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National Recognition of a Religious Festival:: Comparing Buddha's Birthday Celebration Organized in Taipei to the Northern Wei Buddha's Birthday Parade

Authors:
  • Nan Tien Institute
The Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist Studies
NII-Electronic Library Service
The JapaneseAssociation of Indian and Buddhist Studies
(54) .lournal ofindian
andBucidhist Studies lk)1. 63, No. 3, March 2015
National Recognition of a Religious Festival:
Comparing
Buddha's
Birthday
Celebration
Organized
in
[laipei
to
the
Northern Wei Buddha's Binhday Parade
SHi
Juewei
Festivals
make up a major feature
of
all
religions
i)
and human societies.2) A festival
means to most people
a "special day or period,
usually in memory of a religious event,
with its
own social activities,
food
and ceremonies," or an
"organized
set of special events,
such
as musical performances."3)
A
religious festival
presents
a unique opportunity to gain
insight
inte
the confluence of religion, culture, and politics.
Among Buddhist festivals,
Buddha's birthday stands out as the most popular
and most public.
When religious celebra-
tions go outside the temple gates,
it is an indication ofwide acceptance ofBuddhism by its
host
populace.
In this paper,
I shall compare two significant Buddha's birthday celebra-
tions: one in antiquity and one in recent times. These two circumstances are significant be-
cause the heads of state are conspicuously present
outside their symbols of power and the
entire capital city
ebserved the occasion. By comparing large-scale commemoration of
Buddha's
birthday
celebrations held befbre the Office of the President in contemporaxy
[[hipei
with a city-wide parade
held in Luoyang during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-
534) , this paper will identify
the factors
critical to
indigenous
Chinese people
accepting
major festivals
ofa fbreign religion.
Background
Buddha7s
birthday
festival is the oldest international and extant celebration of the birth
of a historical
figure.
This
celebration grew out of necessity. When Buddhism moved out
of its land of origin, one of the first things that missionaries needed to
do was to establish
the identity
of their
religion's fbunder.
Through a process
of social, cultural, and literary
"domestication," missionaries transmitted
fbreign texts and practices
to a Chinese audience
after the turn of the
Common Era. The most public
fbrm of "teaching" about the Buddha
would be the Buddha's birthday
parade.
One of
the largest
ancient Buddha's
binhday
parade
occurred between 500 and 528 dur-
I148
-
The Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist Studies
NII-Electronic Library Service
The JapaneseAssociation of Indian and Buddhist Studies
National
Recognition
ofa Religious
Festival
(J.
SHi) (55)
ing the Northem Wei Dynasty. The people
ofLuoyang, both
indigenous
Chinese
and their
fbreign
conquerors, held
citywide parades
on the eighth day of the fourth Iunar month in-
volving the
emperor of Tuoba IEva
Wei descent. According to the Luqyang qielanj'i
zawa
th[1eeS'E
(A
record ofBuddhist
monasteries in Lo-yang), participants
and spectators, of
both
indigenous
and fbreign
ethnicities, partook
in chants, variety shows, and spectacular
image precessions
that had evolved over at least three hundred years
in the nation. The em-
peror
made flower offerings to over 1
,OOO Buddha images as they paraded through
his
pal-
ace. This megaevent took place
about 500 years
afier
what might be considered the
oencial
entry ofBuddhism into China (when
Emperor Ming llll
ofthe Han Dynasty
commissioned
the White Horse monastery, China's
first
Buddhist
temple)
.
When Chinese monastics carried Buddhism to other parts
ofAsia, they
continued the
tradition
oftheir fbrefathers by
"exporting"
festivities to their new places
of abode.
rllaiwan
was one such recipient. Daoism was accepted by [Ibiwan residents befbre
Buddhism.
Al-
though infbrrnation
about Buddhism in
'faiwan
became widely known during the Qing
Dy-
nasty (1616-1911),
it was only after many Buddhist monks and nuns from
the Chinese
eastem seaboard entered the island in 1945
4) that
Buddhism in
'faiwan took shape. One
such monk was Hsing YUn who becarne the driving fbrce behind national recognition of
Buddha's
birthday
as a day
ofobservance and annual Buddha's birthday celebrations held
befbre
the Office
ofthe President,
just
about 500 years
after Buddhism's entry into 1faiwan.
The milestones were national observance of Buddha's birthday declared
in
1999 and cele-
brations
on the Ketagalan
Boulevard involving over 100,OeO members ofthe public
in Tlai-
pei
m 2008.
Supply Side: Buddhist Organizational and Negotiation
Skills
rlb
identify
the factors
leading
to effective public
staging ofa religion's major festival, I
propose
to
analyse both
the supply of appropriately-skilled Buddhists and demand of gov-
ernment and public.
