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Kanbutsu-e/Hana Matsuri Special Feature

~Nittaiji Temple, where the true relics rest - Towards the Hana Matsuri -


Hello! My motto is practicality over aesthetics. I'm a housewife writer, Maruhanabachi.
Spring is finally here, and April 8th is the Hana Matsuri.
This time, I will introduce the life of the Buddha and the temples related to it, in connection with the Hana Matsuri.

1.First of all, what is the Hana Matsuri?

The Hana Matsuri that celebrates the birth of the Buddha(※Photo is the image)
The Hana Matsuri that celebrates the birth of the Buddha(※Photo is the image)

The official name of the Hana Matsuri is Kanbutsue.
It is also called Gotan-e, Hanaeshiki, or Yokubutsu-e.
In a word, it is a ceremony to celebrate the birthday of the Buddha.
The name of the Hana Matsuri is actually from the 20th century!

At the Hana Matsuri, Amacha (sweet tea) is poured over the Buddha statue as a child (birth Buddha), which is enshrined in the Hanamido. Some of you may have participated in it at kindergarten or elsewhere.

Many of you may know that the Buddha walked seven steps as soon as he was born, pointed to heaven with his right hand and to earth with his left hand, and said "I alone am the honored one in heaven and on earth".
Then a dragon god appeared, poured rain of sweet dew to cleanse the Buddha's body, and celebrated his birth.
The act of pouring Amacha (sweet tea) over the birth Buddha at the Hana Matsuri is a reproduction of that scene.

The Kanbutsue is held on April 8th.
It corresponds to May 8th in the current calendar, and in Japan, there are temples that hold it in April and those that hold it in May.
The oldest Kanbutsue was 1300 years ago.

"In the 14th year of Suiko (606), during the lifetime of Shotoku Taishi, the 'Kanbutsue was held at Gangoji Temple in Asuka as the first celebration of Buddha's birth in our country."
(Shigeru Endo, "Hana Matsuri" - From "Buddhist Seasonal Events Calendar: April Hana Matsuri" by Daiichi Hokki Publishing)

This Gangoji Temple is not the Gangoji Temple in Nara City that introduced in the special feature on demons, but its predecessor, Hokoji Temple (now Asuka Temple) before it moved.
It is the oldest Buddhist temple built by Soga no Umako.
At that time, what was poured over the birth Buddha at the Kanbutsue was five kinds of Kouzui.
Kouzui is water soaked with fragrant wood such as kyara and byakudan, which are used for Buddhist ceremonies.
It is said that it was replaced by Amacha (sweet tea) around the Edo period.
Amacha (Sweet tea) is a variant of Hydrangea serrata, and has been drunk for its health benefits since ancient times.

It was also believed to be a repellent for insects, and there was a custom of making things like rubbing amacha and writing a song for Uzukiyouka on paper and hanging it upside down at the door of the house to ward off nagamushi (snakes) or prevent maggots from appearing.
Gradually, we have moved away from talking about the Buddha.
There is a reason for this.
For relatively new sects of Buddhism, acquiring followers was a very big issue.
How to spread the teachings and gain believers.

  • The cherry blossoms at Nittaiji Temple are beginning to bud
    The cherry blossoms at Nittaiji Temple are beginning to bud

“The popularization of the Hana Matsuri has a connection with the expansion movement of the Jodo and Jodo Shinshu sects.
(Excerpt) With the popularization and vulgarization of the teachings, it eventually attracted enough people to distribute eighty koku (approximately fourteen point four kiloliters) of Amacha (sweet tea) in a day, as in the case of the Yakushi in Nihonbashi Kayabacho (Chuo-ku, Tokyo), the center of Edo.

