Same same but different: Vesak Day in S’pore’s Buddhist temples

May 21, 2016 09.30AM |

by Cindy Co

ACCORDING to a 2010 census report, about 33.3 per cent of all Singaporeans aged 15 and above are Buddhists; slightly over a million people. Buddhism is by far the most practised religion in the country, with Christianity in second place at 18 per cent and free thinkers at 17 per cent.

Originating from India, Buddhism began its spread in the first century CE to various places, creating three schools of Buddhism – Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana. Each possesses a unique set of practices. They were brought to Singapore by migrants from China and mainland Southeast Asia.

In Singapore, Vesak Day was officially made a public holiday in 1955, after petitions by Buddhists to make it a national holiday. It usually falls on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese calendar, often during the month of May, and commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Gautama Buddha.

Some activities common across temples in Singapore include prayers, the offering of flowers, releasing live animals, and bathing the Buddha. Vesak Day celebrations are largely the same across Singapore, varying according to different temples, with the exception of Vajrayana Buddhism (more on this later).

Mahayana Buddhism

What it is:

Mahayana Buddhism, which means “The Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit, spread to Central Asia and China from India, and later to Korea and Japan. Mahayana emerged to be a more accessible form of Buddhism as a path to Nirvana for all people, rather than just monks and nuns. Tending to be more religious than other schools of Buddhism, Mahayana encourages praying to higher beings, and the use of rituals, icons, and objects. Their use, however, varies among the different lineages.

There are five lineages within Mahayana Buddhism: Pure Land (Amitabha), Zen (Ch’an), Madhyamika (San Lun), Yogacara, Avatamsaka (Hua Yen), and T’ien-t’ai. Ms Lim Hui Yee, a representative from KYCL Zen Meditation Centre, tells us that the differences between the lineages are mainly their focuses – while Pure Land Buddhism focuses on chanting the name of the Amitabha Buddha, Zen Buddhism emphasises the process of meditation.

What makes it unique:

According to the Venerable Sik Kwang Sheng, abbot of Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, there is little variance among the teachings, although practices do differ due to how different countries have adapted Buddhism to their own cultures. Mahayana Buddhism is a product of the mix between Buddhist teachings and East Asian culture.

Nevertheless, there are slight theological differences between the schools, based on their paths towards Nirvana, which is the state of enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhists believe in the enlightenment of all beings; before reaching Nirvana, they vow to be reborn as Bodhisattvas to help all other sentient beings achieve enlightenment first.

How Vesak Day is going to be celebrated:

Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, the biggest temple in Singapore, which practices Pure Land Buddhism, is located along Sin Ming Avenue and Bright Hill Road. Its Vesak Day celebrations encompass an entire week, with this year’s theme being “Gratitude”. Starting officially on May 14 with the Light Transference ceremony and Aspiration-Making activity, Venerables and devotees offered candles and wrote their aspirations on cards hung at the temple. On Friday, May 20, they held the “three-steps, one-bow” ceremony, where devotees bowed once every three steps while chanting and circling the perimeter.

3 step, 1 bow at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery
Image by Najeer Yusof: “Three-steps, one-bow”, Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery

On Vesak Day itself, the Venerable Hong Choon Museum would hold guided tours to teach guests about the history of Buddhism.

At the KYCL Zen Meditation Centre, a zen Buddhist centre at Lorong 25 Geylang, the birth of Buddha is celebrated with the concept of repentance in mind. Their celebrations include Dharma talks, dinner and fundraising events, and meditation, with their turnouts ranging from around 2,000-3,000 people. Ms Lee tells us that preparations usually begin two to six months before the actual day, due to the logistics involved, such as obtaining a police permit.

Theravada Buddhism

What it is:

As adherents of the oldest teachings of the Buddha, Theravada, which means The Doctrine of the Elders in the Pali language, is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos). Theravada Buddhism only recognises the Pali Canon, which is an early Indian collection of the Buddha’s teachings, and disregards later Mahayana sutras. A quick survey of Theravada temples in Singapore show that most have Thai or Sri Lankan roots.

