The Buddha’s birthdays

That title probably sounds weird to most readers. For starters, the use of the article the with Buddha may have an unfamiliar ring to it since we so commonly hear people refer to the founder of Buddhism as simply "Buddha." But to be strictly correct, the word buddha is a title meaning 'enlightened one,' so we should say "a buddha" or, if we're talking specifically about Siddhartha Gautama, the historical personage, we ought to use "the Buddha."

In principle, at least, the same goes for the word Christ, which means 'anointed one' in Greek and was originally intended as a translation of the Hebrew word messiah. By all rights we should say "Jesus, the Christ," and indeed in Greek the article is used with this word, but for some reason — perhaps because the word came into English via Latin, which had no articles — "the Christ" just doesn't make the cut as proper-sounding native English.

(I remember when I was a little kid in Sunday school and I thought that Christ was Jesus's family name, but in view of the unusual circumstances of his conception and birth, I wasn't sure whether that was his adoptive father's last name or he was using his mother's maiden name.)

The other thing about the above title that may seem strange is the use of the plural on birthdays. There are a couple of reasons for thinking of the Buddha as having more than one birthday. The first is the fact that not all Buddhists celebrate his birth on the same day.

Lotus lanterns

In Korea, lotus lanterns are hung and lit with candles (or nowadays often electric lights) in celebration of the Buddha’s birthday.

Buddhist tradition relates the story of Gautama's birth this way. His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of a small kingdom called Sakya, located in an area that now straddles the border between India and Nepal. When she was pregnant with Gautama, his mother, Queen Mahamaya, had a strange dream that most of us ordinary mortals would regard as a nightmare. She dreamt that a white elephant went into her body through her side and entered her womb! She asked some of the resident Hindu priests who were wise in such matters to interpret the dream, and they said that it was extremely auspicious. They predicted that she would give birth to a son who would grow up to be either the ruler of the entire known world or a buddha. (If she was anything like my mother, I can just hear her 30 years later saying, "He could've ruled the world but — no! — he had to be a buddha!")

Mahamaya was not from the capital city of Sakya but hailed from a neighboring town called Devadaha. Well, something must've gotten into her besides that white elephant because one day when she was ten lunar months pregnant and probably feeling about the size of a pachyderm, she decided to take a little trip over to Devadaha to visit her folks. (Actually, I've been told that it was the tradition there for a woman to go to her parents' home to give birth.) It's lucky that she was a queen and therefore had a whole entourage of maidservants and such with her because, as you may have guessed by now, she didn't make it all the way. She had the baby in a park, of all places, with an Italian-sounding name: Lumbini. Tradition dates this birth as having taken place on the day of the full moon of the month of Vesakha, which corresponds to our April or May.

A float in a lantern parade

A colorfully lit dragon boat in a display that is part of the Lotus Lantern Festival held during the Buddha’s birthday season

Theravadin Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia still celebrate the Buddha's birthday on that day, but in Mahayana countries, such as China and Korea, his birthday is celebrated a week earlier, on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month. I've heard that the Chinese temples in Hawai`i have yet a different date: the 3rd day of the 4th lunar month. So the Buddha has at least three different birthdays. (An added twist is that in Theravadin countries, Vesak is a commemoration not only of his birthday but also of his enlightenment and of his passing from this physical life into Nirvana.)

There is yet another reason for speaking of plural birthdays, and that is that according to Buddhist teaching, everyone has the Buddha nature and will eventually reach enlightenment. That would make everybody's birthday the birthday of a buddha.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 8 May 2000.