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
3 Reasons Why You Are Unproductive And How To Overcome It

3 Reasons Why You Are Unproductive And How To Overcome It

“Just one last one.”   

I transform into the worst liar whenever I fall into the rabbit hole of YouTube.   

If you are like me, a 30-minute video break at night usually stretches to 3-4 hours. That’s enough time to make a round trip between Singapore to Bangkok! Despite your logical mind telling you to stop, the last video usually ends when you fell asleep or when you realised it’s 3 hours before sunrise. You wake up looking like Jia Jia or Kai Kai, and feeling like one too. You notice the quality of your work is compromised cause of the late night sleep. Regretting, you promise yourself to not do it again.   
 
 
A brand-new day! You are determined to change your life for good, start watching videos on how to be productive… and you see the recommended videos on the sidebar… well, we know how this story ends. “Just one last one” turn into a pack of lies we tell ourselves.  
 
 
The binge-watching cycle repeats itself, and we wake up feeling guilty and hating ourselves even more.    

In another post, I write about how we can be unproductive without feeling guilty. But here, let us unpack the reasons why we are unproductive in order to end the brainless nonsense once and for all.  

3 reasons why you are unproductive:  

1. Your brain is running low on energy

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Like our smartphone, our smart brain runs low on ‘battery’ after a long day of usage. After a long and exhausting day, the control centre of our brain (a.k.a. the prefrontal cortex) is worn out by decision fatigue. This is the part that makes wise executive decisions for us and keeps impulses that don’t serve us at bay. But because this poor CEO (of our brain) is burnt out, the monkey mind takes over and all hell breaks loose.  

Just one video to wrap the day? Good Luck! If you have ever carried a plastic bag during your hike up the Bukit Timah hill, you would know what I mean. “Oh look another goodie!” This is how the monkey mind swings from video to video, grabbing onto anything that gratifies it instantly. It tricks us to think that the next shiny object is going to make us feel good. After countless times chasing after monkeys (yes, I think there is more than one residing in my brain), I have learnt that I cannot leave my sluggish evening-brain to its own devices.   

The following help me to outsmart the mischievous mind, which you can try too:   

(a) Stay clear of monkey food during monkey hours. 

If I can’t trust my tired brain to stop, let me not begin. Planning ahead, creating signposts and boundaries are helpful. I know my willpower is usually depleted by 9pm. So that is the time to avoid the social media mouse trap. To do so, I put my phone and computer away. If this is not possible, consider purchasing rescue time to lock specific apps after a certain timing and track your time. Beyond that, hitting the unsubscribe and delete button for Netflix is the best decision I’ve made in 2019.

(b) Meditate to gain back executive control.

If I do have to get work done by surfing the net during monkey hours, meditation helps to refill the energy (a.k.a. blood flow) to the prefrontal cortex. This helps to tame the monkey mind so I can get work done. I recommend this 30-day course available Insight Timer: Unlock your wise and mindful brain.

2. You wait to be motivated rather than create it

On good days, we can feel the fire in our bellies, ready to conquer the day and get things done. On bad days, especially rainy ones, we just want to laze around. We may wait to feel motivated to be productive. But how often do we wake up feeling great and not feel tempted to hit the snooze button?   In the book, the motivation myth, Jeff Haden highlighted that motivation is not the spark behind our actions. Rather, motivation is the result of our actions. This wasn’t a new concept to the Buddha. He even gave a full discourse about the grounds of laziness and the arousal of energy. It seems that a lazy person would always be finding excuses to avoid doing what is beneficial to himself. The other person with the same circumstances would carry a different mindset. He makes effort to attain what is yet attained to arouse energy.   

(a) Just do it.  

Nike is right. Regardless of our moods and the weather, if we have set a task for ourselves to complete, just do it. I find that the very act of starting something creates the momentum for me to continue — a beneficial momentum that is the opposite of the monkey business mentioned above.

(b) Create conditions to feel good

When we feel good, we feel much ready to meet a goal. And when we meet our goals, we feel good. And boom! An infinity loop. The opposite is true. So, create an entertainment-free routine that makes you feel good. This can include meditation, exercise, reflecting on what to be grateful for, having a nice meal, listening to joyful music; activities that naturally boost the dopamine levels of our brain.   

3. You set goals instead of systems  

Goals are something that motivate us to get our butts moving aren’t they? Not entirely. The problem with goals is that they are temporary. If we don’t change our faulty habits, once goals are achieved, with the lack of new ones, our life will revert back to a sluggish one. For example, once I finish writing this article, what do I do? Without a ’system’ in place to build my habits, I might fall into the late-night-video-binging predicament again.   

Also, if setting goals is all it takes for us to achieve it, we would have been productive isn’t it? In the book, Atomic habits, James Clear put forth a contrarian approach— “We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results.”  Both winners and losers have the same goal. What leads them to different outcomes is the system they implement and the actions they take.  

Here’s what I do: 

(a) Change tactic and have fun 

Einstein is commonly attributed for the wise quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Experiment with a different input, monitor the results, refine, and optimise. Failing over and over can be frustrating. Adopting the sense of curiosity in the process has made this self-improvement journey very enjoyable.  

(b) Analyse every habit  

A single habit such as sitting on the sofa after a shower can trigger the next habit of surfing the web. Listing down the habits gave me visibility of the full chain of events (cause and effect) in order to break it. I highly recommend you to read the book Atomic habits, block off a weekend to complete the in-book exercises.   

Above all, staying truthful to oneself to follow all the beneficial actions might not be easy, especially when the mental energy is drained. Hence, to top it up, setting an accountability system has been very effective for me. Since last December, I have been committing to meditating at least 45 minutes a day or else I have to pay by doing 50 push ups for each day I don’t. So far, I have only paid a handful of penalties.  And since then, I’ve been meditating daily and more than before! So, if starting seems like an uphill climb, find a buddy to keep you going.   

Conclusion:

Being productive and effective is a lifelong journey. Of course, the list of reasons in this article isn’t exhaustive. Everyone is different and may you find what works for you.   

Fun quiz: How many animals can you spot in this write up?