Happy 2,641st Birthday, Buddha!

Last Sunday (May 7th), I attended an enlightening birthday party for our one and only, Sakyamuni Buddha!  I can confirm he was still looking youthful after 2,641 years 😉

Kidding aside, Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s birthday as a way to not only show their faith and appreciation to our teacher, but also as a way to show these qualities in themselves.

Thankfully, I was able to finally participate in the Dharma service for the Buddha’s birthday, and bathe the Buddha and wanted to share it with you.

Note:  Different schools, sects, and branches of Buddhism practice celebrating the Buddha’s birthday differently.  This article relates to the Mahayana Buddhism tradition of the Buddha’s birthday.  Theravada Buddhism (and some in Mahayana Buddhism) practices the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death in a celebration called “Vesak” (which in 2017, would be May 10th).  

The Buddha…Was a Baby?

Yes yes was!  The Buddha, born as Prince Sidhartha, was a human being.  However, his birth was said to be miraculous.  Hundreds of years before the virgin birth of Jesus, Prince Sidhartha was also conceived supernaturally.  The Buddha’s mother, the Queen Maya, was unable to conceive with King Suddhodana for 20 years.

One night, she had a dream of a being riding a white elephant through space towards her, and when it reached her, entered into her body through an opening on her right side and settled in her womb.  at a white elephant’s tusk touched her side and she was was then with child…the future Buddha.  Started, she awoke and told the King of the dream.  Not long afterward, she discovered she was in-fact pregnant.

When she was ready to give birth, she went to her mother’s home in Lumbini Grove on the edge of Kapilivastu (as often was the custom for a woman to give birth in their native homeland).  She gave birth under a flourishing asoka tree and gave birth to a boy…Prince Sidhartha.

From there, things got really strange…or miraculous (you choose).  Whether this is fact, exaggeration, or fiction (or a fix) is likely never to be known and left to faith.  The small prince, shortly after birth, walked seven steps!  With one hand pointing to the heavens and the other to the earth (which is why the baby Buddha statue looks like this in the ceremony), the prince said He then looked in every direction, and declared “This is my last birth into this world.  It is for the sake of realizing Buddahood that I have come into this world.  I am the greatest enlightened being, and am here to liberate all beings.”   At that moment, the Four Heavenly Kings and nine dragons rained fragrant water from the sky, bathing the body of the prince.  We believe that through the Buddha’s birth, realizing our own Buddha nature is the most noble and the most valuable goal.

All of this is quite impressive (if true) since it took me (and perhaps you as well) several months or a year to master even the basics of walking and talking 😉  Personally, I believe most of this is part of “skillful means” to help practitioners in growing their faith and emulating good qualities to become good Buddhists.

Bathing the Buddha, Baby!

A fun, but symbolic, part of this day is bathing the Buddha.  From a purely outside perspective, it looks quite odd.  You are bathing a tiny Buddha baby with a finger pointed up to the sky, adorned with what looks like a Hawaiian flower lei, and people dunking water over it.  What gives?!

“Bathing the Buddha” is a highly symbolic (and skillful means) way for a practitioner to symbolize these Buddhist concepts, attributes, and goals:

  • Purifying the body
  • Purifying the speech
  • Purifying the mind

So, you’re not really “cleaning” the Buddha (he had his shower today, thank you very much), but instead you are showing that you aspire to “cleanse” your “inner” mind of greed, hatred, and delusion.  It’s easy to clean the “outer” dirt of your body, but your mind is the key to enlightenment (so start cleaning)!

Photo by Alan Peto at Hsi Lai Temple

Step One:  Showing Respect.

When you first come to the area to bathe the Buddha, you kneel (there will be a place to do this) and join your palms before the Buddha.  Many will also bow to the Buddha before they kneel.  Non-Buddhists may think this is actually worship (over a small baby statue Buddhist-god of all things).  But that’s not what’s really going on.  When a Buddhist bows or prostrates to the Buddha, we show our humility, appreciation, and respect, for the Buddha as our teacher…not a god (the Buddha was a human being, after all).  Why bow?  Yes, it is an Asian tradition (you will see school children bow in respect to their teachers, but that doesn’t mean they are gods!) and it also allows us to take our super-inflated ego down a notch!  We show respect for the Buddha as our teacher because:

  • The Buddha is a teacher because he understood the true nature of things and taught others
  • He became a respected person because he vowed to liberate all sentient beings from suffering
  • He showed humanity how to better themselves by teaching love, kindness, and compassion

When a Buddhist bows before the Buddha, they are doing the following:

  • Reminding themselves of their own Buddha nature
  • Examining their own mind
  • Renewing their vow to remove any obstacles from their mind and life that prevent them from becoming enlightened
  • Manifesting kindness and compassion
  • Vowing to benefit all sentient beings
  • Letting go of their own ego

There are those who do not see it this way, and are taught to “pray” to the Buddha (as if he is a supernatural being) for health, wealth, or other things the person wants.  This, of course, has nothing to do with Buddhism.  Yet, through the Buddhist concept of skillful means, a practitioner can slowly learn about the true meaning and concepts of Buddhism and progress on the path.

Step Two:  Make a Wish (upon a star?)

