It is May: nature’s celebration of the fullness of life. Here in Nepal, the glory of this month also includes full-out celebrations of Buddha Shakyamuni, native son of Nepal. The festival of Buddha Jayanti, this year held on May 16, is the commemoration of the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (leaving the earth realm by physically dying) of the Buddha.
The historical Buddha was born more than 2500 years ago in a sacred grove in Lumbini, on the steaming Ganges River plain of the southern Terai, as a prince: the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Mayadevi Shakya. He remained in Nepal, mastering worldly skills, until the age of twenty-nine, when he left the Shakya kingdom to seek enlightenment. After his death, a portion of the ashes from his cremation was interred in the great stupa of Swayambunath, completing the cycle of his physical existence in Nepal.
The celebration of Buddha Jayanti takes many forms. Although Nepal is thought of as a Hindu Kingdom, in the 1950’s King Mahendra decreed that on this day, all slaughtering of animals should cease and all shops that sell meat or alcohol should remain closed throughout the kingdom, in honor of the Buddha’s precepts against taking life and clouding one’s mind. This declaration is displayed on a stone pillar in Lumbini, and still observed to a large degree throughout Nepal.
The core traditional ceremony of Buddha Jayanti takes place at Anandakuti Vihara, at the back of the hill of Swayambunath. The ashes and relics of the Buddha stored in the heart of the stupa are brought into the light for this one auspicious day of the year and displayed for all to see. Devoted Buddhists come from all corners of the world to be present for this wonderful occasion. In the morning, Nepal’s King, prime minister, Buddhist leaders, and special guests welcome all with speeches and the sweetness of kheer (rice pudding), while tea can be enjoyed by all who come.
All the Buddhist temples and monasteries are open and worshippers come to make special prayers (pujas) and offerings, and to receive teachings and take part in dharma discussions with revered leaders.
Around noon, at Swayambu, Boudha, and other stupas in Nepal, a statue of the Buddha is placed on a palanquin laden with flowers, katas (blessing scarves), and lights. The Buddha is joined by an enormous procession of monks and lay people chanting prayers, beating drums, and bearing Buddhist flags and paintings of the Buddha. The procession weaves through the city streets, and Buddhist families line the way waiting to give offerings of flowers, incense, fruit, and money to the Buddha as he passes.
At home, each Buddhist family also prepares a special altar with a statue or picture of the Buddha and various offerings (of lights, flowers, fruits, and so on) and often decorates the entire house for the sacred and joyous occasion.
Ususally Buddha’s hometown, Lumbini, itself is relatively quiet on Buddha Jayanti, for the simple reason that for most people the early summer heat is too intense for any vigorous celebration. However, this year the Maha Maya Mandir, honoring Buddha’s mother MayaDevi, will be officially re-opened with a special ceremony on her son’s brithday. This temple is the oldest known structure in Nepal, dating back to 300 BC, and its restoration was a complicated and delicate process begun in 1990.
These magnificent public celebrations are only a part of honoring the Buddha on Buddha Jayanti. In the spirit of Buddha’s messages of wisdom and compassion, the 2003 Buddha Jayanti committee has also organized a series of projects designed to help the public to be more aware of the Buddha’s life, Buddhist culture, and Buddhist ideals, and to offer care for those in need of medical treatment. These include:
a series of radio (on Metro FM) and television programs (on Channel Nepal) featuring Buddha’s teachings, Buddhist ceremonies, and discussions of Buddhist philosphy, broadcast every evening for the week leading up to Buddha Jayanti;
a nationwide quiz for school children with questions concerning events in the life of the Buddha, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist arts;
a blood donation drive at Swayambunath, Boudhanath, and other Buddhist stupas;
a distribution of food and medicine to local hospitals;
and clinics throughout the Kathmandu Valley offering free services.
For more information about these events, please contact Bhikkun Ananda, vice chair of the Buddha Jayanti committee, at: firstname.lastname@example.org
All in all, Buddha Jayanti is a wonderful opportunity for people of all religions to expand our understanding of one of the world’s major religions, to give to the community we live in, and to take part in celebrating the manifestation of the Buddha Shakyamuni here in Nepal!