The story of the birth of the historical Buddha is a mixture of legend, myth and fact. As happens with many events thousands of years ago, the actual day is uncertain. My temple’s lineage celebrates his birth on April 8.
Siddhartha Gautama was born approximately 2,560 years ago near the present border between India and Nepal.. His father, King Suddhodana of the warrior Shakya clan, ruled a small but prosperous kingdom during a time of peace. His mother, Queen Mahamaya, had a dream prior to his birth. A white elephant, symbolic of a deity, told her that she would bear a son who would become a buddha, an enlightened one. As the birth neared, Queen Mahamaya, following the custom of the time, began her journey to her parent’s home. As her party passed Lumbini’s Garden she stopped to rest among the beautiful flowers. Unexpectedly, she went into labor and her son was born. Legend says he emerged from her side, took seven steps, and proclaimed, “Above the heavens and below the heavens I alone am most noble.” This is “the birth cry of the Buddha.” All creatures rejoiced and a sweet rain began to fall. With no reason to continue the journey, Queen Mahamaya returned to the castle. Sadly, she died seven days later. This too fulfilled a then current belief that the mother of a buddha died seven days after his birth.
Nice story, isn’t it? At our temple, the birth celebration is Hanamatsuri, or “Flower Festival.” A small statue of the baby Buddha, with one raised hand pointing to the sky and one hand pointing to the earth, stands beneath a canopy of fresh flowers. Surrounding the statue is a pool of sweet tea. Temple members each pour three small ladles of tea over the statue, symbolic of the sweet rain said to have fallen. This is not an act of worship; it is an expression of gratitude for the teachings he brought forth.
Do Buddhists believe that the events took place as described? I am sure some do, but most recognize the story as both embellishments added by later followers and symbolic messages. The important thing in Buddhism is not what did or did not actually happen. The important thing is that the Buddha, after years of searching, found a way to overcome the suffering that exists in all human life. He then spent the last forty-five years of his life traveling and spreading these teachings. He went not as a missionary seeking converts or disciples, but rather as a person simply sharing his ultimate insight. Realizing that our lust, greed and desire were the cause of all suffering he spoke of overcoming our attachments and ego. Do not cling to the past. Recognize that actions now will determine the future. Be mindful of the present moment. Live in the “eternal now.”