The birthday of the Prince Siddhartha Gautama (that is, the Buddha), is a holiday traditionally celebrated in Mahayana Buddhism. In most Asian cultures it moves about the Gregorian calendar, but in Japan it is celebrated on this date and is called Hana Matsuri, that is, Flower Festival.
According to the Theravada Tripitaka scriptures, Gautama was born in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, around the year 563 BCE, and raised in Kapilavastu. The date of Buddha’s Birthday is based on Asian lunisolar calendars and is primarily celebrated in Baisakh month of the Buddhist calendar and the Bikram Sambat Hindu calendar. In Nepal, which is considered the birth-country of Buddha, it is celebrated on the full moon day of the Vaisakha month of the Buddhist calendar. In Theravada countries following the Buddhist calendar, it falls on a full moon Uposatha day, typically in the 5th or 6th lunar month. In China and Korea, it is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. The date varies from year to year in the Western Gregorian calendar, but usually falls in April or May. In leap years it may be celebrated in June.
As a result of the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in lieu of the Chinese lunar calendar in 1873. Therefore, in most Japanese temples, Buddha’s birth is celebrated on the Gregorian calendar date April 8. The day is celebrated with parades featuring images of the baby Buddha, the white elephant seen by his mother in her dream just before his birth, and cherry blossoms carried by children dressed in traditional Japanese clothes. The famous sakura (cherry) trees bloom at this time, and so are given as offerings to adorn the nativity celebrations and ‘amacha’, sweet tea symbolic of the heavenly rain is poured over the baby Buddha.
According to legend, briefly after the birth of young prince Gautama, an astrologer named Asita visited the young prince’s father—King Śuddhodana—and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king or renounce the material world to become a holy man, depending on whether he saw what life was like outside the palace walls. Śuddhodana was determined to see his son become a king, so he prevented him from leaving the palace grounds. But at age 29, despite his father’s efforts, Gautama ventured beyond the palace several times. In a series of encounters—known in Buddhist literature as the four sights—he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world. These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest.
As long-time readers know, I am reluctant to give Asian recipes for people who don’t live in Asia, but I do make them now and again when I can get the ingredients. So here’s my recipe for Japanese rice and greens with miso sauce. Use oriental greens such as pak choi or baby bok choi. Use starchy short-grained rice. This is a vegetarian dish, suitable for celebrating the Buddha.
Japanese Rice and Greens
140g short-grained rice
1 tbsp sesame seed, toasted
1 tbsp sunflower oil
250g baby bok choi or pak choi sliced lengthways
6 spring onion, cut in 1” pieces
2 tbsp white miso paste
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 tsp finely grated ginger
Soak the rice in cold water overnight.
Mix the sauce ingredients together and marinate the greens in it overnight.
Next day, boil the rice in the soaking water for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Drain.
Meanwhile remove the greens from the marinade, and reserve the marinade.
Heat oil in a wok or skillet over high heat. Add the greens and stir fry briefly. Then add the rice and reserved marinade and heat through. Serve sprinkled with sesame seeds.