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Vesak Day, Singapore Overview
Vesak Day is a religious festival celebrated by Buddhists all over the world, falling in April-May every year. The most significant day in the Buddhist calendar, the Buddhists in Singapore and all over the world celebrate this day as the birth, enlightenment, and passing of the Buddha. Also known as Buddha Purnima, this festival enumerates the message of the Buddha and aims to remind devotees of their sacred duties of peace and tolerance.
The Ceylonese community celebrated Vesak in its initial years, with their National Day, making it a two-day festival. It is celebrated mid-month of every fourth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, by the full moon day. Singapore’s Buddhist population observes Vesak Day in many pockets around the city. Witnessing the celebrations is a beautiful way to understand the culture, traditions, and heritage of the Buddhist faith. The inclusive festival is open to people of all religions, so tourists are welcome to participate in the festivities and rituals. Vesak Day is a great opportunity to learn about Buddhist practices, and appreciate the noble messages of universal peace.
Observed on the fifteenth day of the fourth month of the Chinese Lunar calendar, Vesak Day venerates the birth, enlightenment, and passing of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. It is said that these significant events occurred on the same day in different years, making Vesak Day the most important day in the Buddhist calendar; the name ‘Vesak’ derives from the Sanskrit name of said month. The Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950 officially decided to celebrate Vesak Day as the birthday of the Buddha.
Vesak Day Celebrations and Rituals
Hoisting the flag At the crack of dawn, devotees assemble at temples and monasteries in Singapore to hoist the Buddhist flag and honour the teachings of the Buddha. Monks chant the Sutras (Buddhist scriptures) and devotees sing hymns in praise of the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), and the Sangha (followers).
Different sects, different rituals The two major Buddhist sects in Singapore are the Mahayana and Theravada. The Mahayana Buddhist monks participate in a traditional candlelight parade on Vesak Day and practise the ‘Three-Step, One-Bow’ ritual. This involves taking a step each on one knee and bowing at the third step. This is repeated for about two hours and is said to purify all three karmas at the same time – the body, mind, and speech. The ritual symbolizes the arduous journey to Enlightenment, and how grit and determination can help overcome any adversity. Watching the monks undertake this journey is a humbling, spiritual experience.
The Theravada Buddhists celebrate Vesak Day in Singapore by preparing a simple yet delicious rice-milk concoction, to commemorate the last meal that the Buddha took before attaining Nirvana. This is then distributed to others as well. Most Buddhists take a vow to eat only vegetarian meals on this auspicious day.
Charity Love, harmony, and peace are the themes of this day – observers of the faith are expected to spread love and prosperity around. Charity is an important part of the festivities – individuals donate whatever they can to the less fortunate, and fulfil their duties of ‘Daana’ or charity. Patrons usually visit hospitals, orphanages, and shelter homes and contribute. Buddhists believe that any good deed performed on Vesak Day bears fruit multiplied several times over. Visitors are welcome to participate in these festivities too and donate to the poor. Earlier, caged animals and birds were liberated on this day in an act of kindness, but the Singaporean government has warned against this as they may not be able to survive in the wild.
Paying homage to the Buddha The many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Singapore are decked up in finery and incense during Vesak Day, to pay homage to the Buddha and honour His message of peace and love. Flowers, candles, and joss sticks are offered at the shrines to pray for universal peace. The offerings symbolize the fleeting nature of life – as the flowers wilt and candles melt, so does life wither away. The experience is contemplative and meditative. In some temples, a small idol of the Buddha is bathed in water and gilded with gold in remembrance of His divine consecration before Enlightenment.
Highlight of Vesak Day
The main highlight of Vesak Day festival is in its belief of reassurance of living a simple and moral life, revolving around compassion and kindness. The idea of releasing caged animals and liberating them is in itself a reason to celebrate Buddha and his teachings of peace and non-violence. The people of this faith prepare and consume only vegetarian meals as a gesture of compassion towards the voiceless beings of the earth. Even more generous acts such as mass blood donations are what truly embrace the simple, humble and giving teachings of Buddha.
Where to Celebrate Vesak Day in Singapore
Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery Witness the candlelight parade and take part in the unique Three-Step, One-Bow ritual at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, Singapore’s largest Buddhist temple. This parade begins at the outer courtyard of the monastery and makes its way to the inner sanctum. The temple also offers a guided tour of the premises. How to reach: The monastery is located at Bright Hill Road MRT: Take the North-South Line or Circle Line to Bishan MRT Station, and walk to Gate 3 of the monastery. Bus: Buses 52, 162, 162M, and 410 plies to Gate 3 near Bishan Bus Interchange.
Mangala Vihara Temple The serene Bodhi tree at the Mangala Vihara temple is decorated with garlands, candles, and joss sticks to commemorate this sacred day. This tree signifies the very spot where the Buddha attained Nirvana and is special to followers of the faith. Also known as the Shrine of Blessings, this temple houses relics of the Buddha and his devotees that are kept on display during Vesak Day in Singapore. How to reach: The temple is located at Jalan Eunos Road. MRT: Take the East-West Line to Eunos MRT Station and walk to the Mangala Vihara Temple. Bus: Buses 15, 21, 25, 51, 55, 60, 51, 63, 93, 94, 854, and 966 ply to Jalan Eunos Bus Station. The temple is a short walk away.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple One of the most visually pleasing moments of the festival takes place at the famous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, where more than 2,000 lanterns are lit around the premises to light up the night sky. How to reach: This temple is at South Bridge Road in Chinatown. MRT: Take the Downtown Line or North-East Line to Chinatown MRT Station. The temple is a two-minute walk away. Bus: Buses 80 and 145 ply to South Bridge Road Station; the temple is a one-minute walk away.
Amitabha Buddhist Centre Amitabha Buddhist Centre has a twenty-year-old tradition of hosting Vesak Day festivities in Singapore. A ground is transformed into a carnival as fair games, food stalls, thrift stores, and a shoppers’ bazaar are set up during this time. A traditional Tibetan painting almost two storeys high is the star attraction here. How to reach:The fair is held at the ground near Aljunied MRT Station. MRT: Take the East-West Line to Aljunied MRT Station and walk to the fairground. Bus: Buses 100 and 40 take visitors to Aljunied Station. The ground is a short walk away.
Sri Lankaramaya Buddhist Temple The delicious vegetarian offerings served at this Theravada temple are worth a try. Indulge in heartwarming charity and partake in this ritual at the Lankaramaya Temple, and listen to some Jataka tales too! How to reach: The temple is located at St Michael’s Road, Bendemeer. MRT: Take the North-East Line to Boon Keng MRT Station. The temple is a 10-minute walk away. Bus: Buses 13, 26, 23, 31, 65, 107, 125, 133, and 147 take visitors to St Michael’s Place Stop. The temple is a short walk away.
Buddhist Library For a more relaxed and meaningful commemoration of Vesak Day in Singapore, head to the Buddhist Library and listen to saffron-clad monks wax eloquent about the teachings of the Buddha. Blessing sessions are conducted all day, and there is a flower arrangement workshop as well. A gorgeous Buddhist art exhibition is also open to the public. How to reach: The building is located at Lorong 4A in Geylang. MRT: Take the East-West Line to Aljunied MRT Station. The Library is a 5-minute walk away. Bus: Buses 20, 40, 62, 2, 13, 21, 26, 64, 84, 100, 158, 51, 67, 853, 7, 70, and 197 take visitors to the entrance of the Library.