The beautiful Kanbutsue of Japan
Hello everyone! I'm Yuugao, a writer who loves to have fun!
This is a sudden question, but do you know when Buddha's birthday is?
"I know about Jesus, but..." If you're not very confident, let's study with me!
Buddhist terms have many difficult kanji, but I'll explain them without using difficult words!
"If you ask me about birthdays, it's a piece of cake!" If you're full of confidence, you can skip chapter 1 and go to chapter 2!
Today, we'll focus on the mysteries surrounding Buddha's birthday!!
- Chapter 1: An Overview of Kanbutsue
- １．o What is Kanbutsue?
- ２．o What to do during Kanbutsue?
- 3．History of Kanbutsue
- Chapter 2: Discussing in a Circle!
- 1．Why is Kanbutsue on April 8th?
Chapter 1: An Overview of Kanbutsue
１．What is Kanbutsue？
Do you know the term "Kanbutsue"?
The kanji may seem difficult at the starting piont.
Kanbutsue is a ceremony to celebrate the birthday of Buddha, which is on April 8th.
The character "灌" is read as "sosogu" in kun'yomi (Japanese reading).
However, you may not see the word "sosogu" very often these days.
"灌ぐ" means the same as "注ぐ", both meaning pouring water.
So, "Kanbutsu" can be understood as "pouring onto Buddha".
In Kanbutsue, each temple pours sweet tea (Amacha) onto the birth Buddha (Tanjobutsu) to celebrate Buddha's birthday.
However, if you suddenly hear unfamiliar words like "Tanjobutsu" or "Amacha", you may feel confused. Let's put aside the complex words for a moment and first talk about the episode related to Buddha's birthday.
Around the 5th to 6th century BC, a tribe called the Syaka lived at the foot of the Himalayas.
The name of the tribe's king was Shuddodana and his queen was Maya. One night, Queen Maya had a strange dream of a white elephant.
The white elephant held a lotus flower in its trunk and descended from the heavens. It had as many as six tusks. The queen was gazing at the elephant in a daze.
Then, the elephant approached her and smoothly entered her right side.
Awakening in surprise, the queen visited a scholar to confirm the meaning of the dream.
The scholar, having heard the contents of the dream, told her, "This is indeed auspicious. Soon, you will give birth to a wonderful baby."
As the days passed and her due date approached, the queen decided to return to her hometown. On the way, she stopped by a garden called Lunbini. After bathing in a pond there, she stood to reach out to the fully bloomed flowers. It was then that a baby boy emerged from her right side, letting out his first cry.
At this time, nine dragons appeared above Buddha's head. They poured pure water from the heavens, blessing the birth of Buddha.
Having read this far, you may now understand why Buddha's birthday celebration is called "Kanbutsue". It originates from the act of pouring water on Buddha's head!
By the way, the Kanbutsue is also known by other names such as Goutane, Busshoue, Yokubutsu-e, Ryugee, Hanaeshiki, but the most familiar name might be "Hanamatsuri" (Flower Festival). I will discuss this later.
２．What to do during Kanbutsue?
■The Hanamido and The Tanjoubutsu
In Kanbutsue, a small temple decorated with flowers, called Hanamido, is prepared. Inside it, a statue of Buddha called Tanjoubutsu is enshrined.
If you've read the episode "The Birth Secret Story of Buddha: Part One" earlier, you would understand that the Hanamido is a recreation of the Lumbini Garden. However, it can be hard to imagine what the "Tanjoubutsu " might look like. Please read the following episode.
The newly born Buddha took seven steps, pointed to the sky with his right hand and to the ground with his left hand, and declared, "In heaven and on earth, I alone am the World-Honored One (Tenjou Tenge Yui Ga Dokuson)."
This is perhaps one of the most famous episodes in the legends about Buddha.
The phrase "In heaven and on earth, I alone am the World-Honored One" literally translates to "there is no one more noble than I am in this world." It sounds a bit pompous, doesn't it?
However, the "I" referred to by Buddha is not merely himself, but represents all living beings.
In other words, "In heaven and on earth, I alone am the World-Honored One" means "Everyone existing in this world is noble." That's quite a grand theme, isn't it?
