VESAK Day is an important day in our family calendar. It isn’t as loud and festive as the Chinese New Year, but it is equally significant to us. It is a day we pay respect to Buddha and ask for blessings. Between the obeisance and blessings, it seems to me that what most of us are after are the blessings. As for myself, I’m glad that my heart honors both equally.
Essentially, the temple visit involves simple rituals. On our first visit, a week before the actual day, we chant endless strings of Amitabhas as we get in line with a lotus-shaped candle cupped in our palms, waiting for our turn to light it from the abbot’s master candle—a much larger version of ours, sitting atop a pedestal. This ritual, also called “passing the light,” is a celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment. The symbolism is that all the worshippers aspire to this light and pass it on.
At the second visit, on the actual day itself, we do something more grueling, something akin to a prayer marathon. The Amitabhas feature again, except this time, we have do the sanbuyibai, the three-steps-and-one-bow ritual, which technically calls for a single bow, but most people, especially the able-bodied ones, go for sanbuyigui, three-steps-and-one-kneel.
The knees do get sore, and they will, because you’re doing something like 600 sets of these over two and a half hours. If I had a choice not to do this, would I take it? No, I would still go for it because when you’re done getting down on your knees and back up again, non-stop, you feel as if a gift of light were shimmering in the heart. For me, that sense of achievement feels like I’ve just completed a marathon, a visceral victory obviously, since I have never ever run one before.
The marathon metaphor is apt because Buddha’s life was a long, arduous journey before he reached Enlightenment. The least we could all do on Vesak Day is to take on this little hardship, this quiet meditation, chanting Buddha’s name, invoking all the goodness he stands for. And that is one of the blessings I feel every Vesak Day. It is that our family is praying together, bowing together, moving forward step by step to reach for some kind of inner peace.
This peace, this stillness, is so hard to come by in our noisy world of perpetual busyness. Even our prayers for blessings, which we scribble on prayer cards, appear noisy. Together with my mother, we would write our wishes in Chinese asking for good health, improved grades in school, academic performance that speaks of “best” or “number one.” For my two elder brothers, theirs echo my “good health” theme, together with ka-ching prayers for prosperity and success in their work.
And that’s why Vesak Day jolts us all back to one thing—the stillness and quiet that gets us to reflect on the meaning of life through Buddha’s own journey towards Enlightenment.
G.J. Tan, Secondary Four
For more essays by G.J., visit G.J. Writes.
This essay was written in response to the question:
Describe a tradition your family practices and explain why it is meaningful to you.