Bathing the Buddha in Santa Clara County


The Buddha. Photo: Benjamin Krause

I had the opportunity this weekend to attend two different versions of the “bathing the Buddha” ceremony on Saturday, one at the Chung Tai Zen Center of Sunnyvale and the other sponsored by the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation. Both groups are local expressions of global organizations that began in Taiwan.

Buddhists celebrate the birth of the Buddha on different dates depending on their local traditions. Wesak or Vesakh is often honored as not only the birthday of the Buddha, but also the day on which he became enlightened and the day on which he died.

At the Chung Tai Zen Center in Sunnyvale the day’s observances began with a meditation on the Sutra concerning the deep kindness of parents and the difficulty of repaying it. This ceremony involved over 100 prostrations by the participants (I’m glad I wasn’t required to attend- I can get down once, and then getting back up is iffy!)

This was followed by the ritual of the bathing of the Buddha. In the main Zen Hall,  members of the community were joined by representatives of many other faiths. To the sound of drum and gong and chanting led by the monks of the Center, those present came forward to offer a flower on the altar.

Words of greeting were offered from local religious groups. I spoke on behalf of the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, of which the Zen Center is an Inaugural Affiliate. Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones, Pastor of the First Unitarian Church, shared a story about her own personal encounter with the Buddha as “a friend,” and Dr. Sullochina Lulla of the Chinmaya Hindu community read a story illustrating the Buddha nature. The Venerable JianYing, Abbot of the Sunnyvale Zen Center, spoke about the meaning of the day. Bathing the Buddha, he noted, is not about washing the exterior, but about honoring the Buddha nature within and seeking to purify one’s own spirit.

Again to the sound of chanting, participants filed out of the hall to two locations where small statues of the Buddha stood in the center of a basin of water. Each individual took a long-handled dipper and poured the sweet-scented water over the statue. After everyone present had the opportunity to bathe the Buddha, the ceremony ended with prayers that all the benefits that had been gained by participation in the ritual might be shared throughout the whole world, bringing peace to all.

The Sunnyvale Zen Center is a place for teaching and meditation. Established in 2004 as a mission of the Chung Tai Zen Center in Taiwan, it houses a group of Dharma masters and an active community of devotees who participate in classes, meditation, and rituals. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, on the other hand, is focused on service projects. The name Tzu Chi means “compassion and service,” and Tzu Chi members donate their time, skills, and resources to aid others in need.

The Tzu Chi observance of the Bathing of the Buddha took place at Orchard School in San Jose. Along one side of a large open area in the school yard was a row of booths which included displays about the history and principles of Tzu Chi, examples of relief projects around the world, various publications, and invitations to change one’s lifestyle to be more sustainable and protective of the earth. In the center of the area were tables beautifully decorated with flowers and representations of the Buddha standing with his hand outstretched above a world globe. Set before the statues were large flat bowls filled with water.

As the ritual was about to begin, people lined up in rows facing the tables. Chalk marks on the ground indicated where people should stand, and organized a crowd of hundreds of people into a coherent whole. Again there were greetings from religious leaders, including an old friend Rev. Heng Sure, Director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery,  and I again brought greetings from SiVIC. Local governmental officials included Mayor Jose Esteves of Milpitas, who gave Tzu Chi a commendation, and San Jose City Councilmember Kansen Chu, speaking in Chinese.

Large speakers broadcast sounds of chanting, and many of those present joined in. Solemnly men and women dressed in uniforms of dark blue walked slowly in and took their places at the tables. in turn, they brought candles, small water bowls, and flowers and placed them on the tables. Then, line by line, the people would step forward, bow to the Buddha, dip their hands in the water and take a flower before filing out to the right and lining up again at the rear of the section. After everyone had taken a turn, again the group prayed that the blessings of this time would be shared by the whole world.

One of the Tzu Chi members explained that their founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, had challenged each chapter to find their own way to observe the bathing of the Buddha ritual, and that they had chosen this form to accommodate the hundreds of people who wished to participate.

Tzu Chi was founded in Taiwan in 1966 and in the U.S. in 1984. The Northwest Region was begun in 1993, and focuses on charity, medicine, education, humanitarian culture, environmental protection, and emergency relief. Tzu Chi was involved in relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina and the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. Locally, they provide food and medical care to the homeless in San Jose and operate schools in Cupertino, San Jose, San Mateo and Pleasanton.

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