Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Wesak

Today is an extremely important day in the lives of Buddhists throughout the world, as it marks the celebration of Wesak. In Malaysia, the Buddhist festival of Wesak is commemorated grandly in many of the major cities in the country, including Ipoh. I'm hoping to attend a celebration later today, but as I already know a bit about the festival, I wanted to share the details regarding today and its significance in Buddhist culture and Malaysian society.

Just as Malaysia is an interesting mix of languages, beliefs, and cultures, so too are the major religions in Malaysia. A variety of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs from several religions often come together or make their way into an existent way of thought to form a colorful amalgam of a faith. The religion of many of the Malaysian Chinese is no different. Most Malaysians of Chinese descent adhere to either Christianity or a way of worship derived from a couple different religions, namely Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and other traditional Chinese sects. The latter's mix of sundry religions can be clearly observed in Chinese temples, shrines, and households; one can notice a Buddha idol with a smile dancing across its face next to a bearded Taoist god garbed in vivid robes in each of these venues. The assortment of Malaysian Chinese festivals attests to the diversity of beliefs in Chinese religion as well; from Chinese New Year to the Mid-Autumn Festival, manifold gods and spirits are worshipped and revered in many different ways. Wesak, the celebration of Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and exit from the material world, is another festival celebrated in a unique but very intriguing way.

A giant reclining Buddha statue at a famous temple in Penang

In the early morning of Wesak, Buddhist devotees congregate at temples and shrines to meditate on the Eight Precepts, which are the eight additional precepts to the five fundamental ones. These extra eight are meant for devotees who wish to follow and practice Buddhism more strictly and simply encourage followers to not take life, steal, or indulge themselves. After meditation, food and small amounts of money are handed out to the poor by devotees, who proceed to take part in the prayer session by reciting important verses or mantras. Finally, and most notably, religious processions commence throughout the country. These processions make use of candles and modern light sources to spiritually ward off darkness and ignorance and bring about light and enlightenment. Large and brightly lit statues of Buddha reclining or smiling happily are the greatest spectacles of the event, which can last for much of the day after prayers. The parades are definitely the centerpiece of Malaysian Wesak celebrations, as both Buddhists and members of other religions look forward to and partake in this part of the ceremony.

A statue of Buddha pulled around the city (Image found here)

I haven't had the chance to see a Wesak celebration yet, but I'm hoping that I will experience one later in the day. I also cannot wait to hear my friends explain their Wesak celebrations and the importance the festival has in their lives, regardless of whether they are Buddhist or not. Wesak is certainly the most important festival to Buddhists in Malaysia, but I am inspired by the amount of interest individuals here have in festivals of different religions and the happiness they get out of experiencing such celebrations. Throughout the year, for each Malaysian festival I have experienced, whether it celebrates the principles of Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, or any other religion, people of other faiths have invariably been tolerant and eager to participate in the festivities. I am sure that celebration of Wesak will be no different.

Anirudh

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