From many lands, cultures, a time of unity

By James Vaznis, Boston Globe Staff , May 30, 2005

Buddhists gather for temple service

BRAINTREE, Vermont (USA) -- Hundreds of Buddhists from across New England -- many dressed in robes and speaking the languages of their native land -- came together yesterday to celebrate the 2,549th birthday of Buddha, one of the most important days for the world's fifth-largest religion.

<< Clothed in traditional dress, women walked in a procession yesterday to the temple at the Samantabhadra Buddhist Center in Braintree. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Herde)

To the soothing beat of a drum and the steady ring of a chime, the procession entered the main tent on the front lawn at Samantabhadra Buddhist Center early in the afternoon: monks in orange robes, lay people in gray robes, and young women who carried gift baskets of crackers and tea on their heads.

By coming together on the front lawn of the center, which primarily serves Vietnamese worshipers, they blended nearly a dozen cultures to strengthen the kinship among those in the Asian community.

''It's a wonderful thing to bring everybody together," said Sokhar Sao, 44, who emigrated from Cambodia 23 years ago and is president of Glory Buddhist Temple in Lowell. ''It makes us feel like one family."

And their faith's philosophy of peace, they said, is one that can be appreciated by everyone.

''This gathering is a big message for everybody in the world to come together without violence and have love and compassion for everybody," said Suhas Barua, a realtor in Milton who was born in Bangladesh.

The venerable Thich Thien Hue, founder of Samantabhadra Buddhist Center, added, ''Buddhism is not a religion, but a way to live with mindfulness."

Buddha, which means the Enlightened One, lived in the foothills of the Himalayas more than four centuries before Jesus Christ. He abandoned a life of privilege and became a wandering monk. He preached a message that people could achieve a complete state of happiness and peace, known as nirvana, if they gave up worldy possessions and desires.

Many showed their devotion to Buddha by taking off their shoes before entering the main hall of the temple in Braintree and kneeling before a statue of him. Some bore gifts of neatly stacked apples, oranges, and other fruits, while others brought vases of pink and white lotus flowers. A white haze hung in the room from incense that people burned while praying.

Outside, a more elaborate celebration unfolded.

The ceremony, which started under skies awashed in sunlight, lasted for hours, even as rain threatened. Participants chanted in six languages: Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, English, Chinese, and Tibetan. They performed a dozen different dances and other cultural rituals. In between, they delivered sermons and words of thanks.

The highlight of the ceremony was the bathing of Baby Buddha, during which people threw petals of lotus flowers on the statue. The tradition pays homage to Buddha's first day of life, when he took seven steps and then the rain poured from the sky and came up from the ground.

''This is the biggest celebration of the year," said Nina Hang Nguyen, legal counsel for Samantabhadra Buddhist Center.

The sheer volume of the turnout -- organizers planned for 3,000 -- overwhelmed some.

''I think the event is very good because many people come from different groups, but for me it's not intimate," said Cindy Nguyen, a life insurance sales agent from Quincy.

But others had their intimate ceremonies last week in their own temples. Yesterday was about crossing ethnic boundaries and meeting new people.

''It builds the bond between people who have similar backgrounds in terms of Buddhism," said Somchai Darnsirichaiswad of Bedford, who emigrated from Thailand 17 years ago. ''When we come together like this, you can share the practices of our home countries and learn something."