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Author:Nara-ha Jii-san
Kanbutsu-e/Hana Matsuri Special Feature

Kanbutsu-e - A Spring Buddhist Event Celebrating Buddha's Birthday

Author:Nara-ha Jii-san
Author:Nara-ha Jii-san
Somei-Yoshino in full bloom in the spring
Somei-Yoshino in full bloom in the spring

April 8 on the lunar calendar is the birthday of Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. To celebrate his birthday, Kanbutsu-e is held in Japan on April 8 (or a month later on May 8) of the solar calendar when the cherry blossom season is coming to an end. In this article, I would like to introduce you to it.

■ What is Kanbutsu-e?

The Chinese character of kan in Kanbutsu-e is a difficult one, but its native Japanese reading is "soso(gu)," which means pouring liquid or water into something.
In Kanbutsu-e, a small standing image of Shakyamuni Buddha (the Buddha at Birth) is placed in the center of a tray, which is then placed in a hall decorated with flowers, and visitors use a small ladle to scoop sweet tea from the tray and pour it over the Buddha at Birth. This is why this event is called Kanbutsu-e ("buddha-pouring ceremony").
The hall decorated with flowers is called hanamido ("flower hall"), from which the Kanbutsu-e is also called Hanamatsuri ("flower festival").
The first Kanbutsu-e (Hanamatsuri) in Japan is said to have been held on April 8, 609, as part of the kaigan-kuyo ("eye-opening ceremony") of the Asuka Daibutsu (statue of Shakyamuni Buddha) at Asuka-dera Temple in Nara.

■ What is the Buddha at Birth?

An example of the Buddha at Birth
An example of the Buddha at Birth

Lord Buddha, whose childhood name was Siddhartha Gautama, was born in a flower garden called Lumbini in what is now Nepal. The following is the tradition concerning this birth.
Legend has it that Gautama Siddhartha descended from the heavens on a white statue with six tusks and was conceived by his mother Maya. When the Buddha was born, nine dragons appeared and poured five kinds of perfume on him to purify him. It is then said that the Buddha immediately took seven steps forward, pointed to the sky with his right hand and to the ground with his left hand, and chanted the famous phrase Tenjo tenge yuiga dokuson ("Throughout Heaven and earth, I alone am the honored one") The "Buddha at Birth" is a representation of the figure of the Buddha with his right hand pointing to the heavens and his left hand pointing to the ground while chanting Tenjo tenge yuiga dokuson.

Scenery of a stone Buddha at Birth enshrined.
Scenery of a stone Buddha at Birth enshrined.

The pouring of amacha ("sweet tea") over the Buddha at Kanbutsu-e is a substitute for the five kinds of perfume used to purify the Buddha when he was born. The figure of the Buddha at Birth enshrined in the hanamido, often seen riding a white elephant, is also a representation of the above anecdote.
The Buddha at Birth in the photo, while having an unusual stone build, clearly represents the figure of the Buddha at Birth. Incidentally, this Buddha at Birth is always enshrined near Isshinji Temple in Osaka. Since it is difficult to maintain the amacha, water is sprinkled as a substitute on the Buddha, similar to the Mizukake Fudoson ("water-sprinkling Acala statue"), so that visitors can visit the Buddha at any time.

■ Kanbutsu-e at Todaiji Temple

Kanbutsu-e (Hanamatsuri) is held at many temples throughout Japan. I am sure that temples near you are also holding such festivals.
For example, at famous temples in Nara City, the Kanbutsu-e is held on April 8 at Todaiji Temple's Daibutsu-den ("Great Buddha Hall") and Kofukuji Temple in the front garden of the Nanen-do ("Southern Round Hall"). At Kofukuji Temple, it is held in the front garden of Nanen-do. At Gankoji Temple, it is held later in the month on May 8.
In this article, I will introduce Kanbutsu-e at Todaiji Temple in some detail with specific examples. At Todaiji Temple, Bussho-e (Kanbutsu-e) is held on April 8 in the Daibutsu-den. In conjunction with the Buddhist memorial service conducted by monks from 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. Visitors to the hanamido set accordingly in front of the Daibutsu-den can sprinkle amacha on the golden Buddha at Birth, which is about 50 cm in height and slightly tarnished, from 8:00 to around 3:00 p.m.

Daibutsu-den in the spring (a hanamido is set up behind the lanterns)
Daibutsu-den in the spring (a hanamido is set up behind the lanterns)

While Todaiji Temple has a national treasure, the Buddha at Birth, the actual Buddha at Birth used in Bussho-e ("the ceremony of the birth of Buddha") is believed to be a replica of the Buddha image. The statue of the Buddha at Birth, a national treasure, is 47 cm tall, a little larger than the ones enshrined in many temples today, and was built during the Nara period. Some believe that this statue was made for the kaigan-kuyo of the Great Buddha. The Buddha at Birth, a national treasure, can be seen at the Todaiji Museum during certain times of the year when it is open to the public.
The cherry blossoms in Nara City usually bloom about a week later than in Tokyo, but recently they have been blooming earlier, and on April 8, the cherry blossoms will be past their full bloom with only the remnants being visible. If it is a late-blooming year, you may be blessed by good fortune to be able to enjoy some amacha-sprinkling at the hanamido, located right in front of the Daibutsu-den with beautiful cherry blossoms as shown in the photo.
The photo of the Daibutsu-den and the surrounding area was taken around March 25, two or three years ago. The area around the Daibutsu-den of Todaiji Temple is one of the most famous viewing spots for cherry blossoms in Nara Park. Even if you happen to miss Bussho-e, I hope you can enjoy the wonderful cherry blossom scenery around Todaiji Temple. And when you visit the Daibutsu-den, I hope you will also think about Bussho-e (Kanbutsu-e).

  • Cherry blossom scenery in Kasugano Park on the southeast side of Daibutsu-den
    Cherry blossom scenery in Kasugano Park on the southeast side of Daibutsu-den
  • Cherry blossom scenery behind Daibutsu-den
    Cherry blossom scenery behind Daibutsu-den

■ Conclusion

Kanbutsu-e (Bussho-e, Hanamatsuri) is held at many temples, and it is an event that you should attend at least once at one close to you even if it is not famous. Jizo-bon and Hanamatsuri are the only opportunities for small children to experience Buddhism, making them springtime Buddhist events that kids should be encouraged to experience.