Wesek at Amaravati Buddhist Centre

It is particularly relevant to celebrate the birth of Gautama Buddha in a garden. The traditional stories and illustrations in children’s books emphasize a scene in which the whole of nature seems to share in the beginning of his earthly life in the Lumbini Grove.

Note the custom of making a flower garden for the Japanese festival of Hana Matsuri which celebrates just the birth.

‘All the trees were in flower and a gentle breeze sang to the music of the birds and animals of this lovely forest garden . . . it was as if all nature was happy over the birth of this prince.’ (The Story of the Buddha, London Vihara.)

This kind of language and the feelings that go with it are often part of the evocations of particularly important events in people’s lives. They can be found in the animal and star stories surrounding the birth of Jesus and on a different level in the popular song ‘A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’.

What we noticed as we arrived at Amaravati Buddhist Centre for the celebration of Wesak in May 1985 and 1986 were the many blossom trees in the grounds and also an area in which the grass had been left unmown so that a carpet of tiny blue flowers could flourish undisturbed. Buddhists believe that amongst the many things, indeed everything in life, that can teach you, nature has a special place. So here were some openings for thinking in a Buddhist fashion. The flowers would not have flourished to make us feel so joyful had not someone made a decision to leave one part of the otherwise tidily-mown grass untidily but beautifully wild. This provides a good point of departure for children. It raises the question of how helpfully or unhelpfully human beings can live alongside nature.

There are often reflections on this in the magazine for children called Rainbows which is circulated from Amaravati. The blossoms on the trees provided another point for reflection. They were so obviously fragile, their beauty all the more precious because the gusty spring breezes were battering them and blowing them down. Wesak celebrates the death as well as the birth of Gautama Buddha. His death was the completion of his life, his final or parinirvana. Some of his last words were

‘decay is inherent in all component things’ (Maha Parinibbana Suttanta in T. W. Rhys Davids Dialogues of the Buddha Pt. 2. Pali Text Society p. 173.)

His enlightenment involved seeing the truth about the way things are and Wesak celebrates this enlighten- ment alongside his birth and death. The three events are in a way inseparable. The blossoms at Amaravati linked the enlightened eye with the natural round of birth and death rather as the Zen saying has it.

‘To the eye of faith the cherry blossom is always about to fall.’ (Quoted in F. Franck The Book of Angelus Silesius Vintage p. 40.)

Amaravati is in many ways one large visual aid for understanding Buddhism. Many features on these two occasions seemed to enhance the meaning of Wesak, which is the traditional Theravada festival for the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. If the carpet of blue flowers recalled his birth in the Lumbini Grove and a particular perception of the falling blossoms illustrated the insights gained at enlightenment and the fulfilment of that at his death, then the showers which turned into rain in 1985 and the chilly breezes in 1986 made me think of the arrows of Mara, which were aimed at the Buddha in the period of testing or temptation immediately before his enlightenment. Just as tradition says that Gautama turned the arrows into lotus flowers before they harmed him, so Venerable Sumedho said with his typical cheerfulness of one of the showers

‘that was a blessing, not English rain'

The name of Mara is closely linked with the title of the centre. As the figure of Mara symbolizes change and death, so amara means deathless and amaravati is translated as the deathless realm. For the Buddhist the deathless realm (another term for Nirvana) is entered by one of the many paths to enlightenment. The logo of the centre, which is beautifully painted on the entrance gates, is a rainbow. This forms a bridge over water. The water represents the sea of samsara (the unsatisfactory round of rebirth) and the rainbow the transcendent qualities of enlightenment. Within the rainbow there is a stupa, which is another link with the third element in Wesak, the death of the Buddha since a stupa was originally a burial mound. The defeat of Mara, followed by his enlightenment and the final nirvana entered at death, gave the Buddha the title of ‘Victorious One’. Victory seemed to be symbolized at Amaravati by the many tiny Buddhist flags hung all over the gateway and between the trees and buildings. The Buddhist flag links with the renewal of Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka earlier this century and is related particularly to the work of Colonel Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala. The several bands of colours are often taken to symbolize all nationalities and the world-wide relevance of Buddhism. Victory has universal application and, as Venerable Sumedho emphasized at the festival

‘Since the world is small one needs to meet as friends, neighbours, brothers and sisters with respect, openness and generosity.’

Perhaps the first stop along the rainbow bridge to enlightenment for a lay Buddhist is that of generosity, the capacity for giving. Gautama Buddha’s own generosity is well illustrated in some of the jataka stories. At a festival such as Wesak generous giving can be experienced by anyone visiting a Buddhist centre. A splendid feast is prepared by lay Buddhists for members of the monastic sangha and whoever else wishes to join in. The monks and nuns in return give what is seen as the greatest gift of all, the gift of the dharma (teaching). For children the party atmosphere of a room filled with people sharing food and enjoying each others company is a piece of teaching in itself and expresses the natural joy of a festival such as this. The mixture of ages and nationalities makes a vivid impression too.

Amaravati is a particularly good place for children because of its open grounds. Spaciousness is itself an image for nirvana. There is also a special children’s room called the rainbow room and a magazine for children called Rainbows. While adults were listening to dharma in the sala after the feasting was over, the children went to the rainbow room. On the floor there are cushions covered with material printed with lotus blossoms. So the children can each sit on a lotus cushion. The lotus is a symbol of enlightenment since it grows in muddy water (samsara) but raises its flower on a long stem to the sun (enlightenment).

While they were in the room the children were encouraged to make offerings of flowers, incense and light in front of an image of the Buddha and under the supervision of a monk or nun. The story that was told to them at Wesak in 1986 was how Gautama Buddha turned the arrows of Mara into lotus blossoms. This poetic image seemed to delight the children. As the children sat round a white thread was passed through the hands of each one of them. The symbolism of this seems to have many layers. It had the effect of linking them together in friendship, but then as each was given a piece tied round the wrist at the end of the session it became a reminder and a blessing.

(Another account of the same kind of thread ceremony is in D. and U. Samarasekara, I am a Buddhist, Franklin Watts. It also features in the Meridian Trust videotape The Birth of a Buddha).

The walls of the Rainbow room were covered with children’s work and posters and there was space for practical activities on other occasions.

Although the monastic sangha at Amaravati is closely linked to the Thai Theravada forest monk tradition (as filmed in the Open University videotape, The Mindful Way), Venerable Sumedho has encouraged an open, ecumenical atmosphere. He wants the place to be for the benefit of the community, not for sectarian purposes. A Stupa, which is in itself a mixture of styles, has been set at the centre of what will be a grove of trees in the form of a celtic cross. This symbolises the meeting of cultures which festival times embodies more than any other. There is also a Japanese temple bell hung in the gardens. In 1986 at Wesak offerings were made at the four corners of the stupa by members of Nipponzan Myohoji, the Theravada community, Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and Tibetan Buddhists.

It is possible to learn a great deal not only from being present at a celebration of Wesak at a place such as Amaravati, but also from looking at the way the festival has been announced in The Middle Way over the last three or four years. That in itself would be a useful practical exercise for GCSE. It not only provides an insight into the history of Buddhism in Britain but also the main elements of the festival.

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