Getting back to the point, Tanjoubutsu refers to a sculpture or stone statue depicting Buddha in the pose he took after walking seven steps at his birth - pointing to the sky with his right hand and to the earth with his left hand.
■Sweet Tea (Amacha)
At Kanbutsue, we pour sweet tea over the Tanjoubutsu to celebrate the birth of Buddha.
This ritual of pouring Amacha originates from the bath water poured by the nine-headed dragon when Buddha was born.
But what exactly is this "sweet tea"?
Amacha is a tea brewed from the leaves of a plant from the hydrangea family called "Amacha." It's called "sweet tea" because it has a unique sweetness.
During Kanbutsue, there's a performance called the Chigo Gyoretsu (Children’s procession), where children pull a white elephant.
Needless to say, the white elephant originates from the elephant that Queen Maya dreamt of.
Elephants are indeed sacred creatures in Buddhism.
And a white elephant is particularly rare and seems quite auspicious.
Moreover, a white elephant with six tusks is said to symbolize wisdom and longevity, capable of saving all people.
■Chigo Gyoretsu （Children’s Procession）
In Japan, the main highlight of the Kanbutsue is the "Chigo Gyoretsu”.
Chigo refers to infants and young children.
In many traditional festivals, these pure, innocent children play important roles.
They dress in Heian-era costumes and parade through the city.
This Chigo Gyoretsu serves dual purposes – it's an act of service to Buddha, but also a prayer for the children's health and growth.
It is said that if you participate in this Chigo Gyoretsu more than three times, you will find happiness.
However, not all temples carry out this tradition. In recent years, many temples have had to forgo the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The photo is of the cast of the Kiku Hime Gyoretsu, a parade held in Saiki City, Oita Prefecture, where I'm from (taken on April 1, 2017. This year's Kiku Hime Gyoretsu will not include bamboo lanterns).
While it differs from the Chigo Gyoretsu, where children dress in Heian-era costumes, the role of children is equally important in both. Perhaps at their core, they share the same purpose - a prayer for the healthy growth of children.
3．History of Kanbutsue
■The oldest Kanbutsue in Japan
The history of Kanbutsue is very old. The first recorded observance in Japan was in 606 AD at Gango-ji in Asuka, as per historical records. This temple, built by Soga no Umako, was the first Buddhist temple in Japan, and is believed to be what we now know as Asuka-dera temple.
606 AD was during the time of Shotoku Taishi, who was still alive!
While thinking about this ancient romance, I was curious about the credibility of these records, so I searched Asuka-dera's website but couldn't find an official one.
However, I found a site run by Kintetsu Corporation that stated, "Asuka-dera is the temple where the 'Hanae-shiki' was first performed in Japan."
Later, during the Heian period, Kanbutsue began to be held in the imperial court as well.
■Kanbutsue during Muromachi and Edo Period
In the Muromachi period, “Hanamido” that represented Lumbini's garden was introduced.
By the mid-Muromachi period, Kanbutsue became particularly popular and spread to temples throughout the country.
In the Edo period, the practice of pouring sweet tea over a Buddha statue began, and children started to participate in the festival.
Temples such as Zojo-ji temple and Senso-ji temple in Edo, and Shitenno-ji temple in Osaka, were bustling with many visitors.
■The word of “Hana Matsuri”
As mentioned above, various names have been used for Kanbutsue over the years.
In the past, it was named “Kanbutsue”, but the most widely used name today is "Hana Matsuri".
Who gave it this name?
As far as I researched, it seems that there are several theories, but the most credible is that it was named by Ando Reigan.
Ando Reigan was a monk of the Otani school of Jodo Shinshu Sect. During the Taisho period, he promoted "Hana Matsuri" with the catchphrase "The old man who made flowers bloom, Buddha."
" The old man who made flowers bloom " is a Japanese folktale about an honest old man who manages to make flowers bloom on a dead tree after much hardship.
Reigan explained it to small children as "People who are in distress like the dead tree can be saved by listening carefully to good teachings. That old man is Buddha."
So far, I've explained the Kanbutsue in simple terms, as if I were a popular prep school teacher.
Have you gained a deeper understanding of the event?
From now on, I would like to write about what I felt curious about while researching the Kanbutsue, mainly based on my own subjective views.
Chapter 2: Circle Discussion!
