Vesak Day, also known as Buddha Day, is a sacred day to millions of Buddhists worldwide. It commemorates the day that Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and passed away. It gives us an opportunity for quiet reflection on Buddha’s teachings and the values of compassion, wisdom, and kindness.
After 2 years of muted celebrations due to the pandemic, this year’s May 15 will see practitioners gathering and celebrating it in different ways. If you are trying to plan out your Vesak Day weekend to bask in the spirit of Vesak, check out these 10 things you can do!
1. Plan your calendar for your temple-hopping!
Find an excuse to head out for the long weekend by visiting the many temples that are open. Use our directory to navigate the many online and offline activities. Who knows?
You might find yourself in the middle of a concert or peaceful chanting session.
The three-step, one-bow ceremony is an expression of devotion and serves to lessen mental defilements or build virtue as one goes through the activity. This practice, which symbolically reminds us of the difficult but rewarding journey to enlightenment, has been passed down and has evolved into the 3-Step, 1-Bow we know today.
Are you a paw-rent? This might just be for you! Following the Buddha’s Universal Love for all beings including animals, Thekchen Choling is organising their first animal blessing night event on the eve of Vesak Day! Happening on 14th May from 7.30pm to 10.30pm, there will be many fun-filled and interactive activities for you and your pet to enjoy!
In the spirit of Buddha’s compassion shown to many beings, why not give back by volunteering at a Soup kitchen? There are multiple time slots and different tasks you can choose to volunteer with Willing Hearts.
Visit nature places with your insect repellant to reconnect with nature by taking in the good vibes. Plug into the sound of nature to meditate or try one of the meditation audio guides!
We highly recommend botanic gardens, marina barrage, or a nearby park!
7. Be a Buddy to seniors
We often think that giving means the gift of money. This Vesak, we invite you to rethink the idea of generosity! Volunteer with YouthCorp SG & Healthhub to strengthen the digital literacy of our seniors by empowering them and reducing the waiting time at the polyclinics.
TLDR: Can/should Buddhists celebrate Christmas? Is that the right question to ask? To give the intangible, share metta, and give up the unwholesome — these are some ways we can celebrate this season of giving.
The possible awkwardness in Buddhists celebrating Christmas
“You can meh?” was the start of that imagined awkwardness of a Buddhist celebrating Christmas. The notion of enjoying another religion’s holy day while being firmly grounded in Buddhism made me feel ‘awkward’.
The question arose as I walked with friends to observe the Christmas light up at Orchard road. “Should I be enjoying this?”, “Should I be singing Christmas songs and giving gifts?”, “Is this against what Buddha taught?” were thoughts that ran through my mind as my Christian friend asked me “You can meh?”.
He was concerned for a ‘serious’ Buddhist like me, who had to stroll through the nativity scenes put up in Orchard Road to celebrate Christmas. He thought that celebrating Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, might be ‘against my religion’.
Rather than asking, “okay to celebrate?” we should ask ourselves how we can grow our goodness this season.
Often, we tend to divide our world into a binary one of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘us’ or ‘them’.
Learning the Buddha’s middle path of balance and wisdom helps pull us away from such extremes. We develop a tendency to slow down our reactions and enrich our responses to the world around us.
December, the month of Christmas, offers Buddhists and Christians alike an opportunity to reflect on a topic dear to both traditions: Giving. The late Thai forest teacher Ajahn Chah illustrates this best.
An excerpt from one of the recollections of his teachings:
How can they (monks) celebrate Christmas?
A group of the Western monks decided last year to make a special day of Christmas, with a ceremony of gift-giving and merit-making.
Various other disciples of mine questioned this, saying, “If they’re ordained as Buddhists, how can they celebrate Christmas? Isn’t this a Christian holiday?”
In my Dharma talk, I explained how all people in the world are fundamentally the same. Calling them Europeans, Americans, or Thais just indicates where they were born or the color of their hair, but they all have basically the same kind of minds and bodies; all belong to the same family of people being born, growing old, and dying. When you understand this, differences become unimportant.
Similarly, if Christmas is an occasion where people make a particular effort to do what is good and kind and helpful to others in some way, that’s important and wonderful, no matter what system you use to describe it.
So I told the villagers, ‘Today we’ll call this Chrisbuddhamas. As long as people are practicing properly, they’re practicing Christ-Buddhism, and things are fine.”
I teach this way to enable people to let go of their attachments to various concepts and to see what is happening in a straightforward and natural way.
Anything that inspires us to see what is true and do what is good is proper practice. You may call it anything you like.
