Vesak Day: the holy day celebrated by Buddhists around the world, to mark the birth, enlightenment (Nirvana) and death (Parinirvana) of Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha. Better known as Buddha to you and I. But if you are not one of the million Buddhists in Singapore, then you might not know the story behind the most important day in the Buddhist calendar. So with the celebrations just around the corner (29 May), and before you head to Chinatown to join in the cultural fun and festivities, read on for some fascinating facts and history surrounding Vesak Day and the great Buddha himself…
Six things you might not have known about Vesak Day:
1. The most recent survey (2015) showed that 33% of Singaporeans are Buddhists, which makes it the largest followed religion on the Little Red Dot. The majority of Chinese Buddhists in Singapore are Mahayana Buddhists and popular Mahayana temples practise the “three-step, one-bow” ritual on Vesak Day. The ritual, which takes around two hours to complete, involves devotees taking steps on both knees and then bowing at every third step. This trinity of actions is intended to purify all three karmas at one time (Body, Mind and Speech) and the physically and mentally challenging aspects to the ritual serve to remind us that determination can always overcome difficulty. The perseverance in completing the journey strengthens faith on one’s personal road to Enlightenment.
2. Vesak Day is the most significant holy day celebrated by Buddhists, but the date varies around the world depending on lunar calendars. Generally it is celebrated according to the Western Gregorian calendar and usually falls in May, on the 15th day of the fourth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar: in China, Japan and Korea, however, it is celebrated on April 8.
3. Vesak Day hasn’t always been a national public holiday… it was finally awarded its due place on the calendar in 1955 and has been one of 11 public holidays we enjoy as a nation ever since. The Singapore Buddhist Association was the key player in petitioning for this public holiday after the end of World War II.
4. The Theravada Buddhists’ (comprising mostly Singapore’s Burmese and Sri Lankan communities) celebrations for Vesak Day include the ritual of cooking a pot of rice in milk. This is meant to symbolise the last meal that Buddha took before his long fast during his journey to enlightenment.
5. Traditionally, as part of the Vesak Day celebrations, caged birds and animals are released as a symbol of liberation. This year however, The National Parks Board and the Buddhist Fellowship have advised against the practice as tame animals released into the wild are unlikely to survive (and if they do, there is a chance that this practice could upset Singapore’s natural eco-system).
6. You don’t have to be Buddhist to celebrate Vesak Day! Buddhists practice dana, the belief that doing a good deed on Vesak Day will give personal merit multiplied several times over (call it collecting karma, if you like). It’s the perfect time to volunteer for a worthy cause or donate some of your old belongings. Continue the colour by bringing your family to one of Singapore’s popular temples, such as the gorgeous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, to enjoy the celebrations or head to Phor Kark See Temple on Bright Hill Road at sunset for a candlelight procession.
Six things you might not have known about the Buddha:
1. Buddha translates to ‘awakened one’ (or sometimes ‘enlightened one’).
2. Buddha was born a royal prince around 563BC. His mother was Queen Mayadevi (who sadly died seven days after the young prince’s birth) and his father was King Suddhodana. The royal family were leaders of the Shakya clan and ruled the Indian kingdom of Kosala (now modern-day Uttar Pradesh).
3. It is said that when Buddha was born he skipped all those pesky developmental milestones and could walk and talk from birth! During his lifetime Buddha managed to learn 64 languages!
4. To achieve enlightenment, the 29-year-old Prince Siddhartha vowed to sit under a fig tree and meditate until he transcended suffering. He then endured a seven-day mental battle with Mara (the god of desire, who used all his wily tricks to lure Siddhartha away from his meditation) before becoming awakened and forevermore known as the Buddha.
5. Buddha taught and travelled his entire life until his death at the grand old age of 80. All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work hard to gain your own salvation was the last message he gave to his followers.
6. Those not in the know often get The Buddha (Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha) confused with the jolly, fat Laughing Budai (Maitreya). The happy, rotund Budai was a Chinese monk (given name Qieci, which means ‘promise this’) and is often identified as Maitreya (which means future Buddha). Chinese folklore associates Budai with contentment as he was a man who was happy and loving to everybody (and was rather fond of sweets!).
Photography: courtesy of Nathania Tirtaputra
Like this story? Here’s more we think you’ll enjoy:
Guide to Chinatown
Singapore street photography: Chinatown in pictures
Singapore culture: history of Katong Antique House
The best 30 Asian dishes in Singapore