Death: The one thing probably no one talks about on Vesak. Why?

Death: The one thing probably no one talks about on Vesak. Why?

Editor’s note: 

What do people celebrate on Vesak Day — the Buddha’s birth and enlightenment? Little is talked about his death. Does ‘death’ have to be seen as taboo when celebrating his birthday? 

TLDR: Reflecting and contemplating death can place our daily life experiences into perspective. It can give us a greater sense of purpose and makes us better, not bitter. It also prepares me for peace and acceptance when I arrive at my last breath. 

Choi! Choi![1] my friend exclaimed while flailing her hands at me as if shooing a bunch of mosquitoes away. Her response is a common expression we hear when we breach death, a taboo subject. So what if I’ve brought up death in our conversation?

I recall several elderly relatives avoided attending funerals of their kin as they genuinely believe they bring bad luck – and death – closer to us!

Many find death a sensitive topic and prefer to veil it from their perception when possible, hoping that somehow postpones its eventuality. The avoidance of this topic may stoke an undercurrent of anxiety and fear. Some would rather “be positive” and “look on the bright side of life” than dwell on the sombre thought of life-ending. 

“When it comes, it’ll come,” we say. Death seems acceptable now because underlying that thought, a sense of invincibility churns on: that energy, health and life are with us. That death is “something that will surely come, but probably not just yet”. 

The certainty of living on, of course, may not be the case. 

Fragility in the face of pandemics

The Covid-19 pandemic shed light on the fragility of human health. We hear of sickness and death taking place in our vicinity (friends or family), ringing the risk (and fears) of death in our hearts and minds. 

Times like these remind us that ageing, sickness and death are always around the corner. We can train ourselves to be acutely aware of their imminence, despite accompanying unpleasant emotions. 

How can we overcome the anxiety and fear associated with death? According to American psychologist  George Kelly, we can alter our aversion to death by building familiarity with it. It is about intentionally – more importantly, peacefully – exposing ourselves to this uncomfortable subject with daily, time-bound reflections and actions. 

Those who stick with this practice are likened by the Buddha to thoroughbred horses: easily trained and spurred into action with urgency. 

A more fulfilling life

The Buddha has long ‘left us’ after his pari-nibbana; have we ‘left’ his teachings behind? There are several benefits that we can derive from his experience of ‘passing away’:

1.  Acceptance is easier when death comes to us or those close to us.

When I was in Ubon Ratchathani, Northeastern Thailand, for a short stint, I witnessed a rural Thai funeral ritual that baffled me.

A young child was lifted into the coffin, and following tradition retrieved an object from the deceased’s head with their mouth!  

Thais I saw were acquainted with death from a very young age, unflinching in their face-to-face interactions with a dead body. However, I observed that some ethnic Chinese would turn their backs toward the coffin as it is being lifted onto a hearse. Alas, this aversion to death!

Unsurprisingly, Thais I have met in these villages tend to be more spiritually inclined. They have a more positive outlook and go about their days with few complaints.

 When speaking to the elderly womenfolk, they talk about pain in their legs with such a light-hearted demeanour: “It’s part of life, isn’t it?” 

“It’s part of ageing”, they laughed. 

Some of us would have been fraught with annoyance, and scour the land for the best physicians to remove their pain. Like Kisa Gotami who pleaded with the Buddha to remove the suffering that came from her son’s death, she ultimately realised the futility of her quest lay in her misunderstanding of the true nature of the human condition. 

Whatever arises, passes away. 

Thus, by acquainting ourselves with the nature of life and death, we are mentally prepared when it happens to us or those close to us. A calm and collected acknowledgement of the situation settles our hearts, allaying panic, shock and despair. “Indeed, death has arrived”, we will reflect, just as we have been reflecting everyday.

2.  We focus on things that really matter.

Contemplating death helps us focus on the essentials. We are not as easily swept away by our fleeting youth (doing foolish things because we are young), health (sleeping late), or life (thinking that “next year I will…”). 

Indulgences can take the form of an intoxicant. We can lose clarity of what matters in life, by pursuing fast cars, fashion bags, eating late oily suppers, and planning 10 years ahead as if life is certain.

So what did Buddha propose we do?

Spend our youth, energy and time on (1) accumulating wealth, and (2) living in accordance to Dhamma.   

Accumulating wealth

As a means of surviving the mundane world, building wealth can be broken down into several parts including (1) being diligent in our education to acquire necessary skills, (2) further education to apply critical thinking, collaborating with others and other such soft skills, and (3) building our careers to earn a living.  

