Buddha’s Birthday

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Good morning. Today we celebrate the birth of the Buddha, and so I’ve been thinking about birth this week.

Every moment is a kind of giving birth. Each moment arrives. You can feel this if you pay attention. Moment by moment.

Returning to breath and body and the present helps to make this experience of the moment by moment of our life.

And as each moment arrives if we are present to it we have some influence, some possibility to hold and support that moment in a certain way.

We are like midwives of each moment. We don’t create the moment but we are there in the room by the bedside of the mother of our becoming and we have a role to play at the birth. At the birth of each moment.

Our precepts practice suggests that we have a big responsibility as this midwife of the moment. To support the moment and encourage the birth of this moment. That it be a moment of kindness, a moment of returning to our amazing potential as human beings to open our hearts. And even just remembering this possibility – this is the act of mindfulness – to remember this possibility of giving birth of a moment, moment after moment, that in itself is an incredible thing.

And we can do this not as some heavy obligation but as a joyful expression of the vast possibility of this life. The possibility of connection, of deep joy.

And as I realized this I found myself feeling so happy. So peaceful. A sense of the possibility of this passed into being in me somehow. Or maybe through me is more true. We can give birth to happier, kinder, more connected moments. That possibility is right here.

And yet. There’s always an “any yet” isn’t there?

And yet, there are tough times. There are such challenges in this being human. There are times when we don’t feel that. Things go horribly wrong too. There is such suffering in us and in our world. What about those moments?

And so this week I also had some difficult moments. I was tired, grumpy. There was a strong sense of dis-ease and dis-satisfaction arising and I felt this urge to stop it, to clamp down on it in some way. To reject it. I didn’t want to feel badly. I wanted those happier moments.

And then I could feel – oh – we have to be a kind midwife to those difficult moments to. If causes and conditions are such that an unhappy moment of needs to be born we need to support that. We need to show up. There is no hiding.

We need to allow the full functioning of mind in that way. We need to let it come. And as with these happy moments we prefer we can come forward with this warm presence of Buddha to attend to that unhappiness. And then it can come and it can pass. Then we are in cooperation with what is, whether we prefer it or not, instead of in opposition with what is.

And then sure enough the wheel of moods and ideas and all that happens can turn and there is a sense of ease there. And after a day of feeling pretty grumpy and down I could feel the mood lifting again as one moment replaced another.

This simple turning towards each moment. There are such possibilities in this practice. It’s amazing really.

So what is this moment we are giving birth to right now? What is that for you?

It’s wonderful at these occasions to also simply tell the stories of the Buddha. We celebrate each year Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment. (well because of the schedule we missed his death this year, but that’s okay).

Just like our moments of living these stories are a mixed bag. Wonderful in their way and also embedded with various cultural stuff that we may like or not like. So here’s one retelling of the story of the birth of the Buddha with a little bit of commentary from someone named Barbara O’Brien which I found online – it’s close enough to what I wanted to tell you that I’ll just go ahead and quote her article.

Twenty-five centuries ago, King Suddhodana ruled a land near the Himalaya Mountains.

One day during a midsummer festival, his wife Queen Maya retired to her quarters to rest, and she fell asleep and dreamed a vivid dream. Four angels carried her high into white mountain peaks and clothed her in flowers. A magnificent white bull elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk approached Maya and walked around her three times. Then the elephant struck her on the right side with its trunk and vanished into her.

When Maya awoke, she told her husband about the dream. The King summoned 64 Brahmans to come and interpret it. Queen Maya would give birth to a son, the Brahmans said, and if the son did not leave the household he would become a world conqueror. However, if he were to leave the household he would become a Buddha.

When the time for the birth grew near, Queen Maya wished to travel from Kapilavatthu, the King’s capital, to her childhood home, Devadaha, to give birth. With the King’s blessings she left Kapilavatthu on a palanquin carried by a thousand courtiers.

On the way to Devadaha, the procession passed Lumbini Grove, which was full of blossoming trees. Entranced, the Queen asked her courtiers to stop, and she left the palanquin and entered the grove. As she reached up to touch the blossoms, her son was born.

Then the Queen and her son were showered with perfumed blossoms, and two streams of sparkling water poured from the sky to bathe them. And the infant stood, and took seven steps, and proclaimed “I alone am the World-Honored One!”

Then Queen Maya and her son returned to Kapilavatthu. The Queen died seven days later, and the infant prince was nursed and raised by the Queen’s sister Pajapati, also married to King Suddhodana.

