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Saturday, May 17, 2008

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Buddha's birthday prompts call to temple


May 12 was Buddha's birthday. Don't tell me you forgot about it! You didn't even send a card? How about a gift? Well, don't feel too bad. I forgot about it too. But luckily, on the morning of the 12th, an announcement came over the loudspeaker saying "Attention Shiraishi Island residents, today is Buddha's birthday. Please pay your respects at the temple."

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday, dear Bud,

Happy Birthday to you.

Buddha turned 2,571 years old, more or less, give or take a few hundred years.

The open-house style of birthday party I found to be very civil — you just drop by the temple when you have time.

So I went up to the temple to pay my respects. There was a small shrine set up, with some sacred birthday accouterments: a baby bath, a ladle and a contribution box.

At this altar, we took part in "bathing Buddha," which, despite the name, does not mean Buddha steps into the ofuro.

Instead, a small statue of Buddha is placed in a "baby bath" filled with amacha or sweet tea. According to our island's Buddhist priest, the amacha represents the sweet rain that fell upon Earth when Buddha was born. The Buddha is standing with one index finger pointing to Heaven and the other toward Earth.

To bathe Buddha, you take the ladle and pour amacha over his head three times. The Buddha, who gets a bath only once a year, must feel very clean on his birthday.

Give the gift of cleanliness, because in return, it helps you cleanse your mind of evil thoughts, greed and ignorance. Buddha's birthday seems like an appropriate time to give a brief explanation of his life.

The Buddha was not born with the name Buddha, of course. Like many famous people, he took on this name only after he had achieved some notoriety. His given name was Siddhartha. We'll call him Sid for short.

Sid was born in Lumbini, Nepal, as a prince. Until he was 29 years old, Sid led a sheltered life inside the palace. He knew nothing about the poor, downtrodden or sick people living outside his palace. But one time, catching a glimpse of an aged man, he decided to leave the palace to go find the meaning of life. Note: The meaning of life is not found in palaces.

As a matter of fact, Sid found the meaning of life out in nature, under a tree. This is where he eventually reached enlightenment and worked out the following scientific formula: Nirvana = one tree + 49 days of meditation.

I don't know if Sid also tried meditating under maple trees or pine trees, but that tree, now called the Bodhi, seemed to work. It took him six years to discover this formula, so he must have tried a lot of different things. On the 49th day, he was probably sitting there thinking, OK, if I don't reach enlightenment today , I'm going to try a different tree! Perhaps even a sapling.

After enlightenment, Sid took the name Buddha, which means "awakened one."

With his new formula, most anyone could now reach enlightenment. But since most people can't get 49 days off work, he taught people to find fulfillment by living a modest life devoid of greed and self-indulgence and by understanding the true nature of the mind.

He said that suffering is a result of ignorance which comes from attachment and craving things. If you get rid of those, you will rid yourself of suffering.

He instructed people to reach this state by cultivating proper understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

When the Buddha passed away, his body was cremated and his ashes were placed in monuments around the world, one of which is said to be the Thai-style temple on Shiraishi Island. And for this, there is an open house every Nov. 15 so people can visit the temple and pay their respects.

And just so no one can forget, there is an announcement that comes over the loudspeaker.



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