(The same source)

To spread the teachings to a wide range of people and acquire believers, it is necessary to make it easily adoptable for everyone.
And the best way to do this is to incorporate things that can be enjoyed in everyday life.
This is the same as how Christianity expanded its territory by incorporating the winter solstice festival, which originated from nature worship, as Christmas.
In Buddhism as well, it was necessary to become something closely related to the lives of local people. Perhaps serving Amacha to those who come to pray at the Hana Matsuri became a promotion to gain believers. Moreover, the image of the sweet dew that fell at the time of Buddha's birth is similar to the image of Amacha.

Originally, May is a time when the major work of rice planting begins in agricultural society. In addition to cheering for the upcoming rice planting, there were customs in various places to enjoy flowers such as rhododendrons and azaleas, which are manifestations of the power of the god of the mountain, during this time, and to bring them back to pray for a good rice harvest.
The charm of making insect repellent with Amacha may have been a wisdom of life to prevent the damage of snakes and insects that become active from that time.
Perhaps these things gradually became connected to the Kanbutsue.

  • The rhododendrons that bloom in May
    The rhododendrons that bloom in May

The birth of Buddha, and the arrival of a season filled with blossoming flowers and life.
The two joyful images splendidly come together and became a unique Hana Matsuri that is loved in Japan even today... Isn't it a story that feels profoundly charming and makes you feel the love of people's activities?

2.Thinking about the achievements of Buddha as a human

Temple gate of Nittaiji Temple
Temple gate of Nittaiji Temple

Let's touch upon the life of Buddha, who initiated a major religion called Buddhism.
His real name is Gautama Siddhartha (or Siddatta).
However, according to "Early Buddhism: Tracing the Thoughts of Buddha" (written by Norihisa Baba, Iwanami Shinsho), it is said that there is no personal name of Buddha in the early Buddhist scriptures. Also, there is a theory that Siddhartha, which means "the awakened one", is not his real name and was given later.

If we make a timeline of his life, it goes like this:
・Born as the prince of the Shakya clan around the 5th century BC. ・At the age of 29, he leaves home in search of goodness, and conducted training while changing masters. ・At the age of 35, he realizes that enlightenment cannot be obtained through ascetic practices, meditates under the Bodhi tree, and attains enlightenment. ・At the age of 80, he dies from food poisoning caused by donated meals in Kushinagar.

After attaining enlightenment, Buddha preached Buddhism to people for 45 years.
The nature of Buddhism that he preached is something that can be called philosophy.
There is neither the god of monotheism nor a creation myth, and it is very stoic, dedicating everything to life and aiming for liberation from reincarnation.
In Brahmanism, which dominated society at the time, women and slaves could not learn the scriptures due to the caste system and gender discrimination. (And discrimination still persists today.)
However, already more than two thousand years ago, Buddha denied the caste system, treated Upali, who came from a subordinate class, according to the order of becoming a monk, and made him a senior disciple to his own cousin (i.e., royalty).
He also allowed women to become a nun and treated them equally with male believers.
These would have been truly astonishing things at the time.
In this way, Buddha overturned social values, obtained clothing and food only from donations and mendicancy from believers, and practiced Buddhism until he died at the age of 80.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that he was more of a thorough practical philosopher than a religious leader, which is closer to his nature.

  • The Five-storied Pagoda of Nittaiji Temple
    The Five-storied Pagoda of Nittaiji Temple

Once writing systems were introduced in ancient India, these teachings were formalized into scriptures.
Centuries later, a shift occurred from the early Buddhism, which focused on personal salvation through practicing the Buddhism, to the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism, which espoused the salvation of all sentient beings. This then traveled from India to China, and eventually to Japan.

It's a curious thing to think about how Buddha, who lived as a practicing philosopher, had his birth gradually adorned with religious embellishments. Even in modern-day Japan, his birth is celebrated in the form of the "Han Matsuri". The evolution of this tradition evokes a feeling of wonder.

3.Nittaiji Temple, where the true relics rest

Main hall of Nittaiji
Main hall of Nittaiji

Here we are at the final introduction of the Buddhist temple, Nitaiji, where the "true relics" sleep.
When we hear the term "shari," we usually think of white rice.
In Kanji, it is written as "舎利" and formally called "Buddha Shari," which refers to the remains of Buddha.
The gleaming white rice is revered and compared to these sacred relics.