We can avoid squandering away our wealth by avoiding constant drunkenness, refraining from roaming the streets at unseemly hours that expose us to theft, habitual partying, compulsive gambling, foolish companions and laziness

Living the virtuous life

My spiritual practice revolves around the cultivation of skillful habits of the body, speech and mind. I have found that splurging my youth on chasing illusory sensuality tends to be unfulfilling. I would rather spend my energetic days, building my resolve and strength to overcome challenges and build positive habits.

Considering how precious rebirth as a human is (the probability of being born as a human being is extremely small in Buddhist cosmology), I seize every moment as an opportunity to grow wholesomeness and skillfulness.

3. We don’t take things for granted

If today were my last day, what would I say to my family and friends? Take every opportunity to express gratitude and appreciation. Resolve conflicts. 

Ask for forgiveness as soon as you can. Avoid saying or doing anything to others that we would later regret.  

Having no regrets or remorse is one of the greatest treasures that we can acquire. As the Buddha described, “one without regret need not wish ‘may I have joy, may joy arise in me’. It is natural that joy arises in one without regret”.

A deep quiet sense of joy that is solid and unperturbed by the vicissitudes of life.

At the end of a busy day, I dedicate time to settle my mind and pay my respects to the important figures guiding my life:

Buddhaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to the Buddha.

Dhammaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to the Dhamma.

Sanghaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to the Sangha.

Achariyanaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to my teachers.

Mata-pitunaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to my parents, both in this life and in the past.

As I  bow low to these important figures in our lives, I reflect on the day that I have spent. If I have spent the day usefully, filling it with goodness, I can go to sleep with a deep sense of ease.  

Vesak, Death, and beyond

Every year when we celebrate our birthday, an anniversary or an important event like Wesak Day, we have the opportunity to reflect on his passing.

We can ponder “As death approaches us day by day, why do we not water the seeds of spiritual growth in our hearts?” This phrase helps to stir urgency for me to focus on what is crucial and discard what is not.

By bringing death closer to us, may we all live a more purposeful and meaningful life.

[1] A Cantonese expression to ward off bad fortune, a coarser resemblance of the expression “touch wood”.


Wise Steps:

  • Find a mantra to anchor you in the present (it need not be death related but something that clears procrastination.)
  • When I witness the death/funeral of strangers, I can remind myself of the spiritual urgency of living a life with purpose.
The ultimate guide to Vesak Day 2022 in Singapore: 9 things to do this long weekend!

The ultimate guide to Vesak Day 2022 in Singapore: 9 things to do this long weekend!

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.

It has evolved over time and brings different meanings to different people!

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!

Torii Gate, Japan

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.

Your directory is right here!

2. Three steps, One bow

Vesak 3-steps-1-bow Practice 31 May 2015 – Ramblings of a Monk
Photo Credit: KMSPKS

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.

Book your free tickets here

3. Check out some Food carnivals!

brown bread on black table
Unsplash

While tuning in to some peaceful Buddhist teaching (food for the heart), why not check out food for the body?

Check out food fairs organised by Buddhist Fellowship near newton or spicy tteokbokki and takoyaki at KMSPKS’s Vesak Carnival

4. Help fill the stomachs of the needy

person slicing on the wooden board
Unsplash

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. 

Hone your chopping and cooking skills here!

5. Find a quiet space to experience peace

Marina Barrage - Visit Singapore Official Site
Credits: Visit Singapore Website

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!

6. Be a Buddy to seniors

Supporting seniors in going digital for life - Infocomm Media Development  Authority
Credit: IMDA

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. 

Giving starts here!

7. Go vegetarian!

vegetable salad
Green Yum! Cred: Unsplash

In the spirit of non-harming, why not go vegetarian? The possibilities are endless with vegetarian food. Check out this sleek guide to vegetarian food places in Singapore!

FYI! Circuit Road Hawker Centre has one of the highest concentrations of vegetarian hawkers.

8. Watch a movie related to Buddhism

Buddha Netflix show - OnNetflix.ca
Netflix: Buddha (2013)

Netflix lover? Watch this live-action TV series about the Buddha. I was personally hooked on it!

Alternatively, watch a short < 30 mins documentary about the late famous zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. Be inspired on Vesak!

9. Kick start your meditation habit

woman sitting on cliff overlooking mountains during daytime
Unsplash

Always trying to start the ‘meditation habit’ that every productive/mental health guru has been talking about? 

Why not join HOL’s free meditation challenge for 30 days? Who knows you might just start a new meditation habit that last!

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

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