Bathing the Buddha means pouring clean, fragrant water on the Buddha's image to wash away the dust and filth.
Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, appeared in India to realize Buddhahood. India is a hot country, and bathing facilities are found everywhere. One year when the Buddha was in the world, on the eighth day of the twelth lunar month, the Buddha used his spiritual penetrations to speak the Dharma and subdue a heretic, causing him to renounce his deviant ways and return to the proper path. The heretic gratefully said to the Buddha, "The Buddha used the water of Dharma to wash away the filth in my mind. Now I invite the members of the Sangha to take a bath and wash away the dirt on their body." That is how the tradition of bathing the Buddha and the Sangha came about. Thus Buddhists in India would often clean their bathtubs and reverently invited the Buddha and the Sangha members to take baths. The
Dharma Flower Sutra describes "offering flowing springs and bathing pools to the Buddha and the Sangha." There is great merit and virtue in such an offering. When the Buddha was in the world, Venerable Ananda was rewarded with being the Buddha's cousin and having a golden-colored body, because in a former lifetime he had invited Vipashyin Buddha to take a bath. The Buddha taught the Bhikshus how to properly construct bathrooms and bathing pools. He also instructed his disciples to bathe before taking their meal, so that their bodies would be clean and their phlegm would be cleared up. Therefore, the time for bathing was set before the noon meal.
After the Buddha's Nirvana, the Sangha community in India regularly bathed the Buddha's images to commemorate him. At noon they would first strike the boards (or bell). The temple would be splendidly decorated both inside and outside. They would light incense, scatter flowers, chant and bow in homage to the Buddha, and make offerings with sincerity. They would prepare scented water, stand the Buddha's image in a basin, blend fine ashes and brick-powder in the water, and then soak a fine white cloth in the water with which to wash the image. After the image was rinsed and dried, the leader of the ceremony would anoint his own head with the water, and then sprinkle it on the heads and bodies of those in the assembly. Sincere people would also drink the water to symbolize the cleansing of the mind with the water of one's inherent nature, replete with blessings and wisdom. It also represents the Dharma King anointing disciples' heads with the sweet dew of Dharma, thus extending the Buddha's wisdom-life so that the seeds of Buddhism will not be lost. At the end of the ceremony, the assembly bows to the Buddha and moves the Buddha image back to its original place. Then the Sangha goes to receive the lunch offering.
In the hot weather of India, the Sangha members frequently took baths and washed the Buddha images. When Buddhism came to China, due to the cold weather especially in North, the monks seldom took baths. Thus this grand ceremony now takes place only once a year on Buddha's birthday (the 8th of the fourth lunar month). The Sutras say that all Buddhas throughout the ten directions were born at midnight on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month. Why is that? The
Sutra of Bathing Buddha Images says this is the day that spring changes to summer, when the myriad things are born, all disasters are gone, and toxic energy has not come forth yet. Neither too cold nor too hot, it is the most appropriate time for the Buddha's birth. The
Sutra of Universal Radiance says, "When the Bodhisattva was born, nine dragons in space sent down a fine rain that was neither cold nor hot to bathe the body of the Bodhisattva."
When the Buddha was born from under the right armpit of his mother, Lady Maya, nine dragons spouted water, and lotus flowers supported his feet. Taking seven steps forward, he pointed one finger at the heavens and one finger at the earth, saying, "In the heavens and on earth, I alone am honored." Therefore, every year on the Buddha's birthday, we people on earth commemorate the merit and virtue of the Buddha, and bathe the Buddha's image to show that we have not forgotten the Buddha's kindness. This ceremony can also enable us to get rid of our afflictions, increase our blessings and wisdom, and realize Bodhi.