In both the Northem Wei and Taiwanese instances,
Buddhists
demon-
strated their
ability to stage megaevents safely in public
spaces through years
of successfu1
experience. According to the PV2iishu ptS (Book
ofWei), the
first
three
emperors (386-
451) of the Northern Wei Dynasty "on the eighth day
of the
fburth
month . . . used to
mount the Buddha images on carriages and march them through
the
wide streets. The Em-
perer
would personally
driye to
the
gate
tower and watch; he would scatter
flowers
and
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The JapaneseAssociation of Indian and Buddhist Studies
(56) National
Recogriition
ofa Religious Festival (J.
SHi)
thus perform acts of veneration."S) The Buddhist
temples
of the time had demonstrated
their
ability to organize Buddha's birthday parades
to the satisfaction of the emperors.
[[hese
rituals
took place
in the fbrmer capital of Pingcheng and continued in
the new capi-
tal
of Luoyang
on a much grander
scale by Emperor Xuanwu EilSl
(r.
500-5]5) , a testi-
rnonial to
the Buddhists'
organizational skills accumulated over the years.
While many Buddhist temples were involved in the citywide parades
jn
the Northern
Wei celebrations, the Taiwanese example was staged by twe affiIiated organizations, Fo
Guang Shan
and Buddha's Light lnternational Association. Their
founder,
Hsing YUn,
was
no stranger to taking the Buddha into public
spaces. He started his
Dhama prornotion
ac-
tivities
in
Ilan
(in
north-eastern Taiwan)
in
1954.
At a time
when such commemorative
events were mainly held
within temple grounds,
Master Hsing Ylin
started citywide proces-
sion of the Buddha image ifi 1958.
That year,
30,OOO people
in this city that
had a total
population
of50,OOO participated
in
a Buddha's Birthday
parade
stretching 1O
kilometres.
Besides engaging two-thirds ofthe city's population
only four
years
after his
anival, Hsing
Min also invited
students to parade
with triangular flags while families transformed their
carts into
decorated
fioats
in
celebration. When placed
in the context that such public
dis-
play and panicipation
occurred under manial law (instituted
island-wide
between
1949
and 1987),
this parade was a bold statement by a young Buddhist monk (then
only 31
years
ofage) .
In
201O,
President Ma Ying-Jeou openly praised
Buddhists fbr
their
seculari-
sation,
entrepreneurial spirit and volunteerism as well as their
organizational skills, produc-
tivity
and
ability
to engage the
masses.
6)
Besides
having
a tradition
of
success, acculturation was also an important
consideration.
For example, in
medieval China,
image procession
was a novelty popularised
by Bud-
dhism.
Buddhists
rode on the Chinese
custom of imperial,
cultural and funerary proces-
sions and the
general
public's
fascination with variety shows. The Tuoba Wei people
were
also familiar
with revelries involving
music and dance.
Hence, the popular
parades
of
Luoyang were based on a paradigm
common to both
the
indigenous
Chinese and their
7)
steppe conquerors.
By the
time
of modern [faiwan, the mode of
celebration and the idea
ef
public
celebra-
tion of birthdays
were no longer
a novelty. However, public
recognition of the
status of a
religious festival was an issue. The [[laiwanese government only accepted Buddha's birth-
+
day
as a nationally-recognised day of observance in
1999 although Hsing YUn wrote m
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NII-Electronic Library Service
The JapaneseAssociation of Indian and Buddhist Studies
National
Recognition
ofa Religious Festival (J,
SHJ) (57)
protest
against the partial
treatment of Buddha's birthday compared to Christmas (which
was already declared a public
day of observance) since 1957.
When a petition
bearing
146,OOO
signatures was passed
by 207 legislators,8)
Buddha's birthday
finally
joined
the
birthdays of Earth God, Guan Yin, God ofMedicine, Mazu, Guan Gong, Chen Huang, Sun
Ylaitsen
as
well as
Jesus
(Christmas)
9)
to
become a
day
ofnational observance.
Obtaining
national and public
recognition was an important measure of success. A tradi-
tion
ofmature ski11s at eoordinating similar public
events helped assure the ruler or govern-
ment that national-level display of devotional fervour could be conducted in a safe and or-
derly manner. Besides 1arge-scale festival organizational expenise, Buddhists also required
ski1fu1 means to negotiate various cultural and political
hurdles to acculturate with existing
models.'The Northern Wei Buddhists and their predecessors
built on existing paradigms
while Hsing YUn and contemporary Buddhists campaigned fbr equality of religious treat-
ment.
