April 13, 1986 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

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Katagiri Roshi discusses the Buddha’s Birthday ceremony, including why we pour tea over the statue of the baby Buddha, why according to legend the baby Buddha took seven steps, and the real meaning of his declaration, “I alone am the honored one in heaven and on earth.”


Listen to this talk on mnzencenter.org


Katagiri Roshi: We have a very traditional celebration of Buddha’s Birthday on the eighth of April every year.

In [Southeast] Asia, I think they celebrate Buddha’s life on the day called Vesak, according to the lunar calendar. […] Buddha’s birthday, nirvana day – Buddha’s death – and enlightenment day, all the events of Buddha’s life, are celebrated on the day of Vesak, which is [when] you can see the full moon [at] night. That is in the second month of the year, so February.

As you know pretty well, in [Southeast] Asia, you can have flowers all year round, just like Hawaii. […] So even in February they can have beautiful flowers. And then Buddhism came to China. […] You know China: the weather in China is quite different from [southeastern] Asia. So winter, spring, summer, and autumn are definite different seasons. In February, it’s very cold. No flowers.

So they started to think about when they should celebrate Buddha’s birthday. Do you know Buddha was born in the Lumbini garden, surrounded by beautiful flowers? So they thought that they had better have a beautiful season, surrounded by beautiful flowers. [In other words,] in Spring. So they picked April.

And the eighth of April. The eighth is a day [on] which Buddhist people have a special ceremony, called Uposatha. Uposatha means on the eight and fifteenth of every month they pay deep respect to the Buddha. All the Buddhists come to the temple and pay respect to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and reflect upon themselves according to the Precepts. That is called Uposatha in Sanskrit, in eastern Asia. So that is held on the eight and fifteenth of every month.

Even now, in Japan, we have this Uposatha, but [it’s] a little bit ceremonial. And also [it is] just like [the] ceremony of spring equinox and autumn equinox in Japan – do you know that? We have [the] same; [on] those days, Japanese people go to the temple and pay respect to the Buddha and also the ancestors, so that is kind of pretty close. But in south Asia, they have the special ceremony called Uposatha, paying respect to the buddhas and also reflecting upon themselves according to the Precepts.

That’s why they picked the eighth. So, April eighth is Buddha’s Birthday. It is not exactly historical, because it’s according to the circumstances. China and India are quite different; that’s why they picked that [date]. We don’t know when we started to have Buddha’s Birthday on April eighth, but it [was] almost the first century when Buddhist people established the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, [and] in [those] Buddhist scriptures you can see the date and month. So I think Buddha’s Birthday on April eighth was held very [early], almost the first century.


And also, traditionally we offer the tea, and pour the tea over [baby] Buddha’s head. Actually we use sweet tea.

The tradition – this is a legend, okay? In the Buddhist scripture, when the Buddha was born, the King of Dragons came down from the [heavens] and celebrated his birth, and then washed his body with the water of the [amṛtyu]. (Transcriber’s Note: The word sounds like “amirti.”) [Amṛtyu] means “immortality.” So the King of Dragons coming down from the heavens, celebrating his birth and washing his body with the water of immortality. [He laughs.]

Then the people imagined what kind of water [this would be]: “What is the water of immortality? We don’t know what is!” And then they thought that the water of immortality should be sweet, wonderful. [Laughter.] Feeling good. [He laughs.] You can understand this human emotion. Very simple, you know? From our feeling and heart, we think, “What is immortality? Something sweet, wonderful.” Giving something that feels good, you know? So this is [how] they started using something sweet. In Chinese we call [it] [kan-do]. In English I think we say ambrosia.

In Japan we use a special tea, so-called amacha, which means “tea of heaven.” That is special tea; it grows in Japan. When I was at the temple there, every year we picked the leaves and dried [them] in the shadow, and kept [them] for next year, and then we used the leaves for the amacha sweet tea. So that tea’s name is “tea of heaven.” So that’s why they use that tea. It’s originally very sweet. We don’t pour the honey or sugar. But here, we don’t have [the special] tea, so we use the usual tea and add the sugar. [He laughs.] But today we used just plain water, which is very pure. [He laughs.]


And also, you know in the [story], when the Buddha was born – do you remember? The Buddha walks seven steps, saying, “I alone am the […] honored one in heaven and on earth.”

He walks seven steps. Why does he walk seven steps? This is also a legend.

The number seven is a holy number, according to Rigveda. In India, Rigveda is a very old Indian philosophy. If you study Indian philosophy, you have to read the Rigveda. It’s very wonderful… I forget the name, but it’s very nice in Indian philosophy. In the Rigveda, I think the seven holy men command great respect from the people in the scripture. And then from that point, the number seven becomes a holy number. So that comes into the Buddhist tradition: so-called the seven past buddhas, before the Buddha was born, who were the Buddha’s teachers.

So we say seven buddhas in the past, before Buddha was born. Because even though we don’t have any historical proof [or] historical references, as long as Buddha was born here in this world, I think there had to be the past. In other words, as long as you exist today in the present, I think you should have a past. So if you see the present, the present brings on the past, and also the future. And then, you can see the present.

Through the present, you can see the past, you can see the future. In other words, we may reverse the order and say the present is supported by the past and future. So if you accept Buddha’s existence, very naturally he has a past. So that is the seven buddhas before Buddha was born.

So that’s why seven is a holy number. That’s why we say in the legend the Buddha walks seven steps.

