The Buddhist Churches of America participated in the first official White House celebration of Vesak — the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing — in another milestone event for Buddhism in the United States.
BCA Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada took part in the May 25 special event, which included an official statement from President Joe Biden that was issued on May 26, as well as a tweet from Vice President Kamala Harris on Vesak. Representing President Biden at the ceremony was the Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Harris.
“It was indeed an honor to represent not only BCA, but to represent all of Mahayana Buddhism, at the historic Vesak ceremony at the White House,” Rev. Harada said in his opening remarks at the June 5 BCA National Board meeting.
“We both had a most memorable experience and it opened up our eyes to what other Buddhists are doing to promote Buddhism in the West,” Rev. Harada said, referring to himself and Rev. Kiyonobu Kuwahara, program director for the Jodo Shinshu International Office (JSIO) and Supervising Minister for the Berkeley Buddhist Temple and Buddhist Temple of Marin. Rev. Kuwahara accompanied Rev. Harada to Washington, D.C.
During the White House ceremony, Emhoff lit a candle and spent about 30 to 40 minutes with the Buddhists, who represented the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions.
In honor of the occasion, President Biden issued the following official statement from the White House:
“Jill and I extend our warmest wishes to Buddhists in the United States and around the world as they celebrate Vesak, the day honoring the birth, enlightenment, and passing of the Buddha. The ceremonial lighting of a lamp, the symbol of this holiday that has been celebrated for over 2,500 years, reminds us of Buddhism’s teachings of compassion, humility, and selflessness that endure today. On this day, we also commemorate the many contributions of Buddhists in America who enrich our communities and our country as we all work together toward brighter days ahead.”
And, in a tweet, Vice President Harris said: “Today Buddhists in the US and across the world honor Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing with the celebration of Vesak — a symbol of compassion, unity and care for each other. These lessons couldn’t be more important today. Doug and I wish a Happy Vesak to all who celebrate!”
The event was coordinated by Wangmo Dixey, President of the International Buddhist Association of America and the Executive Director of Dharma College in Berkeley through the offices of Shekar Narasimhan, President of the Dharma Into Action Foundation.
Lamps were lit and prayers offered by the Most Venerable Uparantan (representing Sri Lankan and Americans) on behalf of the Theravada tradition; BCA Bishop Rev. Harada (representing Japanese and Americans) on behalf of the Mahayana tradition; and Venerable Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche (representing Tibetan and Americans) on behalf of the Vajrayana tradition.
“It is wonderful that prayers were offered from all three great traditions of Buddhist practice here, at the heart of American democracy,” Dixey said. “It is so auspicious that this should happen on this day of celebration of the life and teachings of the Buddha.”
Rev. Harada noted that Dixey is the eldest daughter of Venerable Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, who was the first Tibetan Lama to come to the United States and who had been in seclusion at his retreat center for 30 years — but decided to emerge in public to attend the historic event.
Rev. Harada said it’s hoped that the Vesak ceremony becomes an annual event at the White House.