Demand Side:
Religious Merit
and Nation-wide
Display
of Solidarity
The heads of nation were a visible part
of the religious event in both instances under
study. The Nonhern Wei Emperor
scattered flowers
outside the
Ch'ang-ho
palace
iO)
while
President Ma Ying-Jeou prayed
for national prosperity
in front of the OMce of the Presi-
dent.
i])
It
was noted that
during
the
time
of
the
parade
in
the
NQrthem Wei Dynasty,
"the
nation liked
to
pray
for
happiness."
i2)
In
2010,
President
Ma urged the
nation to
practise
the
Three
Acts
of Goodness
(doing
good deeds,
speaking good vvords and thinking good
thoughts)
and Five
Harmonies
(being
kind
to
oneselC sensitive to
one's family,
generous
to friends, devoted to social harmony and committed to world peace).
Ilaiwanese Vice
President
Vincent Siew supported Master Hsing YUn's promotion of these values by urging
the public
to practise
these values to make the world a better place
during the Buddha's
birthday
celebration of
2011.
i3)
Not only the
head
of
state, but
also the
citizens made ofi
ferings before the Buddha. Religious merit was an obvious reason fbr the public
gathering.
At a time when there was imminent danger of garrison
uprising in the Northern Wei, the
staging of a procession
of apparent power
and wealth held political
significance. Over a
thousand Buddha images
paraded
towards the emperor to receive flower
offerings spoke of
celestial endorsement
and
wamed off
any
rebellions. i4)
Hsing
Ylin's
orchestration ofannual
Buddha's birthday parades
during the turn of the millennium presents
an interesting parallel.
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The JapaneseAssociation of Indian and Buddhist Studies
(58) National Recognition ofa Religious Festival (J.
SHT)
To relieve tense relationships between
China and
'faiwan,
a Chinese
import was peacefu11y
organized befbre the TUiwanese government's
symbolic headquarters. Speeches delivered
during
these annual occasions often highlighted the need for
social harmony and world
peace.
The well-organized event was a national display of cohesion.
The presence
of Buddha images, traditional rituals and chanting, entertaining perfbr-
mances as well as religious and political
representatives from around the world signified
how a religious festival
could galvanise
a nation and bring
about social harmony through
cultural activities. The Buddha's
birthday
celebrations brought
together
an individual's
wish for religious merit and a nation's display of solidarity annually.
Conclusion
The study oftwo significant Buddha's birthday celebrations separated by 1,500
years
re-
vealed some important considerations fbr a foreign religion to become suMciently accul-
turated fbr national recognition. A measure of success was the presence
of head of state in
public
support ofa major religious festival. This paper
identified fbur important factors fbr
this to take place.
Buddhists needed to demonstrate a tradition of success in
staging large-
scale events publicly.
Another important consideration was the skilfu1 means exercised by
infiuential Buddhists to hybridise the elements of the commemoration activities or justify
the public
observance of the festival. Also vital was the requirement fbr such 1arge-scale
displays in capital cities. Hence, the third contributing factor was the participants'
need fbr
Buddhist merit, especially in populous
cities. Finally were political
circumstances, such as
tense situations, that led to the need to unite the nation as well as to demonstrate leadership
ability. In summary, the leadership of Buddhist trailblazers and organizations, coupled with
political
and community needs, helped to raise the profile
of Buddhism and Buddhists
worldwide through impressive Buddha's birthday celebrations in public
spaces.
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The Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist Studies
NII-Electronic Library Service
The JapaneseAssociation of Indian and Buddhist Studies
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Recognition
ofa Religious
Festival
(J,
SHi) (59)
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<Key
words> Buddha's birthday,
acculturation, public
spaces, parade,
national recognition, tradition
of success, skilfu1 means, religious merit
(Associate
Lecturer,
Nan Tien
Institute)
-1154-
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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An English 1>"anslation ofthe Original Chinese llzxt of PVlei-Shu CiUrVand the .lapanese Annotation of lsukamoto Zenryu, transPresident Ma Attends Buddha's Birthday Celebration: Prays fbr National Harmony
  • Wei Shou
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Sakyamuni Buddha Birthday Celebrated," 7lripei "mes
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A Record ofBuddhist A4bnasteries in Lo-IZing, trans. Yi-t'ung WangBuddha's Birthday and Mother's Day: President Ma and Venerable Master Hsing Ytin Promote Three Acts of Goodness
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Sakyamuni Buddha Birthday Celebrated
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Ko, "Sakyamuni Buddha Birthday Celebrated."
An bitroduction to the Stucly oj'Afi'ican Culture
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Ayisi, Eric O. An bitroduction to the Stucly oj'Afi'ican Culture. Nairobi: East African Publishers, 1992.
Buddha's Birthday and Mother's Day: President Ma and Venerable Master Hsing YUn Promote Three Acts ofGoodness
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