Sunday, May 27, 2007

Celebrating Vesak (the Birth, Englightenment, and Nirvana of The Buddha)

May 26, 2007 is an august day for Buddhists, both practitioners and novices alike, from the Tampa/Clearwater/St. Pete area for they were able to partake of the Vesak Celebration organized/hosted by the Dhamma Wheel Meditation Center (DWMC)/the Unitarian Universalists (UU) of Clearwater, the 7th in the annual series. For the very first time, the Amitabha Buddhist Group (ABG), of which my wife is a member, was invited to present a condensed version of Chanting in praise of Amitabha. The Middle Way Buddhist Association, among others, assisted in organizing the event.

The performing members of the ABG first gathered in our home to refine the synchronization required for a well-orchestrated display of the chanting, complete with Buddhist sound accompaniment. Thus rehearsed, the group left for the venue at 4pm in our Minivan, and dutifully arrived at the destination with enough time for “site reconnaissance” and setting up seating position.

The venue is the premises of UU, a building with an octagonal timber roof and circular seating arrangements. The road entrance was adorned with Buddhist flags and lanterns, fluttering in the strong breeze. A white Buddha statue sat at the middle of the hall, with a banner proclaiming Paying Homage to Buddha By Serving Humanity hung further back. Two baby Buddhas were emplaced to the side, which are meant for bathing of the Buddha ceremony.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) Entrance road to the Octagonal roofed UU Building
(2) Electronic board display of Unity Church across the road
(3) Decorations adorning the hall entrance in the UU Building
(4) the centerpiece of Vesak Celebration in the hall.

The celebration commenced with the procession, led by the various Buddhist monk and nuns flanked by two Dharma wheel bearers and accompanied by a team of four drummers, making rhythmic, deep percussion beats. The march started from the premises of the Dhammawheel Meditation Center (DWMC) just across the road (Nursery), with Buddhist practitioners/attendees bringing up the rear.

While the attendees were filing into the hall and gradually filling up the available seats that slope upward and outward, the drum group continued its pulsating beats, alternating rising to a crescendo and subsiding, the acoustics seemingly enhanced by the high roof that extends downward in all directions.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) Start of the procession at the premises of DWMC across the road
(2) Marching across the carpark area of the adjoining Unity Church
(3) The attendees marching across the carpark of UU toward the building entrance
(4) the 4-man drum group beating away.

Rev. Abhi Janamanchi first welcomed all attendees to the celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and nirvana of the Buddha, noting that serving humanity as appeared on the overhead banner is to be construed as including all sentient beings. Seeing all the greed, anger, wars and destruction that have been engulfing humanity and environment, the Buddha would have pained; but at the same time the Buddha also would have had his work cut out for him, the Reverend added.

Bhante Dhammawansha then led in the veneration of the Buddha by chanting the homage to the Three Jewels: The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha, first in Pali, then in English, emphasizing the need to practice well, rightly, correctly, and properly.

After an exquisitely executed classical Indian dance performed by Ms. Aishwarya Challa, Rev. Tashi, a Tibetan monk who has just moved to Bradenton about two months ago, delivered a heart-palpitating rendition of the Heart Sutra, in Sanskrit. The Heart Sutra encapsulates the essence of emptiness, and is at the heart of the Four Noble Seals in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

This was followed by Chanting of the Heart Sutra by the Clearwater Zen Center, in English, to the accompaniment of chiming sounds made by striking an urn and the thudding sound of hitting the wooden fish. Recognizing the interchangeability between form and emptiness, the constant waxing and waning, arising and disappearing of all things, the Heart Sutra enjoins:

Holding to nothing whatever But dwelling in Prajna wisdom, Is freed of delusive hindrance, Rid of the fear bred by it, And reaches clearest nirvana.

After a brief meditation session led by Bhante during which he admonished all to have happy and loving thoughts, the ABG took to the floor to demonstrate Chanting in praise of Amitabha, which is another name for the Buddha, meaning Infinite Light and Infinite Life.

In the words of Brother Brian, who preceded the group chanting with a brief expose of the practice, which he assembled from a host of online sources [texts in parentheses are mine]:

In Sanskrit, he is Amitabha Buddha. In Chinese, he is known as Amituofo [some versions appear as Amitofo]… With his deeds, he creates the conditions for beings to accumulate merits. With his purity, he has created a perfect land: one that has no pollutants, no anger or intolerance. It is a land of peace and serenity. It is a world of equality and joy, wonder and beauty. In comparison, our [mundane, in the words of Bhante] world is one of delusion and suffering, filled with worry and anxiety. [This Western Pure Land, as it is called, is the somewhat analogous Heaven in western religions.] … When we chant, the sound of Amituofo arises in our minds. And as we utter “Amituofo”, our minds focus on and embrace the sound. While chanting, we do so whole-heartedly and continuously. … When, in our chanting, we reach the level of single-mindedness with the sole thought of Amituofo, we form a connection with him. In that moment we are in his land. As we breathe our last breadth in this world, we can form this connection. With Amituofo, we will attain our next rebirth in the Western Pure Land, and leave all our suffering behind.”

With that preamble, the whole hall then settled into silence, broken only by the repeated chanting of “Amituofo”, in rhythm with the sounding of the Buddhist acoustic paraphernalia. It was as if a drape of serenity had descended on the hall, shrouding the attendees in a peaceful mood.

In the ensuing dharma talk by Bhante, he likened our existence in this mundane world to a lotus pond of dirty, muddy waters. But we should emulate the lotus flowers that spring forth, unattached to the mud that abounds in the environment. And we do this by cultivating our minds in consonance with the Four Noble Truths. Bhante also advised that we should think twice, and do not rush headlong into Buddhism. It’s an individual decision, and no conversion is necessary.

The dharma talk was in turn followed by another dance performance by Ms. Aishwarya Challa, Love Offering to a drumming based on a Swahili song by Steve Turner, Blessing for World Peace, and Giving of Gifts to the Sangha.

The culmination of the Vesak Celebration is the bathing of the Buddha, with benediction from Dr. Frank Tedesco, who intoned that we are fundamentally enlightened. So by purifying ourselves through the Bathing of the baby Buddha, we are borne anew. The attendees then took turn, in pairs, to participate in the penultimate activity of the blessed program of Vesak Celebration, after which they migrated to the Social Hall for a sumptuous feast of the vegetarian dinner.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) Indian classical dance by Ms. Aishawarya Challa
(2) Chanting of the Heart Sutra by Clearwater Zen Group
(3) Chanting in praise of Amitabha by Amitabha Buddhist Group
(4) Bathing of the Buddha

And we left the venue shortly before 10pm, appetite satiated, body relaxed, mood appeased, and mind filled with bliss.

Clockwise from Top Left:
(1) Wify participating in the Bathing of the Buddha ceremony
(2) A pleasant surprise: a lotus flower in the UU Compound next to the Social Hall
(3) Attendees feasting themselves to the Vegetarian culinary offerings
(4) Wify receiving a gift in the lucky draw

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