What can a rocket festival and Vesak Day reveal to us about human nature & Dhamma?

What can a rocket festival and Vesak Day reveal to us about human nature & Dhamma?

TLDR: Vesak Day began as a sacred festival to celebrate Buddha’s attainments and teachings, but as with all conditioned phenomena, has evolved, changed and even diluted in some parts of the world. We trace its origins, evolution and how we can skilfully partake in the upcoming Vesak Day celebrations.

The explosion

9 days into May of 1999, in Yasothon, Thailand, a 120kg homemade rocket launched as part of a rocket competition sharply turned around and crashed into the ground with a deafening explosion, brutally killing 4 and wounding 11. This was a tragic conclusion to the otherwise buoyant three days of carousing and festivities that climax in a rocket-launching competition, locally known as the Bun Bang Fai, or Rocket Festival.

Shocking as the accident must have been, centuries of tradition carry a nearly inexorable momentum, and enthusiasm gingerly but surely picked up the following year. 

If one so fancies, instead of spending the upcoming Vesak Day holidays visiting the temples of Singapore, or more likely catching the latest Netflix series at home, one can still witness this spectacle of jerry-built missile launches with a short budget flight and a long drive.

Pre-Buddhist fertility rites & Vesak

Although this festival owes its roots to pre-Buddhist fertility rites, its proximity to Vesak Day on the lunar calendar has led many in the region of Northeastern Thailand to associate it with the celebration of birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha. 

The association is visibly weak though. A modern participant of the event can expect a rowdy start of all-night performances of Mor Lam Sing, which can be best described as a folksy musical of Laotian roots, leavened with wry and increasingly bawdy humour. 

This is followed the next day by a procession of traditional dancers with accompanying musicians, with decidedly consumerist influences such as electric guitars. 

Everything builds up to the main act of the rocket launching competition, where rockets made by teams sponsored by local companies fire off into the clouds and are judged on apparent height and distance travelled, with extra points for exceptionally ethereal vapour trails. 

All throughout the three days, one can expect to see frequent cross-dressing and great quantities of Lao Whiskey consumption, which is a neutral grain spirit with 40-per cent alcohol content.

The evolution of Vesak

Bun Bang Fai stands out as one of the more colourful and adulterated evolutionary branches of Vesak Day celebrations around the world, and it exemplifies the diversity of commemoration forms even within Southeast Asia. 

Internationally, Vesak Day was formalised as an official celebration in the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka, but as with most official designations, the tradition has a history dating far before that in various Buddhist populations.

Even the etymology of Vesak defies a simple explanation. Vesak comes from the Sanskrit term Vaisakhapaurnami Puja. It is also otherwise known as “Visakkha Puja”, which is an abbreviation from the Pali term “Visakhapunnami Puja”, meaning the worship on the full moon day in the sixth month.

Where it all began…Sri Lanka?

Though records are sparse and the exact origin lost to the sands of time, Visakkha Puja is widely believed to have originated in Sri Lanka

In Thailand, arguably one of the more devoutly Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, it is likely that the practice was transmitted from Sri Lanka in the Sukothai Era in the 1200s

When the Sukothai empire declined and fell under the dominion of the neighbouring Ayutthaya kingdom, Vesak celebration was further elevated into a royal and public event, with three days and three nights of official observance. 

But after the besieging Burmese forces sacked the city of Ayutthaya and brought the kingdom to its knees in 1767, the sacred ceremony was similarly forgotten. 

It was only half a century later, in 1817, at the behest of King Rama II of the present-day Rattanakosin kingdom, in his desire to make supreme merit, that the ceremony was restored.

How it developed in the rest of the region

While Thailand was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to import this tradition, Vesak Day celebrations continued to find purchase in other parts of the region much later too. 

Indonesia celebrated its first Waisak Day, as is locally known, in 1983. Today, it is enshrined as a national public holiday. While it is more actively observed in pockets of the population throughout the archipelago, the centrepiece happens at the Borobudur Temple at Magelang, where thousands of monks chant and meditate, before culminating in the Pindapata.

Closer to home in Malaysia and Singapore, Vesak Day was celebrated mostly by the ethnic Chinese, Thai and Sri Lankan populace. The first recorded mention of its observance was a notice in The Straits Times by jeweller B.P. de Silva, informing readers that his shop would be closed for the celebrations on 8 May 1925.

