So there was this dude who lived in Nepal/India 2,500 years ago. He was born into a family of great power, wealth, status and respect. Like Britney Spears before she got married, he had it all.
Then year before his 30th birthday, he sneaked out of his palace in search of the Truth to suffering. For 6 years he laboured and tortured his body by not eating, beating himself etc (as was the practise that time that extreme asceticism would lead to the truth). He probably couldn’t take it anymore, drank some milk offered by a cowgirl, sat under a tree and meditated and arrived at Enlightenment.
That is why we have Wesak Day (aka Vesak Day). If I remember correctly, it wasn’t the exact date of the Gautama Buddha’s birth, but it is now celebrated as such, as well as to commemorate Him reaching Enlightenment and His death. You can say that it is also to renew your commitment and vows as a Buddhist.
Last Friday, me and Fireangel went to snoop around the Buddhist Maha Vihara in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. It was established in 1895 as a place of Theravadian worship for Sinhalese from Sri Lanka in Tanah Melayu (now known as Malaysia :P ) and today you get all sorts of people — black yellow white orange brown all congregated in this place to celebrate Wesak.
It was my first Wesak away from home (and in 5 years). Ever since the management of a small town temple I used to go got their heads all swelled up from pride and feelings of self-importance, I sort of became detached. Plus the Young Buddhist Fellowship gang that I used to hang out with everyday dispersed due to personal commitments. It just isn’t fun singing Buddhist hymns at the top of your lungs with strangers who may think your behaviour way out of line. I don’t know, I’m just saying based on what I’ve heard from very reliable sources…
Anyway we got up bright and early (haha) and made our way to Brickfields. We had to park quite a distance away and got squeezed out of RM5 by those illegal ‘parking people’ who really didn’t help much. That’s daylight robbery for you.
There were lots of people walking up and down the road leading to the temple. There were lots of stalls selling flowers, books, vegetarian fare, ice cream and so on. There was even a makeshift booth for a major bank’s credit card services. There were plenty of beggars by the roadside, some healthy and some severely crippled.
We made it to the main gate, also known as the Sanchi Gate. Lots of people. Lots and lots of people. Claustrophobic tendencies setting in. But for someone who generally dislikes people and hates kids, I did pretty well :P
We walked around and started snapping photos.
The Bodhi Tree
The Bodhi Tree, aka Ficus religiosa is so named because Gautama Buddha achieved Enlightenment meditating under this tree species. Of course it isn’t the exact same one you see in the photo above — apparently the two Bodhi trees in the Maha Vihara were saplings from a 2000 year old Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. Devotees like to clasp their hands in prayer walking around the tree, maybe because it’s sacred, or they believe the tree would bless them or something, I don’t know. Hopefully it is just a reminder of the Buddha’s enlightenment for them — damn wrong for a Buddhist to be asking for blessing from a tree.
Offerings of flowers, light and incense
Flowers are offered as a reminder of impermanence. That’s one of the most important things the Buddha taught — that is to let go because sooner or later everything would come to an end. By letting go, you are freeing your mind of earthly burdens and worries and thus could see things more clearly. Of course this is not to be a form of escapism from the daily grind, monetary worries and such. I suppose it has more to do with death, the loss of a loved one, etc. The flowers bloom so beautifully today but they will wilt in a short span of time. This is a reminder that things change and you too will die. Something like that. Kind of gloomy isn’t it? Though you can take solace in this verse of a hymn (Life Never Dies) that I loved a lot:
“There is no death” all nature cries.
The rose will reappear.
Its petal will more perfect be.
After the winter drear.
Light represents wisdom, in this case the Buddha’s wisdom. It is also meant to dispel the darkness of ignorance. Reminder: burning a candle and burning a forest (those paper offering stuff) are different things. Buddhism is not Taoism, at least the one I (sort of) practise anyway.
Incense is another important offering for the Buddha’s altar. I can’t really describe its significance all too well, so I’ll just quote from a couple of sources.
From this site,
When incense is lit, it fragrance fills the air. This is like the spreading of the purifying effect of wholesome conduct. So offering incense, a Buddhist not only express his veneration for the Triple Gem but also reminds himself of the practice of Good Conduct.
