Several hundred local Vietnamese community members gathered at Van Hanh Temple on Sunday to celebrate Buddha's birthday.

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For about a week, the nuns and community members who pray at Van Hanh Temple had been preparing for Sunday’s Buddha birthday celebration.

They weeded the garden, put up a big tent and cooked large amounts of food in anticipation of the day marking the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, who became known as the historical Buddha.

Born a prince sometime between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. in an area that’s part of modern-day Nepal, Siddhartha Gautama gave up his life of wealth and privilege after seeing death, disease and suffering outside his palace walls. He went on a quest for truth and is said to have reached enlightenment after meditating under the Bodhi Tree. His subsequent teachings, designed to help others to become free of suffering and reach enlightenment, form the basis of Buddhism.

The word “Buddha” means “enlightened one” or “awakened one.”

On Sunday, the celebration at Seattle’s Van Hanh Temple drew a few hundred Vietnamese community members, nuns and visiting monks, who came to pray, listen to talks and visit with each other.

The day is “to remind people that everybody has the Buddha nature,” said Trihoang Thich, a visiting monk from Houston. “Everybody has the capacity to become a Buddha — enlightened.”

At one point, participants lined up to take part in washing the Buddha — pouring little glasses filled with water and flower petals over a small statue of the Buddha sitting in a bowl of water.

It’s symbolic of washing away the greed, hatred and ignorance in one’s heart, making it easier to discover “the Buddha inside,” said Quoc Phan, 40, an electrical engineer who attends Van Hanh Temple and a leader with the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association.

The celebration was religious but also intended to be “a little fun,” with lion dances, singing and dancing, head nun Giac Huong Le, 67, said through an interpreter earlier in the week.

Buddha’s birthday is one of the three biggest celebrations of the year — the others being Lunar New Year and Vu Lan Festival or Mother’s Day — at Van Hanh Temple, which was established in 1994.

One of about five Vietnamese Buddhist temples in Seattle, Van Hanh Temple is the only Buddhist nunnery in Washington state, according to Le. Six nuns live there currently, including Le, who joined a nunnery in Vietnam at age 14 and came to the U.S. as a refugee in the 1980s.

The temple is also open to the community and for those like Jennifer Nguyen, 18, a high-school senior from Shoreline, it’s become like a second home.

On Sunday, she celebrated with friends, saying the day is “a chance for me to remember that what [the Buddha] did was for everybody. And it helps me to remember how to be a good person.”

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com