In Singapore in particular, it was only gazetted as a national holiday in 1956. The exact day of celebration was contested between the Singapore Buddhist Association, and other Buddhist groups, in particular the Buddhist Union, due to a technicality about when the full moon and lunar eclipse fell that year.

The customs of celebrations are quite varied even in Singapore and Malaysia. It ranges from the usual gathering of worshippers to meditate on the precepts, chant and make donations, to the washing of the Buddha statue, to colourful parades in Georgetown and Kuala Lumpur.

The changes over time

As we can see in this quick run-through of the history of Vesak Day, diversity and changes are an undeniable part of nature. 

The celebration of Vesak Day, as a conditioned phenomenon, is subject to constant change. In some eras and geographies, it arose due to the presence of favourable conditions, persisted for some time, and inevitably decayed when the causes disappeared. 

And so it goes, arising, persisting and passing away. Other than a reminder of the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena, it is also an arresting reminder that this current period when Vesak Day And Buddhism are still remembered as precious is not a given in the future. 

It is not a given that the motivated ones among us can access teachings faithful to the source in the future. This reminds us that learning or listening to the Dhamma is an opportunity to be cherished with urgency. 

Back to the Original spirit

Ying Cong (Contributor) and his partner at a Buddhist Event

And thus, given how rare and transient the favourable conditions we presently enjoy are in the long arc of history, I urge my fellow brothers and sisters to look past the rituals surrounding the Vesak Day holiday and connect with its original spirit – by recalling the inspiration and relevance of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinibbana to our daily practice.

As the Buddha exhorted the monks, and one can imagine, all his future followers, “It may be that after I am gone that some of you will think, ‘now we have no teacher.’ But that is not how you should see it. Let the Dharma and the discipline that I have taught be your teacher. All individual things pass away. Strive on, untiringly.”

Let us honour this upcoming Vesak Day with not just material dana (charitable offerings), but also spiritual ones. Apply ourselves generously in all interactions and even in our meditations. Hopefully one day, such beneficial practices find their place in the event programme of Bun Bang Fai, alongside the rocket launches.

Beyond following the many celebrations in Singapore and Malaysia, you can read super interesting stories of the Buddha from Buddhist scholar Sylvia Bay or check out a monk’s heavy research in demystifying the enlightened teacher, the Buddha. If you aren’t the reader type, join our 30-day meditation challenge to kick start your peaceful journey that Buddha set out 2,600 years back.


Wise steps:

  • Observe impermanence and unsatisfactoriness in even the most sacred of rituals, for they are also conditioned phenomenon
  • Look past the myriad forms of Vesak Day celebrations and connect with its original spirit – that of recalling the Dhamma and applying it in our lives tirelessly
  • More than any other public holiday, make a concerted effort to practise generously this coming Vesak Day
#WW: 💀Jan is dead, where is our Real Home anyway?

#WW: 💀Jan is dead, where is our Real Home anyway?

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

2 stories for you today!

January has “passed away”, how has the first month been? January was also a month that marked the passing of Ajahn Chah, a famous Thai Forest Monk. We share a story of his teaching and a simple picture on spring cleaning!

1.Our real home: Ajahn Chah’s encouragement for a dying disciple

2. Spring cleaning our social media

Our Real Home: Encouragements for a dying disciple

Unsplash

What’s going on here

Ajahn Chah, a renowned Thai forest monk, gives encouragement to a lay disciple that was passing away. He beautifully encourages the person to be fearless as life ebbs away. It is worth a listen and read especially for those of us who are with someone facing death.

Why we like it

Ajahn Chah uses the nature of things to skillfully cast out fear for his disciple. He makes you ponder deeper about where our true home is. We can spend this year chasing the external material stuff or this year developing ourselves. We are often paralysed when loved ones are diagnosed with a terminal illness or facing their end. Hence, this provides a balm to the questions we might have about dying.

“The river that must flow down the gradient is like your body. Having been young your body has become old and now it’s meandering towards its death. Don’t go wishing it was otherwise, it’s not something you have the power to remedy. “

Wise Steps

Where is our real home? Are we developing it daily or are we putting energy into things that eventually fall apart? By reflecting deeper, may you find the energy to develop your mind for the rest of the year!

Read it here

Listen to it here

Spring cleaning our social media

neon signage
Unsplash

What’s going on here

@peopleiveloved draws a simple image of housecleaning our lives.

Why we like it

A short simple image to remind us to let go of things that no longer uplift our mind. The acquaintances or influencers whom we follow and feel jealous about.

