Celebrating Buddha’s Birthday

A post by Learning Coordinator Charlotte Spink.

On Sunday 15 May the Oriental Museum hosted Buddha’s Birthday celebrations. This event was particularly special after a two-year break owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was wonderful to welcome back our visitors and see the museum full of people.

Buddha’s Birthday, also known as Vesak or Wesak, is celebrated around the world and commemorates the birth of Buddha in around 563 BCE. Born a prince, Buddha went on to renounce his privileged royal life and become a holy man, ultimately reaching Enlightenment. 

How people celebrate varies from country to country, but the hope at the Oriental Museum is the event both supports the local Buddhist community and provides an inclusive, hands-on introduction to the faith.

This year we worked with Lizzie Coombs, the Durham University Buddhist Chaplain who led a guided meditation and an informal gallery tour in which she highlighted some objects that she felt connected to through her Zen practice. One object Lizzie spoke about was a Korean moktak or fish bell, which she uses during Buddhist chanting rituals to aid concentration. We learned that chanting is really about listening. The sound the instrument makes depends on where precisely the bell is struck with the wooden beater, so remaining focussed and aware of your actions key.

Korean Moktak

Visitors were also able to take part in Buddha Bathing. Legend records that when the young prince was born, a dragon appeared in the sky spurting two streams of purified water, one cool and one warm, that gently cascaded down to bathe the infant Buddha.

Many Buddhists celebrate Buddha’s Birthday by using fragrant water to bathe a statue of the infant Buddha. Water is poured over the statue three times, symbolising the cleansing of body, speech and thoughts to eradicate anger, greed and ignorance, purify the mind and cultivate wisdom.

Buddha bathing

We were also grateful to have three student volunteers who, having taken time out from their busy study schedules, were able to help deliver the event. The knowledge, enthusiasm and hard work of our volunteers enriches our events programme and brings new ideas and perspectives, which is really what museums are all about.

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