Recently, as part of the preparations for the Buddha's Birthday celebration at the temple I lead, I went to the bakery to buy a cake. The gentleman behind the counter and I spoke in Spanish, as I asked about the freshness and ingredients in each variety that was on display. There was vanilla cake with white frosting, chocolate cake with mousse inside, "yellow" cake with chocolate frosting, and a red velvet cake with lovely dark red frosting. I chose the chocolate mousse cake, thinking that would please most of the sangha. A koan dialogue ensued.
Without any suggestion from me that this was the occasion, the man asked, "¿Le escribo Happy Birthday?" ~ "Should I write 'Happy Birthday' on it?"
I replied, "Si, por favor." ~ "Yes, please."
He asked, "¿Cual es el nombre?" ~ "What is the name?"
I smiled and replied, "Buddha - B U D D H A"
Then he asked , "¿Hombre o mujer?" ~ "Man or woman?"
I paused. Surely he couldn't write the proper answer on the cake. Then, I realized what he meant.
I asked, "¿Me estas preguntando que color quiero para el nombre?" ~ "Are you asking me what color I want for the name?"
"En blanco por favor." ~ "Use white, please," I said.
Returning with the cake he asked, "¿Es una persona?" ~ "Is it a person?"
Pausing for an instant, I replied "Si." ~ "Yes."
He looked at me expectantly, wanting to know more. Again I reverted to the conventional, thinking that he was not asking for a koan.
"Es una persona que nació hace mas de 2500 años." ~ "It's a person that was born more than 2500 years ago."
Another expectant look was followed by the final question, "¿Es una ofrenda?" ~ "Is it an offering?"
I nodded, smiled and said, "Si, es una ofrenda." ~ "Yes, it's an offering."
This last question made it clear to me, and perhaps to both of us, that he had understood something about the nature of Buddha by having this exchange.
To be sure Buddha is not just the individual who was born in the Lumbini Garden in Nepal around 563 BC. Buddha, as understood in our school, is awakened nature. It is both male and female, neither male nor female. It embraces, yet is not defined by, any gender or agender. Buddha doesn't always look pink or blue, or taste like chocolate or vanilla. Buddha is a person, in fact every person. Yet Buddha is inconceivably more vast than any one being. And so we make an offering, with its limits and simple flavors, to express our appreciation of that which is so much more. Happy Birthday Buddha!