Usually, the Buddha relics placed in pagodas are, of course, replacements. The real relics are those precious stones (like quartz, crystals, and even diamonds!) in front of the stupas in countries like India and Thailand.
The true relics are referred to as "真舎利" or "真身舎利 ".
In Japan, there is only one temple that houses these true relics,
and that is the Nittaiji Temple located in Chikusa Ward, Nagoya City.

The temple was founded in the Meiji era, specifically in 1904. You might think this is relatively recent, and you would be right! Indeed, Nittaiji Temple was built for the purpose of dedicating these true relics.

  • A stone monument engraved with a sense of gratitude towards Thailand
    A stone monument engraved with a sense of gratitude towards Thailand

On the website of Otani University, a Buddhist university established by the Higashi Honganji temple, there is a description about the discovery of the Buddha relics.

"The body of Buddha Shakyamuni was cremated, and his remains were distributed among eight tribes of his disciples. This event is referred to as the 'distribution of the eight relics', as mentioned in the 'Nirvana Sutra'.
Among these, one set of relics that was brought to Kapilavastu was excavated in 1898 by a Frenchman named Peppé, providing strong evidence for the historical existence of Buddha.
Consequently, stupas and reliquary hall were built, and Syarie (relic associations (lectures)) were held for the worship and commemoration of the Buddha relics."
(Source: Otani University Website, Faculty Essay "Reading Page - Buddhist Terminology in Daily Life - [188]" From the item on Buddha relics)

In 1898, the remains discovered by Peppé, a British official stationed in India at the time, were transferred to Thailand, known as Siam, after proving the historical existence of Buddha through archaeology.
The king of Thailand, Rama V, then distributed these relics to Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), both Buddhist countries.
On learning about this, Manjiro Inagaki, the ministre résident in Thailand, pleaded for the relics to be given to Japan as a token of friendship, which was granted.

  • Outside the temple grounds, there's the Kakuozan 88 temples Pilgrimage.
    Outside the temple grounds, there's the Kakuozan 88 temples Pilgrimage.
  • More rustic compared to the main temple building.
    More rustic compared to the main temple building.

This must have been a big problem.
Of course, different sects of temples claimed the true relics, leading to a fierce dispute.
As a result, a conference was held among 13 sects and 56 branches, and it was decided to build a new temple to enshrine the relics. This temple would not belong to any particular sect, but instead would be an independent temple where the monk of each sect would take turns serving as chief priest every three years.
This is what became Nittaiji.
The "Thai" in Nittaiji represents Thailand. In other words, the name commemorates the friendship between Japan and Thailand.
By the way, at the time of its founding, Thai was still known as Siam, so the temple was called "Nissenji".
The day I visited was during the spring equinox, and the dignified main hall resounded with the beat of the drums and the chanting of many monks.
It was heartwarming to see people visiting graves in groups with their relatives, holding Buddhist flowers, and parents chasing after their small children running around. I could physically feel that the coronavirus crisis is finally coming to an end.
In the pagoda, where the true relics are stored, I was the only one present. I prayed while indulging in deep emotion.
Buddhism has grown into one of the world's three major religions after the death of Buddha.
It has spread from India to China and Japan, where it continues to transform while blending with the physiolatry rooted in this country.
Like the true relics rest here, it has been a long, long journey.

  • The path to the quiet pagoda
    The path to the quiet pagoda
  • Only till here can general visitors approach
    Only till here can general visitors approach

How do you find our Hana Matsuri special?
I also vaguely remember pouring tea over the little Buddha statue and receiving Amacha (sweet tea) at the Hana Matsuri in nursery school.
I believe such events have always enriched and accumulated in the hearts of children as memories, regardless of the era.
And from time to time when these memories are recalled, feelings of gratitude and the will to live better will come out. Why don't you also visit a local temple for Hana Matsuri?