On this day, the eighth day of the fourth month, legends state that the baby Shakyamuni Buddha was born from the side of his mother, Queen Maya, and took six steps (symbolizing the six realms of rebirth1), and spoke these words:
天上天下 ten jō ten gé
唯我独尊 yui ga doku son
Above heaven and below, I alone am the World-Honored One.
I posted the Sino-Japanese text as well, because this phrase is pretty well-known in Japanese culture. For example, on the cover of my favorite manga, “Saint Young Men“, you can see the Buddha wearing this phrase on his T-shirt in issue 2 (click on the image to see a larger, clearer one).
Anyhow, the statement by the Buddha is a truly bold one. Of all the holy teachers that had existed in the Buddha’s time, only the Buddha was worthy of honor. Why such a bold statement? For that, we have to look a little in Buddhist thought.
In Buddhism, the term buddha means “awakened one”. But in Buddhism, the existence of a Buddha, a fully awakened being, is said to be extremely, extremely rare. In Buddhist literature, it is compared to the semi-legendary Udumbara flower which bloomed only once every thousand years or so. In fact, a Buddha will only appear when the Dharma, the teachings, are completely absent in the world. During this time, a bodhisattva or seeker of Enlightenment will traverse many rebirths, many eons to finally achieve full awakening, and on their final rebirth will come and become a teacher. This teacher will reach Enlightenment even though there is no one to teach them, and they will in turn teach many others, so that the Dharma is present again in the world for a while.
Thus, in the case of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Shakyamuni Buddha, he was said to be a bodhisattva named White Banner, and traversed many rebirths, many eons before his final rebirth as Shakyamuni Buddha. Thus, when he proclaims he alone is the World-Honored One, it is because as a bodhisattva he has reached the end of the path, and will become the Buddha for this eon. He will reach Enlightenment without anyone to help him, but he will “turn the wheel” of the Dharma so that others can learn. He will point out what others have never seen, and set many people free from their self-inflicted prisons of selfish, anger and ignorance.
Now, a person may ask “is this real?”. The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. If you are talking in terms of historiography, no this probably didn’t happen as told. It is a story. But it is also an example of the Buddha Realm. The life of Shakyamuni Buddha is true and real, because it encompasses so many truths that are relevant to us even today. It is a living myth, not a dead one told by archeologists in research papers on past civilizations. In other words, it’s real because it has much meaning.
The story of the vast, arduous journey of a bodhisattva and his noble achievement to awaken and liberate others is the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.
In practical terms, this holiday is called Hanamatsuri (“Flower Festival” 花祭り) in Japanese because it was said that upon the birth of the Buddha, the heavens rained down many blossoms to welcome him. In Japan, the event is one of the most fun and family-friendly holidays because it’s a great cause for celebration. The photo above was taken by me in April of 2010, and shows a statue of the baby Buddha making his great proclamation (“above and below..”), and people can come up to pour sweet tea over the statue with a ladle. My little one is now old enough to do this, so we will let her try this year at the local temple. Because the weather is nice, you can also expect lots of good food, and a nice community to celebrate with.
For Buddhists everywhere, it also is the culmination of one person’s efforts over many aeons, and a reminder of the old Japanese Buddhist proverb:
仏になるも沙弥をへる (Hotoké ni naru mo shami wo heru)
Even to become a Buddha one must first become a novice.
Namo Shaka Nyorai
P.S. A similar post I wrote for InCultureParent here.
P.P.S. For the curious, the next Buddha to appear will be Maitreya (miroku 弥勒 in Japanese), but that will not happen for billions of years according to traditional Buddhist thought.