We Filipinos know more about western countries and, increasingly, about China, Japan and Korea, than about our Southeast Asian neighbors. That’s an irony because we were one of the founders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017.
Many Filipinos are unaware of the extensive networks that we had with our neighbors in the precolonial period, networks used for trading, building political alliances (often through marriages), and religious proselytizing.
I intended to write more about Asian, especially Southeast Asian, societies and cultures not just so we can understand our neighbors but because we might be able to better understand ourselves as well.
Today I’m going to write about Vesak (also spelled Wesak), which is observed as a holiday throughout Asia. It is often translated as “Buddha’s birthday” but actually commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
It’s an important commemoration in our part of the world because most of East and Southeast Asia is predominantly Buddhist, with the exception of Indonesia and the Philippines. But even Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, observes Vesak as a holiday, in part recognizing Buddhism as part of Indonesia’s historical legacies. (Borobudur’s monuments, a World Heritage site, are Buddhist.)
The Philippines has only a small number of Buddhists, mostly ethnic Chinese, but more non-Chinese are looking into Buddhism, more as a philosophy for living, even compatible with Christianity.
There is a bewildering variety in the determination of Vesak Day, with different countries using different calendars. In Japan, the government decided to fix the holiday on the solar Gregorian calendar, on April 8. In Taiwan, officials also decided to simplify matters by fixing the day on May 10, coinciding with Mother’s Day.
The celebrations in the Philippines follow that of the Chinese, falling on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, which this year will be on May 6, Wednesday. I thought I’d write about this early because my next column won’t be out till Vesak Day itself.
But first let me give some information on Buddhism, which helps us to understand the prominence of Vesak. Do note that this is a very simplified presentation.
Buddhas are not God, or gods. The term refers to someone who has achieved enlightenment, or nirvana. Central to Buddhist teachings is the notion of rebirth, which means we live and die and then return because of our karma. Life is hard, full of suffering, yet we keep coming back to more lives because of our delusions and attachments.
Siddharta Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born to nobility in what is Nepal today. His father tried to shelter him from the harsh world outside. Kept within the palace grounds, he was able to marry and have a son. When he did get to venture outside, he was shocked to find the elderly, the sick and the dead, and began to search for ways to overcome all this suffering. There was no lack of religious preachers at that time, including many who taught asceticism—a total withdrawal from the world—as the way to liberation.
Siddharta Gautama used the more extreme ways of deprivation without finding liberation. At the age of 35, he was said to have achieved nirvana while sitting (meditating) under a bodhi tree. He became a religious teacher for the next 49 years, talking about conquering the demons of our mind: greed, anger and hatred. (Sometimes “ignorance” is mentioned rather than “hatred” although the two “demons” are closely related.)
Vesak then is a commemoration not just of Siddharta Gautama Buddha but also of Buddhism, and what people go through in our lives, searching for ways to deal with suffering. Buddhism today has many variations, with no central authority, but followers recognize the need to work toward individual liberation, as well as practicing compassion in dealing with the world.
Buddhism has gained many followers in western countries, and many of its principles are incorporated now into psychology and medicine, notably the use of meditation and mindfulness to deal with depression, drug dependencies, and chronic illnesses. A good explanation of the trends in Buddhism, especially in the context of modern societies, can be found in a recent New York Times interview with philosophy professor Gary Guting. (Google “New York Times What Does Buddhism Require?”)
Washing the Buddha
Let’s get back to the Philippines. The Vesak celebrations here are based on those of the Chinese, who call this day Yu Fo Jie, or Washing the Buddha festival. The ritual involves pouring water over a statue of an infant Buddha. The symbolism here is cleansing oneself of attachments and defilement by greed, hatred and anger. The practice is not just meant to be an individual cleansing but also a way of aspiring to cleansing the nation, and the world, of the war and violence that come out of the three demons.
An aside here: I suspect the popularity of this bathing the Buddha ritual comes about because of the similarity of the infant Buddha image with the Santo Niño.
If you want to watch, or participate in, this ritual, check out a Buddhist temple near you. The Fo Guang Shan group has the biggest number of activities around Vesak, including this cleansing, and you can do the bathing the Buddha ritual on May 6 in its Manila temple (opposite Century Park Hotel), in Bacolod (the Yuan Thong Temple), in Iloilo (Fo Guang Yuan), and in Cebu (Chu Un). (Check out the mabuhaytemple Facebook site for more details, including rituals in malls. You may also call 559-9540.)
Ocean Sky temple on Jose Abad Santos Street in San Juan will also have the ritual on May 18 from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., accompanied by prayers.
I do worry that bathing the Buddha might deteriorate into another one of those practices associated with the Chinese to magically bring in wealth and prosperity. That would devalue the original intention of Vesak, and other religious observances, which is to reflect on our life and its impermanence. As with our Lenten practices, Vesak observances in other countries also involve fasting and abstaining from meat. In Sri Lanka, liquor shops and slaughterhouses are closed for two days, and devotees release thousands of birds, insects and animals from captivity.
Let’s see how Vesak evolves in the Philippines.
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