A soft rain fell from the sky Sunday as members of the Chapel Hill Zen Center celebrated the birth of the baby Buddha.
A procession of banners, flower petals and bubbles led the way, the group bowing with each strike of the singing bowl. Josho Pat Phelan laid cake and green tea before the wooden pagoda, its sides and roof woven with fresh flowers. Inside, the young Buddha stood, one hand to the heavens and one to earth.
As each member sprinkled incense on the burner, bathing the Buddha in sweet tea dipped from the bowl at his feet, the group intoned in unity the Heart Sutra, one of Buddhism’s most important teachings, letting go of everything and living in the present.
“In emptiness no form, no feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of eyes and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.”
Practicing zen helps to know yourself better but also shows the importance of community, said Jeffrey Sherman, a longtime student.
The Heart Sutra has “a lot of ‘no’s’ in it, and a lot of people can think of it as a negative,” he said, “but it’s really just about not being attached to yourself.”
The Buddha was born to royalty 2,583 years ago in northern India, Phelan told the assembly, seated around on rows of black cushions. Mothers at the time traveled to their parents’ home to give birth, but Buddha’s mother bore him during the journey, according to one legend, under a grove of blossoming trees.
A sweet, warm rain began to fall, washing the baby. His parents were so happy, they named him Prince Siddhartha, Phelan said, meaning “wish come true.”
But as Siddhartha grew, he began to see the injustice of the caste system – a social hierarchy – and question human suffering and hardship. He left the palace to undertake a six-year quest of meditation and spiritual study, finally finding pure enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and becoming the Buddha.
Buddhism has since spread around the world, and the Buddha’s birth is celebrated every year in April and May, depending on the lunar cycles. The celebration is called Hana-Matsuri, or “Flower Festival,” in Japan; the Chapel Hill Zen Center teaches the Soto school of Japanese Zen practice.
There is no god in Buddhism, Phelan explained. Buddha is a condition in which your mind and body are completely awake and present, not clinging to the past, she said. She likened Zen to the renewal of flowers, because it encourages the heart to open so loving kindness can grow.
“Today, we are celebrating Buddha’s birth and celebrating birth itself,” Phelan said. “The way things are born anew. The rebirth of spring, the rebudding and flowering of kindness, and the coming to life of loving kindness in our hearts. We celebrate this with flowers because flowers are beautiful, but they’re also fragile. And even when we’re careful with them, they don’t last long.”
“When we forget or ignore the openness in our hearts, loving kindness can wither ... like the flower, but the kindness in our hearts doesn’t go away. It just gets weaker when it isn’t exercised,” she said.
Phelan invited the group to meditate on a strawberry. Try to forget your memories of the strawberry, she said. Look at the shape as if you haven’t seen it before; smell the fragrance and taste the flavor with a new perspective.
Some nibbled the edges, holding the strawberry as if it were foreign. Others lingered, savoring the smell and smiling at the flavor washing their tongues.
Meditation is like that first taste of strawberry, Phelan told them. You are trying to experience life with a fresh, open mind.