On Vesak Day, Feasting and Offerings in Abundance

BESIDES the Chinese New Year, my family observes no other traditions of note. Since we are not Christians, Christmas is not our thing, other than a towering Christmas tree, all but faux, gracing our living room, coupled with Yuletide decorations of mistletoes and poinsettias by the patio. But as Buddhists, we take Vesak Day very seriously.


Without fail every year for as long as I can remember, this day in our lives is filled with rituals rich with offerings. Vesak Day, the most important Buddhist festival, commemorates the birth, Enlightenment, and death of Buddha, but our family does more than just honor Buddha. We arrive at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Bishan late morning a Sunday before the actual day, gathering with my uncle’s family. Together, my family of six, and my uncle’s of four, burn joss-sticks in honor of Buddha, three joss-sticks per person. 

Once we have paid obeisance to Buddha with the requisite bowing of the head and the deferential back and forth of the hand in prayer position, we make a visit to my paternal grandparents and great-grand parents. At their tablets where their ashes are entombed, my three brothers and I stand side by side in a semi-circle with my mother in the center, parroting what she tells us to say in Mandarin: “Please come and join us for dinner when you can.” Silence, a bow, then we say the next thing: “Please help us in our studies.”

Next, we proceed to a giant brick-walled furnace where the paper offerings my uncle has ordered are burnt. Here, I can’t help thinking how much richer my ancestors must feel each Vesak Day. Do they really miss the material world so much? Surely, when we’re burning wads of bills that, in fact, don’t cost as much as the value they symbolize, I sometimes wonder: Are we teasing our ancestors?

But never mind, the whole spirit of setting alight these paper emblems is one of honoring and remembering them. We send them a house, a car, a liveried chauffeur and housekeeper, a helicopter, a yacht, shoes for him and her imprinted with the LV monograms from heel to toe, boxes of bills (ten in all), even a stack of bills that are half-a-meter long denominated with a seemingly endless number of zeros on each, a trillion dollar per bill, or even more, I’ve never quite counted.

When all this hot and sweaty affair is done, we gather for a feast laid out sumptuously on a long rectangular table our family has reserved: a roasted suckling pig; a slab of crispy roasted pork; two strips of glossy, crisp-and-burnt-in-the-edges char siew; roast duck and chicken, chopped and neatly packed into styrofoam boxes; two dozen rice dumplings; fried bee hoon; Nyonya sticky kueh lapis.

We merely take a nibble here, and bring home everything for the real feast at home. While supping over the chicken, the suckling pig and the spread of goodies, all I ever think of is how delicious and satisfying everything is. But now that I’m writing about this, I’m beginning to wonder: “Are they really supping with us, my ancestors?” The thought is somewhat creepy, but then again, we should be welcoming them, and we have.

I shall tune in a little more carefully at the next Vesak Day.

(567 words)

Chester Chua, Secondary Four
May 2016

For more essays by Chester, visit Chester Writes.

This essay was written in response to the question:
Describe a tradition your family practices and explain why it is meaningful to you.

You might also enjoy:
Vesak Day, a Day of Light and Mindfulness


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