Ajahn Chah’s tongue-in-cheek yet compassionate take on Christmas spreads the flavour of Dhamma better than any Christmas log cake.
We are often caught up with technicalities and terms, forgetting the essence behind them. We tend to see differences rather than similarities.
Applying Ajahn Chah’s comments to my experience, I should not have worried whether I was ‘violating’ the Buddha’s teachings by singing songs.
Rather I should have been more concerned whether the words I said were compassionate and kind. Was I ‘giving’ kindness to those that I spoke to? Did I give when the opportunity arose? Or did I hold back when others needed me?
What can we do this Christmas?
Beyond ‘doing’ Christmas stuff like eating, meeting friends and gift exchanges, how can we better embody the festive season this December as Buddhists?
Here are 3 ways.
1. Give thoughtful Gifts
Bring mindfulness into the act of giving. We may give someone a material gift that helps them through tough times or if we wish to ‘rebel’ against materialism, we can give our time and effort to friends.
Giving them a call, taking them out for tea/coffee, going for a hike are great ways to give! We may not have a lot of money to buy gifts, but we can give in many ways.
Recollecting that Jesus praised a poor widow who gave a few cents of her wealth as a greater gift than the rich crowd who gave a large sum. It is not the amount but rather the intention and heart that matters.
2. Sit! Do a loving-kindness (metta) meditation
This gift may not be an obvious choice to give during Christmas but it has strong lasting effects. The act of cultivating goodwill for all sentient beings and wishing them to be well and happy can change your attitude to friends, family, and your social circles.
This meditation technique is excellent for those of us who struggle with anger and jealousy. Sharing a feeling of gratitude and kindness with all beings softens our hearts and uplifts our minds.
This practice gives others a sense of protection that you will never harm them while keeping your mind light and bright (even brighter than the Christmas tree at Vivo City)
3. Reflect on generosity
Beyond giving thoughtful gifts & cultivating metta, we can delve deeper into generosity. The act of giving comes with the spirit of letting go. The eradication of “the attachment that comes from feelings of scarcity and separateness” as Vipassana teacher Philip Moffit describes Dana (Generosity).
For some of us, this might mean letting go of our greed and selfishness. For others, Christmas can be a time to examine biases towards people of other religions.
What matters is that we are giving up mind states that cause us to feel negative. We then open ourselves up to giving and love.
Same same but different?
These 3 ways can help us Buddhists celebrate the Christmas spirit of giving and not get caught up in the consumerism of gifts.
This attitude perhaps resonates with many churches who lament about the materialism that has plagued their favourite holiday. In this way, the holiday can be turned away from the usual feast of consumerism and toward a period of interfaith solidarity.
Following the 3 ways of making merit, giving can be seen as both a beginning to the Buddhist path and as a component of the path in its entirety. May you find the beginning of giving this Christmas!
So rather than asking ‘okay to celebrate?’ we should ask ourselves ‘how can we grow our goodness’ this season.
P.S. In case you are wondering if Buddhists have their ‘season of giving’, there is!
Theravādin countries (e.g. Thailand, Myanmar) celebrate Kathina, a festival where lay people offer basic goods to monks and nuns such as robes, bowls, medicine, and food. Monastics, in turn, give religious teachings to the laypeople. You can read more about this Buddhist season of giving here!
Don’t get caught up by labels (e.g. Christmas) especially if that prevents you from practising the values of generosity.
Find non-material ways to give! Be it metta meditation, being there for someone, or giving up bad habits
Ghost Month Series: This series explores different angles of the 7th Lunar Month, also known as the Ghost Month. Festivals, Cultures, and Religions often mix together in one place, offering space for different interpretations. We, like you, are keen to explore more. Discern what is helpful to your practice and discard whatever is not.
TLDR: Cultivating a harmless and blameless way of life gives you internal confidence in the face of fear. We can also try to practice compassion towards supernatural beings, in place of fear.
If you clicked on this article because you read the title and thought “that’s me!” – there is no shame. I feel like most people have some level of fear around the supernatural – even those who claim to believe in scientific evidence, who say they don’t believe in ghosts. Put anyone in a graveyard in the middle of the night and all rationality goes out the window!
When I was a kid, I was definitely afraid of ghosts.
When I told my mum this, she said something like: “If you never do anything bad, why would they need to come after you?” She always said this with such conviction and fearlessness.
Her statement was a teaching in sīla (morality). It’s the idea that when we take care of our speech and conduct, we offer the gifts of harmlessness and fearlessness to ‘limitless numbers of beings’. In return, we gain a share in this freedom from harm and danger (see AN 8.39).
