Buddha’s Birthday Celebration

Volunteers performing the ceremony

In 2011, the Tzu Chi Foundation celebrated Buddha’s birthday on May 8, in Kissena Park. Members of the foundation came from throughout the tri-state area to partake in this celebration.  When we arrived at 10:30, when the celebration was set to begin, there were already over one hundred people there all lined up in straight lines.  The volunteers stood at the front, closest to the stage and everyone else stood behind them.  One could tell the difference because the volunteers have a specific dress code. At first we thought that maybe the different uniforms were from different regional groups of volunteers, but one of the cameramen was kind enough to talk to us for about twenty-five minutes and explain the events to us. He explained that the volunteers in navy and/or white (either a suit of pure navy or a navy shirt with white pants) were volunteers who had taken vows to always attend services and events. The volunteers in gray-green shirts were volunteers who had not yet made any vows to the Foundation, and just had to come to events and volunteer a few times a year. The volunteers in light blue were considerably younger than most of the other volunteers, and they turned out to be the youth group of Tzu Chi, ranging from middle school to college age students. Additionally, there were a few volunteers wearing their medical coats, revealing that they were doctors who work at Tzu Chi clinics.

One of the main events of the celebration wass Buddha’s bathing ceremony. The ceremony was explained in both English and Taiwanese, but took place solely in Taiwanese. All members bow, place their hands in water, and then pick up a flower. After this has occurred, they play the blessing of good fortune. Although the services that we went to at the temple are led by a pre-recorded voice and video, at the celebration, the prayers were led by two emcees.

Another focus of the celebration was the Tzu Chi Foundations relief efforts, namely donating and making the world a better place. Within the park, there was several tents set up, each representing a different cause.  At these tents, there were volunteers there to tell you about the cause and why they need our help.  For example, there were people handing out flyers to donate books to children in South America. Another one was to donate money to the relief effort in Japan. Another tent was to educate people about the benefits of vegetarianism, and yet another had doctors, who were trying to get people to sign up for a bone marrow registry.

Youth volunteers wearing the light blue outfits

One of the most important aspects, however, we realized, was that the celebration itself didn’t occur on Buddha’s birthday, but the preceding Sunday, which also happened to be Mother’s Day. Lillian, the coordinator of the youth group, told us that it’s important to Tzu Chi that religious events are often connected with secular ones and that all events are open to families, due to the fact that a founding principle of Tzu Chi is educating the younger generation. We understood that even though Tzu Chi places emphasis on religion and volunteering, the community also aims to maintain a connection that many immigrant communities eventually lose. By creating an atmosphere where entire families feel welcome, Tzu Chi tries to keep their youth involved with their religion and community. Although many of the Tzu Chi members we met were immigrants, most of the younger volunteers wearing the light blue shirts were not, but you could see how actively they were involved.

And, yet, one of the youth volunteers expressed his disinterest in the organization. A friend of Anita, he came over to us just as we were leaving the celebration and didn’t even offer us his name, but said something along the lines of ‘don’t join. It ruins your life.’ He obviously believed that we were there thinking of joining the Foundation, but that wasn’t really the importance of his words. He revealed to us that, despite Tzu Chi’s attempts to educate the youth, they weren’t necessarily succeeding. Anita herself didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about the volunteering and religion, but merely interested in the socializing aspect, saying that she went into Manhattan for larger Tzu Chi youth meetings rather than attending the small Flushing ones.

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