Vol XLIX, No 5
What does it mean?
Unlike the Japanese, most of the Buddhist world celebrates Sakyamuni buddha's birth, enlightenment and deat on the full moon day of the fifth month, commonly called Wesak. When Japan switched to the western calendar in the 1800's, the three events became fixed on separate dates: February 15th for Nirvana Day, the death of the Buddha; April 8th for Hanamatsuri, the birth of the Buddha; and December 8th for Bodhi Day, the day that Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha Sakyamuni.
Of the three, Jodoshinshu in Amenca generally observes Hanamatsuri and only periodically the other two. And despite pooh-poohing the veracity of the Hanamatsuri story, it seems to be the only thing remembered after 12 years in Dharma School. Americans tend to look at everything literally, at least on a conscious level. Hence, when one hears the story of Siddhartha Gautama's birth; we feel the need to dismiss it as a quaint Asian fairy tale.
While in school in Kyoto, I soon began to notice a difference between the students from Western countries like myself and our fellow Japanese students. While we would ask, "Is that true?, Do you really believe that?", etc., our Japanese counterparts would ask "What does that mean?'3. In other words, they saw that such fantastic images such as the Buddha's birth and descriptions of the pure lands were metaphorical descriptions of reality, not scientific ones. We on the other hand, moved immediately to the standpoint of science to determine what is true and what is false - and indeed, that those were the only two options. Even in religion we argue whether such things as the resurrection actually took place or not., rather than "what does it mean?". Professor friends in Japan have told me that. recently, the "What does it. mean?" point of view is waning before the "Is that true or not?" point of view. This is an unfortimate development in my view. It seems to me that Buddhism is not a way of determining what is true and what is false, who is rigbt and who is wrong, but "What am I?, What does it mean that I am going to die?, Why does time seem to fly by faster and faster?. Am I missing the whole point?, and Why do I remember the Buddha's birth story and Mogallana's Obon story and not too much else after 12 years of Dharma School?".
After every Buddhist statement you hear or read - ask "What does that mean?".