Buddha was born more than two millennia ago, and every year the story of his birth is symbolically retold through the Buddha bathing ceremony.

Lot 160, A well-cast gilt-bronze figure of the infant Buddha, Ming dynasty, 17th century, Estimate:  EUR 15,000-25,000, to be offered Sotheby’s Paris, 12th June 2013.

During this ceremony, figures of the infant Buddha, such as the unusual Chinese gilt-bronze figure dating to the 17th century in the upcoming Sotheby’s Paris sale, with the forefinger of one hand pointed upwards and the other forefinger directed downwards,  are venerated in a special way.  

Observance of Buddha’s Birthday in New York’s Union Square.

Water scented with flowers is gently poured over the image by devotees, while they pray for merit and to be rid of defilements.

Contemporary figures of the Infant Buddha used in Buddha Bathing ceremonies.

This iconographic form of the infant Buddha is based on the story of Buddha’s birth. There are many versions of this tale, but the main points remain the same. Buddha’s pregnant mother Queen Maya was passing through Lumbini grove, which is in modern day Nepal.  At that time the grove was full of blossoming trees.  

(left) Mayadevi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal, built over the place where Buddha was born. (centre) The exact spot of Buddha’s birth. (right) Images of the Infant Buddha on sale in Lumbini, Nepal.

She was attracted to the beautiful sight and reached up to touch the blossoms, when suddenly the infant Buddha sprang from her side, pure and radiant. Already able to walk, he took seven steps.  

(left) Stone stele depicting Buddha’s birth in a temple in Lumbini, Nepal. (right) Image of the Infant Buddha on an altar in a Vietnamese temple in Kushinaga, India.

With each step a lotus blossom sprang from the ground to prevent his feet from touching the ground. Then, in a move foretelling his eventual enlightenment, he pointed his right forefinger to the sky and his left to the ground and proclaimed “I alone am the World-Honored One! This is my last birth. There will be no more rebirths”.  The Queen and her son were then showered with perfumed blossoms and cleansed by streams of sparkling water pouring from the sky.  In Chinese art, the showers of water are often depicted issuing from the mouths of divine dragons.

A relief mural depicting the life of the Buddha in the Daxing Shansi Temple in Xi’an, China depicting the infant Buddha showered by streams of water gushing from the mouths of dragons.

Around the world Buddha’s birthday is observed on different days. In East Asia, Buddha’s birthday is traditionally observed on the 8th day of the Fourth Lunar month, which this year fell on 17th May. Generally this date is observed in places that follow the Mahayana tradition, such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. In South and Southeast Asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar, where the Theravada tradition is dominant, Buddha’s birthday is observed on the first full moon typically in the fifth Lunar month, which falls on 24th May this year.  In Japan, which switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873, Buddha’s birthday is observed on April 8.

No matter when Buddha’s birthday is observed, the bathing of the image of the infant Buddha is an important ritual activity. It is believed this act of honoring Buddha’s birth helps the devotee accumulate purity, wisdom, dignity, merit and virtue.  Since Buddhists believe that we all have Buddha nature within us, the bathing of the Buddha is also symbolic of cleansing ourselves of impurity, greed, hatred and ignorance.