“Housecleaning. I used to want to know… now I am not so sure.”

Wise Steps

Check your social media feed! Are there people you follow that makes you feel inadequate and demotivated? It might be time to unfollow!

See what she posted here or down below!


3 Life Lessons I Learnt From The Trees Outside My Window

3 Life Lessons I Learnt From The Trees Outside My Window

TLDR: We can learn a lot from nature such as perseverance, non-resistance and patience. There are 3 life lessons I learnt from the trees outside my window.

I moved to my current home somewhere in Punggol, Singapore more than a decade ago. I live on the third floor and when I first moved here, there weren’t many trees along the walking paths. Always neat and efficient, the Singapore government agencies planted rows of baby trees in front of my living room and bedroom windows facing a two-lane road. Where I live used to be a kampong with farms and lots of wild trees, made way for urban development. 

It took about five years (I think) for the baby trees outside my window to grow to the point where I could see the leaves and branches.

Some grew faster than the others. I was glad to get shade from these trees and at the same time, I also enjoyed views of olive-backed sunbirds feeding on nectar and insects on these trees in my living room. These trees made up for the other trees being taken down for redevelopment. When I first moved in, I remember cycling around my new estate discovering pathways amidst wild trees that lead to a quiet river. That river is now the Punggol Waterway park visited by many on weekends.

Back to the trees outside my windows. Days when I don’t feel like doing much, I find it enjoyable to just stare out of my windows to look at these lovely trees. They don’t only provide shade and views of nature. But I also learnt 3 life lessons from the trees outside my window.

1. Trees Provide Calm and Meditation

When I first moved in, I had episodes of anxiety attacks behind me. I was feeling calmer and have learnt to manage anxieties, even though I still had not gotten to the root of those fears then. One day while I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom feeling agitated from numerous thoughts coursing through the mind, I noticed the trees. I began to take notice of the trees and their lush green leaves. 

There is something calming and meditative about the trees. Looking at them, I began to calm my mind and started to meditate.

At that time, I had not learnt any meditation techniques. I was simply meditating to the calm provided by the trees outside my window.

Since then, every time I looked at the trees, they gave me a sense of meditative calm and allowed me to sit quietly. The trees taught me to stay calm in the midst of change. Unlike humans, they remind us to be relaxed. I mean, they have no roof to shelter them from the intense heat and punishing rains like we do.

2. Trees have Presence

I might sound a little crazy to most people, or even lonely since I take so much notice of the trees outside of my window. But I must say, the more I pay attention to them, the more I can feel their presence.

This reminded me of the time I spent in a forest for a meditation retreat. I was staying in a hut in a dense forest. Sitting alone in the hut in silence, I could hear sounds made by animals in the forest, and the trees themselves!

The leaves rustling in the wind to branches falling off onto the ground. I felt I was living in a forest that is fully alive! I saw each tree as a living being. 

Of course, trees are living beings, or else they would not be able to grow and provide nature with food and shelter. But having lived in a city all my life, this is not something we city folks would notice. Being aware of the trees outside my window, I could also feel their awareness. Our wordless awareness is not different from each other. 

Everything is wonderfully alive around us and this is a joyful realisation for me.

3. Trees are Patient

One day, I was drinking my cup of tea while the rain was pouring down. I looked at the poor trees outside my window being pushed around by strong winds and beaten down by the hush rain. But yet they moved according to the forces of the wind and water elements. They did not resist.

I admire the resilience of the trees and their patience with the changes in weather. With the climate changing and affecting the trees, we certainly do not see trees screaming from being burnt down by wildfires.

Unlike humans, they have tons of patience with a can-do attitude.

Of course, we are not trees and we need to help ourselves and others when threatened by fires. But if we did not resist like the trees and go about doing what we need to do in a patient and can-do attitude, wouldn’t we all be calm like them?

It also reminded me of the late Dr. David R. Hawkins, a lay spiritual teacher and well-known psychologist who said, “When you don’t resist, you don’t need that experience anymore.” We all know that painful experiences come from our resistance to them. These experiences are only teaching us to let go. I felt it couldn’t be worded better by Dr. Hawkins and supported by the examples of the wonderful trees outside my window.


Wise Steps:

  • Pay attention to the trees on the street and in the parks without any concepts in your head.
  • Breathe in slowly and take in fresh air provided by nature around you.
  • Be with nature without separating yourself as one thing, and nature as another thing.