Happy Birthday, Buddha!

If you are surprised to see an oversized Happy Birthday balloon floating above the main Dharma room altar at the Providence Zen Center, you haven’t been to any Buddha’s Birthday celebrations lately. Apparently this Gold Guy has been a Good Boy this year, meriting a little something extra on his altar. If you can’t celebrate a long-dead teacher’s birthday, what can you celebrate? Once a year, even the strictest Zen students let down their hair (or their lack thereof) to celebrate another turn in the endless cycle of birth and death. Buddha may have died many generations ago, but he doesn’t mind being the guest of honor at a good birthday party.

Retreat (not) in progress

Birthday parties are a great excuse to gather with friends and family, and the same is true of Buddha’s birthday. In my Zen school, Buddha’s birthday is one of three annual ceremonies where Zennies from all over the world gather at the Providence Zen Center to re-connect with an inspiring power source: the fellow practitioners who constitute one’s Sangha. Buddha’s springtime birthday is a particularly festive time in my Zen school since it marks the end of Kyol Che, a three-month intensive meditation retreat. In the traditional Korean monastic calendar, monks and nuns practice an annual cycle of three months of “Tight Dharma” followed by three months of “Loose.” Tight Dharma is a time when retreatants abstain from idle chatter, sugar, caffeine, and other exciting pleasures; Loose Dharma is a time for travel and worldly schmoozing. This weekend’s Buddha birthday celebration marks the turn from the contemplative winter months to the more extroverted activities of early spring. What better time to hold a party featuring cake and lots of human interaction?

Happy Buddha's Birthday!

And yes…Buddha’s birthday is not complete without a big sugary cake, the cutting and consumption of which are preceded by the requisite singing of “Happy Birthday.” One of the non-edible treats at any Zen ceremony is the opportunity to see how the children of old Dharma friends have grown…or to learn that a long-lost Dharma friend has had children. Every child knows that birthday parties are all about cake, ice-cream, and singing, and Buddha’s birthday is no exception. The strictest of Zen students will insist that we have cake at Buddha’s birthday for the children, but astute Zen students can perceive the truth: at birthday parties, even the Old Folks can behave like kids again, enjoying the taste of something sweet shared in the company of friends.

Cutting the cake

There are no candles on a Buddha’s birthday cake, there being no Birthday Boy to make a wish before blowing them out. Instead, Buddha’s birthday is about the people who gather to celebrate, not the Dead Old Guy they came to commemorate. That cake, you see, says “Happy Buddha’s Birthday,” not “Happy Birthday, Buddha.” You don’t have to be a Buddha to have a happy Buddha’s birthday; you just have to know how to eat cake and make merry.

Like a wedding reception where bride and groom join hands to cut the cake that celebrates their union, Buddha’s birthday is a time when the gathered Zen teachers from my school join hands to cut the cake that celebrates their practice. Buddha’s birthday isn’t about the birth of some long-dead guy; it’s about the marriage-like commitment to practice that Zen-heads make morning after morning–moment by moment–every time they return to the breath that marks This Present Moment. It is that commitment to practice that we celebrate every Buddha’s birthday: a commitment to practice that is born anew with every greening blade of grass.