1．Why is the Buddha's birthday on April 8th?
When I started to research the Kanbutsue, I had a question that came to my mind first.
That is, "Why is the Buddha's birthday on April 8th?"
First of all, the birth of the Buddha is said to be around the 5th or 6th century BC.
It's strange that they can specify the birthday when they don't even know the year of birth, right?
■Comparison with Christmas
First, I thought of comparing it with Christmas.
Christmas is said to be the birthday of Jesus, but that's actually a lie.
Jesus, like the Buddha, doesn't even know the year he was born.
So why did December 25th become Jesus' birthday?
December 25th was originally a Roman winter solstice festival celebrating the birth of the sun.
At that time, in Mithraism, which was widespread in Rome, it was believed that the sun was born on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It was because they thought that the sun regained its power as the daylight hours increased after the winter solstice.
The leaders of Christianity, which was still a new religion at that time, noticed this.
They accepted the festival of the god of sun and set December 25th as Jesus' birthday.
Christianity, which gained authority by incorporating popular customs, continues to this day.
I thought that maybe something similar could be said about the Buddha's birthday.
In other words, like Christmas, it was decided by later generations for some reason.
■Comparison with Easter
Before thinking about the customs that existed in Japan, I noticed something.
That is, the dates of the Buddha's birthday and Easter are close.
Easter does not have a fixed date every year, but varies. The reason is that it is determined by the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox.
Is this a coincidence or what? I became curious and couldn't help to check it. But as I researched further, it became more complicated. It turned out that the Kanbutsue is not necessarily April 8th.
■Comparison with other countries
When I looked into Thailand and Sri Lanka, I found that the Buddha's birthday is on the full moon day (8th to 15th) of Vaisakha, which is the second month of the Indian lunar calendar. It seems that not only celebrating his birth, but Nehan-e and Jyodo-e are conducted together.
I found it very interesting that they use "full moon" as one criterion, just like Easter.
Also, in Asian countries other than Japan, there are many countries that celebrate on April 8th of the lunar calendar.
■The connection with Udukiyouka (the eighth day of the fourth month)
Actually, in Japan, there are temples that hold the Kanbutsu-e on May 8th according to the old calendar, which is the official way. This seems to be especially common in temples in the Kansai region.
May 8th is early summer. There is a folk event called "Udukiyouka".
“Uzukinoyoka" is a celebration observed in the mountains and villages as they get close to the season for agricultural activities such as rice planting.It involves rituals such as the opening of the mountains and worshipping ancestors.
There is a theory that the background of the Kanbutsu-e becoming established in Japan was due to the support by such folk beliefs as a foundation.
So far, we have thought about "Why is Kanbutsu-e on April 8th?".
One thing that I understood well is that faith is closely linked to nature.
It could be a full moon, or the length of the day, or the breath of nature....
I think that people who lived without watches had much finely honed senses than people nowadays.
This time, I tried to examine the religious situation across different periods and regions through Kanbutsu-e.
If asked why I decided to undertake this examination, it is because I could not find a book about the Kanbutsue that made me feel "This is it!".
(There are plenty of books about Christmas, but not about Kanbutsue!)
When I couldn't find what I was looking for, I decided to think about it myself.
There might be parts that are misguided, but I wrote this in the hope that it will raise some questions and provoke thought.
It would be great if this work could serve as a catalyst for everyone to think about the Kanbutsue.
Jodo Sect Website: "Kanbutsue (Hanamatsuri)"
Kintetsu Corporation Website: "Nara Happy Walk"
Taijyun Hasegawa: "Thinking about the Hanamatsuri"
Toyo University Website: "Who is the founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni? An easy-to-understand explanation of his life and the truth of 'all things are impermanent'【Shisei no Himotoku Part 1】"
Noriko Kamiesyu: "April 8th is 'Hana Matsuri'. The origin of Buddha's Birthday 'Kanbutsue' and pouring sweet tea?"
Senju-ji Temple of the Shinshu Takada Sect: "Hitoguchi Dharma Talks 70~83 - The Life of Buddha - Talk 70: Hana Matsuri"
Rinzai Zen Obaku & Zen Mobile Site, Written by Keiichi Hosokawa: "The Withered Tree Blooms Again - Learning Life from Zen Sayings"