I once heard a story from my Ajahn, a monk from the Thai forest tradition, who said that one shouldn’t practice in the forest if one’s sīla is not well-kept. He told of an incident where an Ajahn brought a group of monks to stay in the forest for a few days. In the end, all the monks made it out except two who had died during the journey. When asked why this happened, the Ajahn replied that it was because they did not have good sīla.
In case you didn’t know, the Thai forest Ajahns are super hardcore. They live in deep forests with nothing material for protection, putting their lives on the line to do the practice – that’s the depth of their faith in the Buddha and his teachings.
That may have made you go ‘sure anot’, but I resonate with it because I’ve seen the impact of practising sīla in my life. When I was younger, I had a lot of fear around the idea of supernatural beings. But I found that as I grew up and started practising Dhamma, that fear began to reduce and a sense of confidence began to grow. In situations where fear arises (e.g. alone in my apartment at night, in a dark forest on a retreat), I recollect my sīla. Knowing that I have done my best to keep my precepts well and to live a wholesome life helps to soothe that fear.
Since I consistently put in effort not to harm other beings, I have no reason to be harmed or to fear being harmed. It’s reassuring, and not in a ‘wishful thinking’ kind of way – it’s a sense of real confidence in my actions and their results.
Good Vibes Are Important
I believe that cultivating wholesomeness creates wholesome energy. OK, this may sound a bit like hippie flower child stuff but hear me out.
Have you ever been to a monastery or church and the energy there just feels serene and safe? I think it’s because the activities and intentions carried out there are peaceful and wholesome, and this translates into the energy of the place.
In 2019, I stayed at Wat Buddha Dhamma (WBD) in New South Wales for a retreat. This monastery was located deep in the forest of a national park and there were times where I felt fear walking from the meditation hall back to my hut in the dark of the night, with only my torch and the moon for some light. But I realized that this fear was all in my mind; there were probably no beings around that would harm me. That’s because I could feel that the energy of the monastery was light and wholesome, given that all activities there were aimed towards peace.
I think wholesome energy is important because energy attracts and influences, a bit like how we attract or gravitate towards like-minded people. If one constantly aims to cultivate wholesomeness in thought, speech and conduct, this is bound to permeate one’s surroundings. A good example is a friend of mine who has had many (sometimes aggressive) encounters with ghosts throughout their life.
Recently, they noticed that since performing more acts of generosity and wholesomeness, they haven’t been visited by such beings lately.
Perhaps a good landmark example of the importance of “good vibes” can be found in the teachings of the Buddha: In the time of the Buddha, there was a group of monks who were disturbed by certain beings when they tried meditating in a particular forest. When they went to the Buddha and informed him of this, he taught them the Discourse on Loving-Kindness (Metta Sutta) for their protection.
The monks then went back to the forest, practised this instruction, and radiated thoughts of loving-kindness, so much so that the beings were subdued by this and allowed them to meditate in peace.
What are Ghosts Really?
I think movies and stories throughout human history have created a universal perception of ghosts as scary beings that pop up out of nowhere and want to kill you for some reason. But actually, what is a ghost?
The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated every July of the Lunar calendar in Chinese culture. It is believed that during this time, ghosts are allowed to come to earth for a visit… In my mind, the concept that ghosts wait all year to ‘come out’ only to hang around for one month and then obediently ‘go back’ to where they came from is pretty funny. I think ghosts are everywhere all the time since they’re just another type of being in one of the 31 planes of existence according to Buddhist teachings.
They are born into this lower realm because of past unwholesome deeds or the lack of wholesome deeds. They are in a state of constant deprivation, equivalent to beggars or homeless people in the human realm who need help because they don’t have enough to fend for themselves.
Based on the principle of rebirth, these beings could even be people we knew, such as departed relatives and friends, who may come to us looking for help.
If we keep this in mind, then we don’t need to be afraid – what they need from us is compassion and merit.
I have another friend who often has supernatural encounters at home. It’s come to a point where we no longer speak about these beings in a taboo or fearful way; they are like any other being in need of help. Following the Buddha’s advice, my friend makes offerings on behalf of them and shares the merit with them as an act of generosity and compassion.
The Bottom Line
If you took nothing else away from this article, just remember this: continue cultivating wholesome qualities and abandoning unwholesome qualities, and trust in the strength of that for protection.
Mindfully watch the fear in your body.For me, fear arises in the heart space like a sharp, cold sensation. Centring your attention on bodily sensations can help you focus on the reality of the fear rather than the narratives in your mind being fueled by it.
Recite the Metta Sutta and emit thoughts of loving-kindness.