Buddhists observe Vesak Day with hybrid celebrations

SINGAPORE – Buddhists will mark Vesak Day today with virtual celebrations but temples are looking at how they can do more to include seniors left out of events held online.

This year – amid tighter rules to curb Covid-19 infections – activities on the holy day have been scaled down and there will be no fringe activities and processions but Buddhist organisations will go ahead with other rituals such as the Buddha bathing ceremony, several organisations told The Straits Times.

A spokesman for Singapore’s largest Buddhist monastery, Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bright Hill Road, said this year, Vesak Day prayers will be conducted behind closed doors and streamed live on the monastery’s social media platforms.

It is common for senior devotees who were not digitally savvy to call in and seek help navigating the monastery’s booking system or social media platforms.

“Our staff will guide them through the online portal and help them with step-by-step instructions,” said the spokesman.

For devotees who are digitally savvy, the monastery has found ways to make Vesak Day more meaningful through interactive and immersive virtual activities.

A dedicated web portal designed for devotees to perform the symbolic ritual of bathing a Buddha idol and an online pledge of the Shakyamuni Buddha chant are some of the activities on offer.

On Vesak Day, the monastery usually welcomes thousands of devotees for overnight festivities.

In past years, devotees would turn up in the evening at the monastery to perform the “three steps, one bow” ritual – a long procession done in repentance and reverence for Buddha. Each procession can take two to three hours.

Since the pandemic broke out last year, the monastery has shifted from physical celebrations to online activities.

Vesak Day marks the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha.

The Singapore Buddhist Lodge said it will continue to conduct a few rites, capped at 50 devotees at a time. They will follow safe distancing rules, and stick to all safety measures such as temperature screening.

Sanitisers will also be provided and devotees will be required to wear disposable gloves when bathing the Buddha.

To ensure elderly devotees are able to join the ceremonies streamed live on YouTube, the lodge said it has encouraged family members and friends to help seniors access the livestream.

A devotee wearing plastic gloves bathes Prince Siddhartha in water at the area specially set up for devotees at The Singapore Buddhist Lodge on May 25, 2021. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Separately, President Halimah Yacob, in a Facebook post on Tuesday, wished Buddhists a happy and peaceful Vesak Day, which she said is a holy day Buddhists around the world celebrate.

She said: “Although devotees will have muted celebrations this year due to phase two (heightened alert) measures, I am confident that they will continue to find ways to practise love and compassion.

“I also hope Singaporeans will continue to show care and empathy to the vulnerable in our midst during this challenging time.”

Devotees said online activities gave them a chance to mark the festival with others – despite the Covid-19 restrictions in place.

Nanyang Technological University undergraduate Thng Ai Wei, 22, said: “We usually go for an organised chanting event at the Tai Pei Buddhist Centre in Lavender Street, and it usually goes on for about one to four hours.

“Most Buddhist family traditions involve praying at home, so this is something we will continue with this year.

Mr Lawrence Lee, 40, who is the Singapore Buddhist Federation’s (SBF) youth chairman, said the festival was a time for him to reach out to older devotees.

He said: “There are many elderly folk who are not so digitally savvy, who may not own digital gadgets or be able to navigate social media platforms. Our challenge is to find ways to connect with them.”

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Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, the SBF president, said: “While this format of celebrations is a temporary arrangement for Covid-19, it might become a norm in future as the online platform allows us to reach more people.

“Nobody expected the situation to be so unfavourable but we need to adapt. Though we have physical constraints posed by Covid-19, it should not hinder our practices.”

Additional reporting by Sivakami Arunachalam

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