Thursday, May 26, 2011
Vesak Day, or Vesakha is a Buddhist festival observing the birth, enlightenment and the death of Gautama Buddha, all on the same day.
The celebration of Vesak Day falls on the first full moon in the month of May; which is also the 15th day in the Chinese Lunar calendar. The name Vesak is derived from the name of the month in the Indian calendar (Siddharta Gautama Buddha is an Indian prince).
The festival is celebrated in several countries around the world; which observe it as an annual national public holiday. It was traditionally observed by countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and also South East Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and also Malaysia.
I did not travel out of the country (perhaps someday I should) to participate in the festival celebrations or to experience how it is observed in other countries, but I think the festival is already observed with much importance in my own homeland.
I am not a Buddhist, but I was honored to be able to join in the celebrations with the devotees who woke up early in the morning to visit the temple, or the Buddhist Association; in this case, the association in Penang (located on Burmah Road).
Being early means one get to avoid the massive crowd which will form later in the day, and also to be able to see the setup and preparations of the volunteers for the big event; which included the prayers, blessings and also the parading of Buddha statue on the streets.
It is not uncommon to spot stalls selling fresh flowers, candles (lotus shaped), and joss sticks on the roadside on this day; whichever temple or association centre you go to.
Vesak Day is a religious festival, and is viewed as a very important celebration in the Buddhism context as Buddhists are to reaffirm their faith in Buddha's teachings besides the three momentous events; birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha.
Emphasizing on peace and nobility of life in serving others, Buddha called on his disciples/followers to do the same, through the observation and daily practice of the Five Percepts; which focuses on the commitment of abstinence from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication and to adhere to the teachings of life towards humility, morality and simplicity.
On important festivals/events such as Vesak, the Eight Percepts are observed, as an addition to the Five Percepts, but they are based on the moral guidelines to lead a more honorable life according to the messages preached by Buddha.
Typically, as I was told, there are rarely joss sticks used in the worshipping of Buddha, but on Vesak Day, joss sticks, candles, fruits and flowers are offered to Buddha (the joss sticks are not allowed at the altar or inside the building though).
There is a meaning to the joss sticks and flowers offered, and is again, in line with the teachings of Buddha.
It is based on the concept that nothing stays for eternity, and that there is always change revolving around all matters. Joss sticks are burnt and then there is nothing left but ashes, and flowers do not stay in bloom forever as they will wilt, dry and fall to the floor. It is the same with life, no one stays immortal nor young forever, we are also subject to death and objects around us could also be destroyed.
Therefore, people are urged to appreciate what is present and also not to do harm unto others.
The celebrations of Vesak Day also traditionally start before dawn, whereby devotees are called to the temples to assemble and witness the raising of the Buddhism Flag.
Then there are Buddhism hymns sungs, which are verses from the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha; all of which are part of the holy triple jewel.(Source: Vesak, Buddhism)
Besides the worshipping and observing of the teachings, the devotees are also called to practise the peaceful and life-giving kindness to others.
As such, some would volunteer to help with the preparations or painting/decorating the temples - painting of Buddhism murals, preparing food for the poor and the needy, donations to the poor (clothing, food or money) as these resemble acts of kindness, harmony, peace and unity among all mankind.
Another interesting ceremony to observe during the celebration is the bathing of the small baby Buddha statue which is placed standing in the middle of a golden basin filled with water scattered with fragrant flowers.
Devotees will then take turn to bathe the baby Buddha, by using the ladle provided to scoop the water in the basin which are filled with the flowers and gently pour it over baby Buddha's head and body.
This is significant in cleansing the bad karma from oneself (devotee/practitioner) and at the same time, remembering the birth of Buddha and honoring him with the offering of gifts and flowers.
There will be volunteers packing the 'bathing water' from the basin into plastic bags for devotees to bring home, as it is considered holy water.
Traditionally, the water is poured into the water tub in the bathroom as I was told, but these days, they will just put it in a basin for everyone in the family to bathe with a little of the water from the packet.
All religion do not condone the act of killing; so does Buddhism teachings. On festivals like these, the devotees are to abstain from food which involved killing of animals; in short, no poultry or meat and one has to adhere to a vegetarian diet on that day itself.
There are also doves, or tortoises being released as a symbol of freedom and peace.
Vesak Day is an important religious festival, and is marked by a national public holiday in Malaysia. Be respectful to others' religions even if you are not a devotee, and if you are interested to take photos, do be aware of your surroundings and be mindful not to be in the way of the devotees who are offering their prayers.
Another unique part about this festival is that it is unlike other festivals where people are dressed to the nines to celebrate, I noticed that most of the devotees are dressed in simple clothing and I found that it is also according to the teachings of humility and to be mindful of the teachings of Buddha.
Well, even if one is not required to dress formally, it is common sense not to go in your pajamas or micro mini skirts as well.
I wish all the Buddhists out there (whether you are my friend or not), a very blessed and fulfilling Vesak Day (it's belated, I know, but the teachings are never belated).