Tampabay Ecumenical Vesak Celebration

Tampabay Ecumenical Vesak Celebration

The name for the Buddha’s birthday holiday is Vesak and it celebrates, not just his birthday, but the three principle days in his life: his birth, his enlightenment, his death. Vesak is celebrated on different days in different ethnic Buddhist traditions and there were a number of different celebrations of Vesak in Tampa Bay reflecting those different traditions. However, this past Saturday (May 31, 2008) there was an ecumenical celebration sponsored and organized by Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Center (SBMC) at the Chinese Community Church (4600 78th Ave. N. Pinellas Park, FL 33781).

Also participating were the Clear Water Zen Meditation Group, the Dhammawheel Meditation Society of Clearwater, Nichiren Shu of Tampa (Japanese), the Mahabodhi Society of India, different Tibetan traditions, the Ehipassiko Buddhist Center (Sri Lankan/Canadian) and the Middle Way Buddhist Association, (Chinese Chan/Pureland) founded by Lily Lee and Tom Lacey.

The program for the Vesak celebration began with video before the event regarding the Buddhist relief effort in Burma. During the films, attendees perused several tables of items for sale–imported religious articles and craft items made by members of the community–all proceeds going to the Burma relief effort. (My favorites were hand painted cards by the Malaysian artist, Bee Khoon.) The actual ceremony began with the awesome tolling of a very large bowl gong 108 times by the Clear Water Zen Meditation Group. Then there were a series of different presentations by different speakers representing different traditions (see the program listing at the end of this article). The ceremony concluded with distribution of holy water and bathing of the baby Buddha.

The Heart Sutra

A special sutra was chanted by everyone in attendance: The Prajna Paramita Hridaya (called the Heart Sutratranslation). The Heart Sutra is perhaps the most meaningful of all the Buddhist scriptures to me, personally, and the video embedded at the top of this post is my absolute favorite melodic setting of this mantra. This particular mantra is at the very heart of Mahayana Buddhism for it is concerned with the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara (Guan Yin in Chinese Buddhism). Mahayana Buddhists, myself included, take, in addition to the Triple Gem vows, The Four Great Vows which express our intention to become bodhisattvas ourselves. My own personal, down-home interpretation: we’re doing this for all of us since we’re all in this together and we’re gonna keep coming back to help until everyone gets their act together!

Here, by the famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, is a MUCH better explanation of the ending of the Heart Sutra, words often used as a mantra, words I’m sure everyone has heard at least once in their life: “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.” (Gate is pronounced “gah-tay”–rhymes with “hay,” what cows eat, and has two syllables.)

Thich Nhat Hanh: “Gate means gone. Gone from suffering to the liberation of suffering. Gone from forgetfulness to mindfulness. Gone from duality into non-duality. Gate gate means gone, gone. Paragate means gone all the way to the other shore. So this mantra is said in a very strong way. Gone, gone, gone all the way over. In Parasamgate sam means everyone, the sangha, the entire community of beings. Everyone gone over to the other shore. Bodhi is the light inside, enlightenment, or awakening. You see it and the vision of reality liberates you. And svaha is a cry of joy or excitement, like “Welcome!” or “Hallelujah!” “Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, svaha !”

For more on the Heart Sutra see this post (that’s an excellent blog overall) and Tam Bao Buddhist Temple.

Burma benefit

As I mentioned earlier, proceeds from the sale of items at the Vesak celebration went to support the Buddhist relief effort in Burma. The videos shown before the ceremony were part of the efforts of another of the Buddhist groups represented at this Vesak celebration, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship of Tampa Bay which is a chapter of the national Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Here is a link to Burma Campaign UK videos, including some of the videos shown before the Vesak ceremony. They are not for the faint of heart. Even more intense is this PowerPoint presentation, For Peace, from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website. But, if you can handle it, the intensity of the videos and presentation are testament to just how important it is to work for peace, whether you are a Buddhist or not.


Here’s a copy of the program from Saturday’s Vesak celebration.

  • 108 Bell Chimes by Clearwater Zen Group
  • Welcome Speech by Venerable Bhikkhuni Sudarshana Peliyagoda, Abbess & President of Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Center
  • Opening the Altar by our Chief Guest, Venerable Siri Sumedha, and Lily Lee of Middle Way Buddhist Association
  • Pali Chanting by Samadhi devotees. The group is comprised of Bonnie Castellano, Gina Castellano, Clair Denney, Charley Denney, Jason
  • Chanting of Heart Sutra in English by Clearwater Zen Group
  • Meditation Session by Venerable Dhammawansha, Abbot & President of Dhammawheel Meditation Society, Clearwater
  • Chanting of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo by Erin Lauer of Nichiren Shu, Tampa
  • Dhamma Talk by our Chief Guest, Venerable Kahawatte Siri Sumedha, Assistant Secretary General, Mahabodhi Society of India, and Incumbent-in-Chief, Saranath Mahabodhi Center, Saranath, Varanasi, India
  • Tibetan Chanting by Venerable Dharma Master Tashi of Tibet
  • A modicum of Buddhist insight from Clair Denney, a practicing Buddhist
  • Relaxation Music by Susan Patricia Golden, Founder of Universal Music Way
  • Dhamma Talk by Venerable Upananda, Abbot of Ehipassiko Buddhist Center, Calgary, Canada
  • Devotional Music by Elli Kelly, a spiritual practitioner soothing the wounded hearts through devotional music.
  • Dana Offering to the Sangha by Dorothy Smiljanich
  • Devotional Drumming by Marvin A. Sotoamaya
  • Blessings from the Sangha
  • Dedication of Merit by Venerable Upananda
  • Bathing the Buddha by everybody (Please, line up when announced)
  • Distribution of holy water (Please, receive yours in person from the Sangha after your turn of bathing the Buddha)
  • Refreshments, Vegetarian dinner and social time