UCI Celebrates Buddhism’s Most Holy Festival

A dog trots into a room of mirrors and is startled to see many other dogs looking at him. Startled, the dog growls, but the reflections surrounding him return the gesture. Naturally, the dog runs but is so disconcerted by his own reflections, each more ferocious-looking than the last, that he cannot remember where the entrance is. Unable to escape, he cowers in fear and exhaustion. After a while, the curious dog wags his tail. The other dogs wave back in greeting.
‘The world is but a mirror of ourselves. If I smile at you, you smile back at me,’ says Venerable Jue Wei, of LA’s Hsi Lai Temple. She tilts her rosy face towards the nearly 40 people gathered in the Cross-Cultural Center to celebrate Vesak, Buddhism’s most holy festival which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. Venerable Sumana of Wat Thai (the largest Thai Buddhist temple in the United States), sweeps his orange and saffron robes over the plastic chair back and adds some advice of his own: ‘It is up to us how much of [Buddha’s] teachings we take into our lives. But peace must come from ourselves. If your mind has no peace, there is no peace at all.’
Rainbow banners with Buddhist script strung with lanterns and ground-throbbing beats from UC Irvine’s Jodaiko set the scene for an evening of memorable advice from several monastics and sharing of experiences from UCLA, UC Riverside and University of Southern California’s Buddhist Associations. A baby Buddha statue, one hand raised, sat in a silver container from which dry-ice mist crept from geranium petal water. The ceremony of 10 auspicious offerings begins as five UCI Buddist Association members touched red plates of flowers, embroidered fabrics and tea to their forehead.A tea ceremony commenced with Venerable Huei Hsuen of Dharma Voice Vihara, with three oblong teapots and fragile tea cups. He poured boiling water into each cup with tea that had been swirled in each teapot, balancing the pot between his thumb and index finger with a subtle tremble. Two students set the offering before the baby Buddha.
Chants sang by UCI BA president and fourth-year Asian American studies major Michael Tran accompanied every ceremony, and incorporated at least six different types of bells into the melodies. One produced a deep, resonating ring, while another was a carved knot of wood on a fabric pillow that answered with a nondescript ‘pluck.’ The central ritual was the bathing of the baby Buddha and every almost every individual participated by kneeling at the table and spooning the geranium-infused water onto the statue one at a time.
USC BA president Nick Polk emphasized exploration and understanding in his belief in Buddhism. In fact, many of the Vesak Day celebrants discovered Buddhism through curiosity and some identified themselves as Christians, agnostics or Catholics. Dan Huynh, UCI BA’s marketing vice-president, comes from a Catholic background. The stressed-out student began meditating to change her mindset and understand where her anger came from.
Some attendees were neither students nor faculty. Lorilyn Lachmann, a Buddhist exploring the Tibetan tradition, wore a white fabric draped across her shoulder to show her student status, although Lachmann had earned a B.A. in Christian ministry years before. ‘I wouldn’t trade what I’ve learned this year for anything,’ she said.
Vesak is always celebrated on the first full moon of May, and in a strange twist of fate, UCI’s Vesak Day shares the calendar with Cinco de Mayo this year. With pleased befuddlement, I imagine people in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Vietnam burning incense for the Buddha, while others celebrate their heritage for Cinco de Mayo. And still other individuals, in homage to American culture, pay worship to the Margarita at El Toritos across the nation. Just like seeing Cinco de Mayo occupy America, Vesak Day at UCI was like witnessing a different perspective on an ancient tradition
By the end of Vesak Day, the Baby Buddha statue, frozen feet-first by an unfortunate overdose of dry ice, continued to raise its hand in suggestion, as the Buddhists hacked away at the flowery, icy block.