May 11, 2006
The Buddha's Birthday, Live from New York
— Matthew Weiner
May marks the anniversary of the Buddha's birth more than 2,500 years ago. And now, all across America, Buddhists are observing "Vesak," a highly significant time for commemorating the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha. Traditionally falling on the day of the full moon in May (this year on the 13th), events surrounding Vesak day began in April (when the Japanese Jodo Shinshu community celebrated), were in full force last week, and continue next week, with a celebration at the United Nations. In New York City alone, there will be nearly a hundred formal celebrations.
Each temple has its own elaborate celebration, which sometimes includes bathing the Buddha. In this ritual, a small baby Buddha figurine is positioned above a large bowl of water. Celebrants bow and pour water over the figurine, both to clean him and as a gesture of purifying themselves of their own transgressions. The baby Buddha stands with his arm raised and finger pointing up, recalling the first moments after he was born, when he took seven steps before declaring himself released from any further rebirth.
But different cultures interpret the day in different ways, and celebrations thus vary in form and emphasis. Sri Lankans, for example, celebrate the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and "paranibbana" (death and final nirvana), while for the Chinese the focus remains more exclusively on the Buddha's birth. Variations notwithstanding, in 1950 the Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists declared Vesak to be the international forum for celebrating and displaying Buddhism as a united front. With its public vitality, the holiday is sometimes directed toward purposes of social action. For instance, the massive Cambodian peace walks initiated by Ven. Maha Ghosananda are conducted annually around this time.
In America, the ritual has developed into a multifaceted opportunity to reinforce one's particular ethnic Buddhist identity, to be publicly Buddhist among non-Buddhists, and also to unite as Buddhists even across the lines of various sects. These modes of participation can be observed in the Vesak celebration in New York City's Chinatown. Each Chinese Buddhist temple has its own ceremony, but they join together as the American Buddhist Council to participate in the larger Chinese Buddhist community celebration, held publicly in Chinatown on a spring Saturday. This public event contrasts with the more intimate renditions enacted in individual temples. This year, the audience of a thousand people was largely Chinese, but also involved hundreds of tourists. It began with ethnic Chinese performances, including a marshal arts demonstration, drumming, and a Lion Dance. It also included messages from Mayor Bloomberg and representatives from the NYPD, with Sri Lankan and Tibetan Buddhists participating, as well.
The following weekend—and strategically placed so as not to conflict with the celebration in Chinatown—the New York Buddhist Council held its Vesak celebration, which comprised members of every ethnic Buddhist community. In years past the Council has also had religious leaders from other traditions speak, such as the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, former Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and President of the Interfaith Center of New York. That year, the celebration was held in a Lutheran Church. With the Council, there is no particular "ethnic" affiliation, and the ritual practices are traditional but necessarily eclectic. Finally, the UN Vesak celebration, sponsored by a different Buddhist country every year (Cambodia hosts in 2006) will be positioned for an international diplomatic audience. In each case, Vesak is celebrated for different publics, and with different purposes.
Often when Buddhist councils are formed in America, the creation of a joint Vesak ritual serves as a focal point for cooperation in which ritual traditions both resonate and diverge. Buddhism in America, particularly in major cities like New York, is remarkably diverse, counting Buddhists from practically every ethnic background. In New York alone there are Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. In America one thus finds new forms of Vesak, and a highly sophisticated Buddhist ecumenics.
But Buddhism among westerners tends to be associated with aspects of its philosophical, almost secular, nature, and its emphasis on personal practice. Conferences on meditation and mind science are common. (For commentary on this aspect, see Dan Arnold's Sightings column "Buddhists on the Brain.") It is also far from unusual to find Buddhist meditation practiced from within other faiths, or treated as a non-religious exercise; because Buddhism can be taken to be a philosophy or mind science, the notion that one can practice Buddhism as a non-Buddhist, or even as a traditional Christian or Jew, is widespread.
This aspect of Buddhism is particularly prevalent among western practitioners. The celebrations of Vesak, however, demonstrate that Buddhism also remains very much a vital communal and ritual practice, particularly among ethnic Buddhists in America.
Matthew Weiner is the Director of Programming at the Interfaith Center of New York, and a Ph.D. candidate at Union Theological Seminary.