Flower Festival celebrates Buddha

by ZEKE WRIGHT, The Bennington Banner, May 15, 2011

GRAFTON, N.Y. (USA) -- Emblematic springtime showers fell atop the Grafton Peace Pagoda for this past Sunday's Flower Festival, an annual ceremony and celebration commemorating the birth of the Buddha.

Buddhist nun and Grafton temple founder Jun Yasuda said that past festivals had enjoyed beautiful skies and warmth, but this year's event was colored by the recent earthquake and ensuing tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan. "(The festival) used to be more performance, but today we had more prayer time," said Yasuda.

In addition to the springtime birth of Buddha, the event this year also acknowledged the loss of life and destruction in the aftermath of the March 22 earthquake. One woman originally from the hardest hit northern end of the main island spoke early. "Here we are gathering to celebrate life ... The fact that we have such an abundance of life here. We have so much ... Somehow I think we have reached a tipping point -- we had reached a tipping point some time ago -- the amount of abundance that we collectively enjoy cannot be sustained," she said.

The temple was crowded with well over 100 attendees representing a plurality of religions and walks of life, from pregnant expectant mothers to the aged. The day's services included both traditional Buddhist ceremonies as well as ecumenical prayers including Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Native American Teton Sioux. There was music, prayer, and reflection.

The founder of the Grafton pagoda's Nipponzan Yohoji Order, Nichidatsu Fujii, was quoted to have said that it was false to speak of peace while carrying weapons of war. "When we practice peace, we must lay down all murderous weapons."

"The Buddhists as a group have learned how to live together in harmony, such as have other groups like the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Shakers. For all of these groups, the key has been simplicity," said one speaker leading into Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett's hymn "Simple Gifts."

A participant in a recent peace pilgrimage organized by the Grafton pagoda which went from Indian Point to Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vt., spoke of that experience, and said that the intent was to show solidarity between people working to close nuclear facilities stateside and those in Japan affected by nuclear power.

The temple continued to fill with new arrivals throughout the morning and early afternoon. Buddhism, explained one monk, is "not only a religion ... (but) an exercise for the mind."

A Hindu chant told of letting go of things that aren't sustainable or lasting.

"The point is with Buddhism, they see life and death as the same thing, and they believe that each day should be lived in happiness and in joy and celebration. None of us are guaranteed any moment other than this," said the festival's master of ceremonies.

A potluck followed the ceremonies as the rain lightened.