Buddhist, but just interested in this ceremony – just like me. We chat a little, but mainly eat in silence. She is not a talkative person.

In the afternoon there is another ceremony, which starts at 2pm. Since there is time to spare between lunch and the ceremony, I enter the temple and enjoy the air-conditioning. I talk to some people and hang around. A man in his early 30s walks up to me and starts talking to me. During the afternoon’s ceremony, he will take the Three Refuges, meaning he will officially be a Buddhist from that point onwards and will live by the Five Precepts (no drugs or alcohol, no killing, no bad language, no stealing, and no illicit sex). One of the resident monks of the temple also walks up to me and asks me if I too want to take the Three Refuges. He says it will be good for me. “Don’t think, just do.” I manage to convince him that it is not my time yet: I don’t still know enough about Buddhism to become an official Buddhist practitioner. Maybe in a next life.

(Of course I don’t tell him that, at this point in my life, I’m not yet willing to give up a nice glass of cool beer  on a humid, hot afternoon – especially during Hong Kong’s Happy Hour.)

After the ceremony – in which 16 people take the Refuge and about the same amount of people are there to watch – I return home. The birthday party is over. Just like a birthday in The Netherlands, people have given gifts and have gotten a small bag with food stuffs to take home. And just like a birthday in The Netherlands, it was a happy day with food, laughter, singing, and meeting “friends” of the “birthday boy”.


2 thoughts on “Buddha’s Birthday

  1. Lovely story Mariske! I enjoy the way you write and compare your daily experiences with daily life in NL.


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