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
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
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
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
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.