So why does he walk seven steps? Because people believe that he is a human, but he is not human, [he is] something more than human, who is great, beyond human speculation. That’s probably why he walked the seven steps the moment when he was born. It’s impossible for us as humans, but he is [both] a human but he’s not human, because he is great.

Can’t you see [this]? Well, this is natural, from human feeling. For instance, if you become great, more than usual people, people really believe you. Even though you move your hand in the same way as people do – but, your moving is special. Do you understand? [He laughs.] Katagiri smiles, and then Katagiri smiles in the same way as you smile, but if you really believe him, trust him, and pay homage to him, exactly his smile is completely special. And from that smile, you know, the light [comes] forth. [He laughs.] Do you understand that human feeling? Yes, it is natural! But if you don’t [exactly] trust some person, even though he smiles in the same way as people do, you hate it, you hate his smile. But his smile is the same thing! Do you understand? [He laughs.]

So, that’s why he walks seven steps. Seven is a holy number. Anyway, he walks from the belly. [That] means he is something special: walking in the human world, walking hand in hand with all sentient beings, from [a] baby.


And also he says, “I alone am [the] honored one [in heaven and on earth].”

This is not individualism, okay? This is not egoism. It [does not mean] egoism. It is the implication of thoughtfulness, kindness, or compassion to all. Because all are great, greatness, completely great. No one hurts or destroys that greatness [inherent] in everyone and all things – trees, birds, nature, pebbles, waters, et cetera. Everything has greatness, [the] so-called lifeline of buddha. Exactly the same lifeline [that] Buddha Shakyamuni has.

That’s why this is called – maybe in the usual terms we say [a] human right. But [if we] say [a] human right, it is a very usual word. But religiously we are great, beyond human speculation, human judgement. So that’s why we have to respect [others], or we have to put ourselves in others’ place, and be thoughtful, be kind, be compassionate to human beings, and also to everything.

Yesterday, one of the Japanese ladies came and talked with me about something in her life and her mother’s life. Her mother was a very “modern woman” in those days, when she was young, et cetera. And [she was] not careful [doing things]; a little bit “wild.” [He laughs.] The father was very careful, neat. [He would] do something very neatly, very carefully, and finish one by one. But the mother didn’t care, you know? But very open, very open. But [the woman] said [there was] only one thing, [her mother] was really kind and compassionate toward animals. If an animal died, or somebody cut a tree, she cried.

And the same thing happens [with] this Japanese lady. The other day, a robber came into her rooms and stole many things. At that time, when she came back to her home, she couldn’t find her two cats. Then she started to cry. Her friend called her, and she cried, so her friends were very concerned about her. But after that, she found the cats! And then, no crying, nothing. Everything is okay. Even though stereos were stolen, [et cetera,] she didn’t care! [He laughs.] That’s interesting, isn’t it? [Laughter.] And then her friend came right after [the telephone conversation], and [saw that] she doesn’t care, she’s very happy […] Her friend doesn’t understand what’s happened. […]

Let’s [look at] these cases. [If] you see the people around you, the senior citizens and young people love animals, so-called pets, so much. Snakes, birds. Lizards. [He laughs.] But they don’t care [about] people… […] When she or he is right in the middle of business, they don’t care [about] kindness and compassion to people, they just focus on benefit just for themselves, that’s it. Do you understand? It is not thoughtful, it is not compassionate. Kind and compassionate, friendly, means not only to the particular things in human society. But usually, people express compassion, kind feeling in the particular area. [Like] art – they really love art, but other things, they don’t care. They love so much their own children, but they don’t care about other children. [He laughs.] [This is] a very exaggerated example. But if you see the human beings around you, you can see such […] kind people.

But in Buddhism, Buddha says, “I alone am the honored one in heaven and on earth,” [which] means all sentient beings are great, beyond human speculation. So that means you have to be compassionate or thoughtful, kindly, to human beings, and your boots, your dress, your hair, and your toilet paper. I always say toilet paper [as an example], you know? Even the toilet paper, you have to be kind. That is called […] “I alone am the honored one in heaven and on earth.” Is that clear? So it’s not individualism or egoism.

So Buddha encourages us to live in that way. Because it is the truth, it is reality. Because what is reality? Everything exists exactly the same as you do. Even though you don’t believe, trees exist, and birds exist. Rain exists, snow exists. Before you create the affective preferences, like or dislike, [they] already exist. What do you mean? They have already some reason why they exist, before you pick, before you make a choice of them according to your emotion, like or dislike. Everything exists, exactly in the same [way] as you exist.

So that is called “I alone” – or all alone – “are honored [ones].” In heaven and on earth. Not a particular area, but in heaven and on earth – in the universe.


So I think in order to be thoughtful and kind and compassionate, we have to see human life, how it is going, understanding deeply life and death. We have to constantly [be] thinking about death, and then, [be] moving toward death, but not be upset so much, not the preparation for death, but day-by-day, how we live. That is Buddha’s teaching.

But I don’t think you should forget death. Death is always with us. So we should consider death always, but without being so much upset, confused, or pessimistic, et cetera. But day by day, how you should live. To the [fullest]; not just exist. This is Buddha’s teaching. That’s why Buddha teaches us the Four Noble Truths.

So we have to understand deeply and consider mindfully life and death, what they are. And then we have to live to the [fullest], helping all sentient beings.

Thank you very much.

26:45 end of recording

This talk was transcribed by Kikan Michael Howard. Audio recordings of Katagiri Roshi are being used with permission of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

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