“Think Good Thoughts, Speak Good Words, and Take Good Actions.”
Brisbane’s 2015 Buddha Birth Day Festival attracted hundreds of thousands of people, enlivened the city’s South Bank with parades and multi-cultural entertainment, and gave visitors the chance to attend meditation sessions and Buddhist talks on a diverse range of subjects.
The annual dragon boat regatta had to be cancelled this year because of the heavy rain and storms on Friday, but, after a wet and windy start, the three-day event was blessed with beautiful weather for the rest of the weekend.
There is always an abundance of vegetarian food and activities range from calligraphy, percussion workshops, and origami to cooking demonstrations and a traditional tea ceremony. This year there was storytelling for children and a cultural harmony parade. Entry to the festival and all the events is free.
Brisbane’s event is the biggest Buddha Birth Day festival in the world in terms of the number of visitors and activities, and its duration. Volunteers work for more than 40,000 hours each year to make the event a success.
The festival has been an accredited climate-friendly event since 2011. Ralph Smith, who is marketing director for the festival and for the Buddha’s Light International Association of Queensland, which co-organises the event with staff and volunteers from the Chung Tian Temple, says that in 2014 Brisbane was declared the world’s most sustainable city. For several years, the Buddha Birth Day festival organisers have focused on making theirs a sustainable event.
“We kicked off the green message in 2008,” Smith said. “The first thing we did was to change all the lights. We have more than 2,000 lanterns throughout the parkland, so, with the help of Bunnings and Phillips, who provided us with light bulbs, we put in environmentally-friendly globes. We hope soon to be able to use more energy-efficient LEDs.”
The Brisbane big wheel and the Story Bridge turn red for the festival, and the Goodwill Bridge is decorated with lanterns. “And next year we will be lighting up Victoria Bridge,” Smith said.
There are plenty of recycling bins at the festival, and vendors are asked to use environmentally-friendly packaging.
An aim for the future is to track and register the ecological footprint of visitors from the time they leave home until the time they get back from the festival. “It’s all about raising awareness, and encouraging people to take responsibility,” Smith said. “We encourage people to ride-share or take public transport.”
Everything possible is done to lighten the event’s carbon footprint, and carbon offsets take up the slack. “We’ve been sponsoring forests in Tasmania, and are aiming to start up a forest in Queensland,” Smith said. “Possibly blue gums, which koalas love. Perhaps we could establish a koala sanctuary.”
The festival, which is now in its 19th year, started off in the Rochedale suburb. However, with more than 3,000 people attending a one-day event, it quickly outgrew its original venue, and, in 1997, the organisers took up Brisbane City Council’s invitation to move to the South Bank parklands.
The police presence at the festival is more about community engagement than law and order, and the Queensland Police Pipes & Drums band – or “Kops in Kilts” – added yet another fun element to a festival that features lion dancing, acrobatics, tai chi, and martial arts.
The finale to the festival is always the multi-faith prayer and light offering ceremony for world peace, and there is also a firework display to round off the weekend.
A multi-faith forum enables Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, and Pagan representatives to debate with members of the public. “There is a great relationship between all the faith leaders in Brisbane,” Smith said. “We attend each other’s festivals, and there is a lot of multi-faith discourse.”
Two years ago, he says, the “No Boundaries – Handprints for a Greater Humanity” initiative started at the festival. “So far, we’ve had more than 20,000 handprints from 55 different cultures. To be able to capture that in these pieces of art is just amazing. It’s a reflection of the whole festival.”Last year, the Chung Tian Temple, which is located just south of Brisbane and provides meditation, tai chi, Mandarin, and calligraphy classes for adults and children, won a G20 cultural harmony award for the work it does in the local community.
“Part of the festival theme is the future and hope,” said Smith, who has been involved in the event for ten years. “We are always looking to the future. It gives me great joy personally to see all the young people taking an increasingly active role, and bringing in fresh ideas.”
While there is serious debate at the festival, with talks on such subjects as developing happiness, liberation from attachments, the sources of suffering, and death awareness, the event is an easy-going way of learning more about Buddhism and having fun at the same time.
“It’s all about creating an experience,” Smith said. “We want people to get involved and enjoy themselves. I’ve met many people who have been coming to the festival for years and keep coming back because they get something out of it.
“It might be about our environmental message, or the No Boundaries handprints, or any number of things; quite often it may not be specifically about Buddhism, but then it all comes back to Buddhism. It’s about becoming a better person. That’s the message of the festival: living a good life, finding happiness in yourself, and finding peace.”