A thrice-blessed day for Buddhists, Wesak Day – commemorating Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing – is traditionally celebrated with much festivity in temples.
But, this year, Buddhists in Malaysia will be celebrating Wesak Day safely in their own homes as required by the movement control order (MCO) which has been in place since March 18.
In the meantime, Buddhists have swiftly adopted modern technological means to virtually participate in activities held at the temples they usually frequent.
Indeed, these are interesting times for Buddhists who have taken to Facebook Live and Zoom Meetings to open up new avenues for conducting prayer services and religious studies.
Similarly, Buddhist monks too have to quickly learn how to help devotees deal with issues brought about by the pandemic, in addition to picking up new technology to offer e-Wesak services,
Malaysia’s Buddhist chief high priest Datuk K. Sri Dhammaratana who is based at the Buddhist Maha Vihara in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, says monks have to swiftly adapt to the new challenges of providing services in such unpredictable times.
“Although monks have been brought up in very traditional ways, now that times have changed, we also have to reach out to our devotees in new ways and learn how to apply modern technology in our day-to-day lives."
Since the MCO started, he says, many of the temple’s followers have also been reaching out to the monks for guidance and advice on various issues, ranging from economic concerns to household matters.
“Some people need help dealing with panic and fear, whether due to the Covid-19 pandemic or as a result of the movement control order.
“So we help by calming their mind, helping them to focus and giving them some guidance towards spiritual happiness.
“For generations, our people, our citizens, are used to being busy all the time. Then this covid-19 outbreak happened unexpectedly, and it is not just affecting a particular people or a particular nation but is now spreading quickly throughout the world and changing the way we live our lives.”
To those who have been finding it difficult to adapt to the new way of doing things, he suggests: “One way is to think of it as an opportunity for joining efforts to do good. So, members of the community can provide reassurance by helping each other in times of need. Doing this will help you overcome your fear.”
Even so, Dhammaratana says, the unique circumstances of this pandemic and the implementation of MCO has presented an opportunity for Buddhists to observe Wesak Day 2020 in a more spiritual way at home.
“Of course, in addition to the spiritual way of observing Wesak, we also have other activities for the people who are used to doing it the traditional way.
“For example, people can still observe eight precepts or five precepts, just like they used to do during Wesak Day. And they can further apply self-cultivation by practising meditation – focus their minds by listening to the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings. And listening to the chanting of the suttas and discourses chanted by the monks. Also, conduct religious discussions.”
At the same time, he says, those who used to participate in activities such as lighting the oil lamps, and writing aspirations for the wishing tree, may continue to make wishes for this auspicious day via online means.
“Even this year, you can do blood donation, although you cannot come to the temple physically. We have discussed with the Blood Bank. So you can register directly with the Blood Bank, and they will give you a letter to enable you to go and donate blood. Once you contact them and say you want to donate blood on Wesak Day, they will issue you with an e-pass which will enable you to travel.
This is an auspicious day for good Buddhists to donate blood with good intentions.
"During this period, our Muslim brothers and sisters are observing Ramadan, so the Blood Bank is facing a shortage of blood donors, therefore we highly encourage people to go to the Blood Bank and donate blood."
He also has a suggestion for those who are used to joining the Wesak Day float processions in the city every year and feel like they are missing out on an important part of their practice.
“At the same time, they can participate in all the online activities organised by the temple and other Buddhist organisations. Then they will be able to spend more time in spiritual practice compared to other years. So there is a good opportunity for self-cultivation this year.
Dhammaratana says that the foundational practice of being a good Buddhist is to observe dana (generosity/charity), sila (morality/virtuous conduct), and bhavana (meditation/mental cultivation).
"So, firstly, in order to practise charity this year, one can help others, whether the poor or the sick. Also, one can sponsor oil lamps or flowers, and find various ways to contribute to the temple. When we contribute, we are also practising generosity.
"Secondly, by observing five or eight precepts, they will be able to discipline themselves, at least on Wesak Day.
"And, thirdly, meditation or mental cultivation means they will be able to spend more time during this year in a more spiritual way.
“As for the Maha Sangha, we will focus all the monks' efforts this year in additional blessings for devotees so that the Covid-19 pandemic will end as soon as possible.
“We pray for longevity, peace and harmony, not only for Malaysia but for the whole world to return to normal life for everybody.”