… and from ‘Good Questions, Good Answers’ by Venerable Dhammika,
Incense: Aromatic incense purifies the atmosphere as well as the mind. Just as its fragrance travels afar, so do good deeds extend to the benefit of all. Burning incense also embodies the transience and dissolution of phenomena.
You don’t see a single incense in the photo above, do you? I suppose they were all being used inside the main shrine, maybe because it is not financially viable to purchase incense in bulk this way, but I can tell you that this deal is rather dangerous. I was very nearly burnt by some lady who had a whole bunch of joss sticks and didn’t see where she was going.
People and other things
One of the two beggars I saw within the temple compounds (the rest were outside). I was observing him for a while; he was sitting by the steps of the main shrine, looking dejected while muttering to himself and praying a little (I think). I had wanted to take a photo of him looking up the steps to the main shrine, but there was stuff blocking my view and too many people were walking around. Also:
1) Other devotees may give me the evil eye for invading the privacy of the beggar.
2) The beggar may just suddenly stand up and hit me with his maggi in cup used as his alms bowl.
This being a holy place, the latter is more likely to happen than the former.
The lady above was making sure that the flames on your RM10 oil lamps do not go out..
I have no idea who the n00bs above are.
We waited 2 hours for an audience with the Chief High Priest of Malaysia and Singapore Venerable Dr K Sri Dhammananda which in the end turned to naught. It was just to see him, really. I mean, what are you going to say to this guy? He has done more for Buddhism than Keanu Reeves in ‘Little Buddha’; written so many books on the logical and practical aspects of Buddhism (What Buddhists Believe, Why Worry etc) and was instrumental in preaching religious tolerance in Malaysia and beyond.
The first time I saw him was in 1996 when he gave a talk at the temple I used to attend. He is 87 years old now, quite frail in health, when we saw him as he was assisted for lunch danna (offering) we were rather shocked by how ill he looked. That’s old age for you (The First Sight). The two previous times when I saw him, he looked so serene, for reasons I can’t explain I felt peaceful just looking at him. Must be some level 25 meditation aftermath going on.
Remind me to expand the wiki stub on the venerable.
Cute kid at the lotus fountain, used as a wishing well by many people.
Devotees offering robes to a resident Sinhalese monk. One of those costs around RM100 – RM120. When our friend Chen Zhong was ordained and became Bhante Sumana, we offered him two of the robes as danna. That’s what he wore the entire year I guess :P
Why these simplistic robes? Well, Gautama Buddha is said to have worn something like that made of patched pieces of donated cloth ALL HIS LIFE. If members of the Sangha community wear something elaborate and outrageous, that wouldn’t do at all, would it? Though as Buddhism spread throughout the world, the designs and style becomes different due to the climate conditioning of the country. And of course, belonging to different sects would twist the styles a little.
As we leave the temple for lunch, we noticed a bare-footed fake monk asking for donations from one of the stall keepers. Why was he fake? How would we know? Maybe because the fact is that Buddhist monks are not supposed to go around asking people for money, regardless of the different orthodox sects. Traditionally Buddhist monks are only allowed to beg for food. However in Malaysia and most places, Buddhist monks are quite well-taken care of by the level 20 devotees who would cook for them or offer them food twice a day (because they only eat breakfast and lunch, no dinner). So if you see one of those fake monks going around dinner/clubbing places with a begging bowl, please do not contribute to their scam. More importantly, please do not think that this is typical Buddhist monks’ behaviour. They have more integrity than that.
I’ll end this post with another one of my favourite hymns. It was one of the first songs I learnt to play using the guitar (5 basic chords) and never failed to make us sing gaily during our hymns sessions. Times like these I remember Shan Chong. Wesak has never been the same without him.
Wesak dawn has paced in softly
Tip-toed thro’ the moonlit night
Breathed the flowers and incense smoking
Laughed thro’ bars of purple light
Bids you now to waken gently
Lift your troubled eyes of sleep
Tend’ring thoughts of homage holy
cross Samsara’s Ocean deep
To the One who taught the Dhamma
Of the Noble Eightfold Way
To the Buddha, dearest sister
Lift your tender mind today!