What makes it unique:

Unlike Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, who use the local languages to communicate, Theravada Buddhism uses the Pali language, an Indo-Aryan language of Indian origin.

Theravada Buddhist also differ in the way they achieve enlightenment – while Mahayana Buddhists vow to help other beings reach enlightenment before themselves, Theravada Buddhists focus on their personal enlightenment. While Mahayana Buddhism is more religious – in that they rely heavily on rituals and symbols – Theravada Buddhists regard Buddhism more as a life philosophy. Due to the immense personal dedication and sacrifice needed to gain enlightenment, laypeople rarely reach Nirvana in Theravada Buddhism.

How Vesak Day is going to be celebrated:

The Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple, located at Race Course Road, is a Thai Buddhist temple with strong Sri Lankan influences. In contrast to the other temples, they hold a simple celebration for Vesak Day. Madam Koh, the caretaker at the temple, says: “[People] just pray and go. [It’s] very simple.” During the prayers, devotees would offer lanterns to the large 15m-tall Buddha that fills the entire hall. She estimates that more than a thousand people would go over to pray during Vesak Day, although it’s hard for them to keep track of exact numbers.

Vajrayana Buddhism

What it is:

As an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana – meaning “The Thunderbolt Vehicle” in sanskrit – is sometimes regarded as the third school of Buddhism. Also known as Tibetan Buddhism, it is the predominant school of Buddhism in the Himalayan countries of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Vajrayana Buddhism is a combination of various types of Buddhism: Mr Lama Dawa, abbot of Drikung Kagyu OM Centre at Lorong 29 Geylang, describes Vajrayana as a layering of Mahayana practices over Theravada teachings. Influences from Tantra, a system of rituals and beliefs from Hinduism, are also incorporated.

What makes it unique:

Vajrayana Buddhism centres on the ritual use of the vajra, which symbolises imperishable diamond, and thunder and lightning. They also have a religious figure in the lama, which is Tibetan for “guru”.

Another unique feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is the use of a Khata, which is a long white cloth signifying purity and a tranquil heart.

How Vesak Day is going to be celebrated:

At Drikung Kagyu, Vesak Day is celebrated with morning and afternoon sessions of prayer and rituals. In the morning, followers would bathe the Buddha, and offer flowers and the Khata to represent letting go of worldly desires. Then, in the afternoon, Mr Lama Dawa would tell his followers the 12 stories of the Buddha, covering stories of how the Buddha came to earth, where he was born, his early life, how he gained enlightenment, among others. Thereafter, they will chant Sutras and pray to the Goddess of Mercy.

Demographic Changes

Many of these temples have experienced numerous changes across the years. The Venerable Sik Kwang Sheng says: “In the past 10 years, there has been a general increase in younger Buddhists coming to the monastery. […] This is due to the gradual awareness and acceptance of mindfulness meditation as a scientific approach in dealing with stress by the mainstream medical community.”

This trend has also been observed by Mr Lama Dawa. He tells us that previously, most people had little knowledge about Buddhism; now, more are using religion as a means of coping with the problems and anxieties, joys and happiness in their lives. He lists three types of people who join them: those without experience with Buddhism, those with preconceived notions of Buddhism from participating in traditional rituals, and those who have learned some incorrect aspects of Buddhism.

Ultimately, Buddhism is about affinity. This is a common theme agreed upon by all our interviewees. “[People’s religion] depends on affinity,” says Mr Lama Dawa, speaking in Chinese. He adds: “It is unnatural to force people [to become Buddhists].”

This is something that Samantha Baey, a 21-year-old undergraduate, feels deeply. “[W]hen I completed my International Baccalaureate, I felt stuck,” she says. “It was like a ‘now what’ feeling as I had no clue what career I hoped to pursue. [This] began opening up questions such as what was my meaning in life and what did I hope to achieve in my time on this planet. […] I found my answer within the teachings of Buddhism. [… It] was a life changing realisation for me.”


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article listed Ms Lim Hui Yee of KYCL Zen Meditation Centre as Ms Lee. We have since corrected the error. 

Additional reporting by Glenn Ong.

Featured Image by Najeer Yusof.

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