A Tradition as Relevant as Ever:

Buddha Bathing and Interfaith Prayers of Gratitude

By Dilber Shatursun

Tzu Chi USA hosts its annual Buddha Bathing Ceremony in San Dimas, California, on May 7, 2022. Photo/Shuli Lo

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This spring, people worldwide gathered for a time-honored annual tradition: the Buddha Bathing Ceremony. Hosted as a three-in-one celebration of Buddha or Vesak Day, Tzu Chi Day, and Mother’s Day, this year, Tzu Chi USA conducted the service at its National Headquarters in California, for the first time entirely in English. At the same time, commemorations carried on in Haiti despite turmoil there, and a first-ever event took place in Poland, alongside families who’d fled from Ukraine.

The Buddha Bathing Ceremony is an important Buddhist ritual. Delicate flowers and baths of fragrant water often surround a statue of the Buddha. Taking turns, observers steadily begin their approach, bowing at the waist, dipping their hands in the water, or pouring it to ‘bathe’ the statue itself. Together, these traditions intend to clear the mind, purify the heart, and cleanse the spirit.

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Held in tandem with a service happening in Taiwan, Tzu Chi USA hosted its Buddha Bathing Ceremony at National Headquarters in San Dimas, CA on May 7. Gifts were prepared for all guests, including flowers for mothers, and faith leaders from across Southern California were especially invited to attend. To one Dharma Master, taking steps to share this ancient tradition with others is essential to interfaith harmony:

The people who are coming here today, they come from different faiths, and they can see how we respect each other, and how we can live together in harmony and peace.

Dharma Master Chao Chu
Los Angeles Buddhist Union

Representatives from other faith traditions echoed this feeling. “Because our world is so divisive, any and every endeavor we can do together to diminish that divisiveness is worthwhile attending or participating in,” said Rt. Reverend Alexei Smith of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. His words could not be more urgent or as universal in the face of true division and conflict around the world—including in Haiti.

Tzu Chi Haiti volunteer James Ocean leads a procession during the 2022 Buddha Bathing Ceremony in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo/Nesly Valcourt

In recent months, armed violence in the Caribbean nation has escalated to alarming levels. The UN Human Rights Council reported that from April 24 to May 16 alone, at least 188 people died from coordinated attacks in Port-au-Prince. Another 113 suffered injuries and 49 were kidnapped for ransom. Facing these extreme conditions, more than 200 people still put their faith in the Buddha Bathing Ceremony.

On May 15, volunteers safely gathered to begin preparations at Tzu Chi’s warehouse in Port-au-Prince from 8 AM. Tzu Chi volunteer Johnson Chang emphasized, “Haiti is experiencing unprecedented hardships,” including the ongoing pandemic, violence, and a tough economy. Because of this, he rationalized, “it’s easy for people to lose their way,” making the Ceremony even more timely:

Today, bathing the Buddha is an activity of prayer, piety, and good deeds. Although our hearts may be very frightened… we can find the greatest force to stabilize our restlessness, and we can move towards kindness, peace, compassion, and love.

Johnson Chang
Tzu Chi Haiti Volunteer

Local residents, including those who’d recently fled from Ukraine, partake in a Buddha Bathing Ceremony in Lublin, Poland. Photo/Tzu Chi Team

This was also why a Buddha Bathing Ceremony was held for the first time in Lublin, Poland on May 8. During Tzu Chi’s humanitarian relief efforts there for those who’d fled from neighboring Ukraine, volunteers, including from Tzu Chi Germany, took the opportunity to host the Ceremony on the street. With curious eyes, warm smiles, and palms in prayer, many participated, showcasing solidarity for a more peaceful world.

In this way, the values behind the Buddha Bathing Ceremony are universal; doing away with the negative to make fresh space for the positive. Of the Ceremony back in San Dimas, CA, Reverend Dr. George Okusi eloquently observed, “one thing that I’m learning is that I belong to a larger community — not only the Christian community — but I belong to the world religion.” One, we are, indeed.

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