***

Aspects of this story may have been borrowed from Hindu texts, such as the account of the birth of Indra from the Rig Veda. The story may also have Hellenic influences. For a time after Alexander the Great conquered central Asia in 334 BCE, there was considerable intermingling of Buddhism with Hellenic art and ideas. There also is speculation that the story of the Buddha’s birth was “improved” after Buddhist traders returned from the Middle East with stories of the birth of Jesus.

There is a jumble of symbols presented in this story. The white elephant was a sacred animal representing fertility and wisdom. The lotus is a common symbol for enlightenment in Buddhist art. A white lotus in particular represents mental and spiritual purity. The baby Buddha’s seven steps evoke seven directions – north, south, east, west, up, down, and here.

In Asia, Buddha’s Birthday is a festive celebration featuring parades with many flowers and floats of white elephants. Figures of the baby Buddha pointing up and down are placed in bowls, and sweet tea is poured over the figures to “wash” the baby.

Newcomers to Buddhism tend to dismiss the Buddha birth myth as so much froth. It sounds like a story about the birth of a god, and the Buddha was not a god. In particular, the declaration “I alone am the World-Honored One” is a bit hard to square with Buddhist teachings on nontheism and anatman.
However, in Mahayana Buddhism it is said the baby Buddha was speaking of the Buddha-nature that is the immutable and eternal nature of all beings. On Buddha’s birthday, some Mahayana Buddhists wish each other happy birthday, because the Buddha’s birthday is everyone’s birthday.

Sometimes in Zen we talk about “the great matter” – the most important thing in our practice, the key point of Zen. The great matter is birth and death. But not as we usually think of it. That birth is over here at the beginning of life and death is over there at the end of life. And not that we like birth and we hate death, or maybe we learn how to deal with death, but we still don’t like. The great matter is birth-and-death connected together with hyphens. It’s understood as two sides of the exact same thing. And by the way the four characters on the han, the sounding board outside, that’s what they say “the great matter of birth and death” so we pass by this teaching every time we come into the Dharma Hall.

This is harder to understand than the possibilities of being a midwife to every moment of our life. And I do by the way encourage you to try practicing with that teaching. As often as you can remember to take a moment, to center in body and breath perhaps, and see – what is the possibility of this very moment to be born.

But to be midwife to the death of each moment? Or the funeral director of our own life? What would that be?

Is it possible to work with this great matter of birth-and-death so that even our death is a moment. Is not a problem or a big disaster but just a moment. I was about to say “a moment in our living” but that’s not right is it? Even this very idea of “living” is maybe a little narrow. Every moment is a moment in our living-and-dying perhaps.

So we celebrate birth, we celebrate death, we celebrate that this life-and-death world is just what is it. And we are just in the middle of it. Human beings waking up to the possibility of being human beings.

Our Zen ancestors often wrote poems right before they died. A practice called jisei – farewell to life poems. A practice that’s a kind of giving birth to your death in a way. A kind of bringing the ending of life up as a living practice, or a living-and-dying practice, and filling the world with gratitude and wonder for this unbelievable is-ness. How could all of this be? It’s a miracle. It’s really a miracle.

So this is a little odd from a conventional point of view but from Buddha’s point of view it’s wonderful to end my talk about the birth of the sweet and wise baby Buddha with a few poems about the death of Buddha’s spiritual children many years later.

And so we have poems appreciating the beauty of this world and also the beauty of leave it:

This is the last day
I shall see the mallards
crying over Lake Iware.
Then shall I disappear
into the clouds.

and

Overtaken by darkness
I will lodge under
the boughs of a tree.
Flowers alone
host me tonight.

And also poems appreciating the transient nature of all of it:

This world-
to what may I liken it?
To autumn fields
lit dimly in the dusk
by lightning flashes.

And these worthy practicioners of the way of Buddha were not always all peaceful about dying, they could also give birth to powerful regret in these death poems. We are not trying to paper over something here.

Like a rotten log
half-buried in the ground-
my life, which
has not flowered, comes
to this sad end.

And also in this tradition is a willingness to turn towards the coming time of death. It is not long away for any of us.

I wish to die
in spring, beneath
the cherry blossoms,
while the springtime moon
is full.

I was just realizing we can turn that last around around and it’s just as beautiful – does the meaning change if we replace death with birth?

I wish to be born
in spring, beneath
the cherry blossoms,
while the springtime moon
is full.

The springtime moon is nearly full right now. Happy birthday Buddha. Happy birth moment every one. May we all turn towards these birth-and-death moments of our life-and-death with grace and kindness.

As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem about death:

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

And that’s really how we understand the birth of Buddha. As a great reminder, a great support to fully be here. So that we can fully live. So that we can be fully present right in the middle of this birth-and-death.

Thank you very much.

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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