In a bit of cultural mix, it is often said you can “make a wish”.  That is a bit of “skillful means” and has nothing really to do with Buddhism.  The Buddha isn’t going to make you win the lottery (sorry), but if you “wish” for your boy, mind, and intention to do good deeds, speak good words, and think good thoughts…you have already taken the first step to fulfilling those wishes!

Step Three:  Bathe the Buddha!

And from there you can take the long-handled wooden ladle and use the bowl of water beneath the Buddha to pour water slowly over him.  You sincerely pray for the merits of bathing the Buddha, purifying our afflictions and defilement of greed, desire, anger, and hatred.  You should preay for world peace, end to violence, deceit, and evil.  For those who practice Pure Land Buddhism, also pray for our troubled world to be transformed into a pure land so all minds can be guided to the Bodhi path.  This is the meaning of bathing the Buddha!

What Kind of Mind Should We Have When Bathing the Buddha?

  1. Faith:  “we should give rise to a joyful mind and have deep faith in the merit of bathing the Buddha. When we pour water over the Buddha, we are also cleansing our own minds.
  2. Sincerity:  “When we bathe the statue of the Buddha, it is as if the Buddha is before us and we have cultivated the greatest merit in the world. We should transfer this merit to all sentient beings, grow in wisdom together, and create positive conditions.
  3. Righteousness:  “We wish to be rid of karmic obstructions and to purify our minds. We wish for the merits of bathing the Buddha, and pray for peace in world and happiness for all humanity

Now let’s get to bathing the Buddha (and ourselves)!:

  1. Vow to speak good words, then bathe the right shoulder.
  2. Vow to have good thoughts, then bathe the left shoulder.
  3. Vow to do good deeds, then bathe the right shoulder again.

And then you are done!  Go forth and be a good Buddhist 😉

Dharma Service

While many Buddhists may just come by to take part in bathing the Buddha, there is often a Dharma service which involves a talk by the Abbot or leading Monastic, chanting and reciting sūtra, and then bathing the Buddha.

You can watch a short video of this (minus much of the Dharma service, but pictures showing the service) from my temple ( click here to watch)


#hsilaitemple celebrated Buddha’s birthday on Sunday May 7th by hosting a Bathing Buddha ceremony lead by Abbot Venerable Hui Dong and monastics. After the chanting, monastics and lay people bath the statue of Prince Siddhartha, who obtained Buddhahood, Became the historical #Buddha and started the religion of #Buddhism.

Posted by 佛光山西來寺 Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple on Monday, May 8, 2017


A Poem on Bathing the Buddha, by Venerable Master Hsing Yun

Oh great, compassionate Buddha!

We are here to celebrate with sincerity and respect your birth into this world.When all the flowers bloomed during the warmth of spring,

Exotic flowers were contending in beauty and fascination in the Lumbini garden;

Everyone in Kapilavatthu was rejoicing,

Gentle breezes spread the fragrance,

All birds sang in unison;

From that moment on, there was promise in the human world,

From that moment on, there was Dharma in the human world.With one hand pointing to the sky and the other pointing to the earth,

You declared that you were the uniquely honored one in the world.

As you took seven steps, clusters of lotus flowers appeared, and you used the pure and clean dharma water to wash away the stains of the earth.

Immediately, muddy mountain streams became crystal clear,

Burned-out torches were rekindled,

The heavens played wonderful music. The earth displayed rare, auspicious signs;

All these portents welcomed your arrival to this world. Oh great, compassionate Buddha!

Because of your birth in this world, your forty-nine years of teaching the Dharma will hold sway for far more than three great kalpas!

The more-than-three-hundred gatherings in which you taught the sutras will benefit more-than-countless sentient beings! Oh great, compassionate Buddha!

It was you who broke the caste system,

You who preached the doctrine of dependent origination and the equality of all beings,

You who opened all beings minds to the Buddha’s wisdom and views,

You who awakened all sentient beings from ignorance.Oh great, compassionate Buddha!

In order to receive respectfully the joyous occasion of your birth to the world,

In some places, people decorate with lanterns and colored hangings;

In some places, people hole parades, and the sound of gongs and drums shakes the sky;

Monasteries hold the ceremony of bathing the image of the Buddha,

as devotees and their families celebrate your birthday.

This is how your followers commemorate your gracious kindness!

This is how your followers remember your blessing and protection with gratitude! Oh great, compassionate Buddha!

Please sympathize with our imperfections from virtues and merits;

We can only chant your great, sacred name mindfully,

As though remembering our own kind mother.Oh great, compassionate Buddha!

We kneel before you,

We pass our hands over your golden body,

We offer our sincere devotion, and

We pray and hope that your virtue brightens the world

May the Dharma last forever. Please allow our vision to correspond with yours,

And clearly see and understand the suffering of all beings;

Please allow our speech to correspond to yours,

And delight in saying wonderful and kind words;

Please allow our actions to correspond to yours,

By being willing to help our friends;

Please allow our mind to correspond to yours,

And concentrate on benefiting all beings.

Oh great, compassionate Buddha!

We offer our entire lives to expound and propagate the Truth;

We offer our entire lives to liberate all sentient beings.Oh great, compassionate Buddha, Please accept our sincere prayer!

Oh great, compassionate Buddha, Please accept our sincere prayer!


Further Reading


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