On Vesak Day, a Grandmother’s Devotion to Prayer and Family

FAMILY traditions are inescapable. Try as hard as I can to find some meaning behind them, I’d invariably end up coming face to face with the word, “boring.” There are two simple reasons: first, “tradition” has this stodgy, old-fashion ring to it; and second, I don’t feel emotionally connected to them. I can’t quite grasp the fuss and fanfare behind family traditions like the Chinese New Year, for instance. Even birthdays can get tedious with their silly rituals: the requisite cake and candles, the mortifying birthday song, and that whole edict that you have to celebrate it on the actual day.

There’s nothing good to say about family traditions, but of course, I’m a teen. I may be blasé about them, but I’m not going to be one to bash them either, especially when it comes to Vesak Day. I’m not the most religious person on earth, however rebellious a teen I can be, but I know my boundaries.

As a Buddhist, or more accurately a non-practicing Buddhist, Vesak Day is a day of obligation. I visit the temple with my parents, with bags of offerings in tow: fruits and packet beverages, incense coils, huat kueh and niangao—the first, a fluffed up steamed cake, and the other, a sticky clump of caramel steamed in a round banana leaf mold. So here I am, helping to schlep these offerings—half of them for Buddha, the other half for our long-departed ancestors—for the past two to three years, after a year or two of no-shows.

Obligation indeed! Such a good daughter!

But hang on, why am I so jaded? Or am I really? Maybe I’m not because there are those moments, in the quiet of my heart, when I stand before the great golden Buddha with three joss sticks in my hands, that I feel his piercing gaze. Then I wonder: “Is he for real?” And then I’d turn the question into a one-way dialogue, silent and unspoken, addressed to the Enlightened One: “Are you for real?”

Of course, the poor Unbelieving Me would never get any answers. The only one that I get is my own logical reasoning: “Why am I even asking the question if he may not be real?” As it turns out, Vesak Day is far from boring. It gets me thinking about the super big, nebulous, and profound stuff. That’s not a bad thing, for sure. At least, it shows I’ve grown.

Before, when I was still 10, the year I was Primary Four and embarrassingly pudgy, Vesak Day was nothing but a food fest and a candy carnival. My Por Por would buy me every single thing I fancied: soybean curd with honey, vegetarian shumai, fried spring rolls, Chinese-styled samosas, rice dumplings, yam paste with gingko nuts.

These days, she visits the temple on her own, in a black prayer garb with her sutra beads. She’s there all day, chanting, praying, not just for our ancestors, but all of us at home—my father, my mother, my elder sister and I, and my cousins.

… chanting, praying, not just for our ancestors, but all of us at home

So while I may not be a fervent Buddhist on this day dedicated to Buddha, it is a day that draws me closer to my dear Por Por. The thought of her, praying for one and all in the family, somehow makes me feel guilty. Do I even pray for her? Why is it that she thinks about us more than we think about her? Does this mean that she loves us more than we love her?

So, in a sense, Vesak Day may be about Buddha and his Enlightenment, but for me, it feels like a day dedicated to Por Por. She gives and gives and gives, while all I’m concerned about is, Why am I forced to go the temple when my sister doesn’t have to?

Will I ever learn?

(648 words)


Lim Zhi Yi, Secondary Three
May 2016

For more essays by Zhi Yi, visit Zhi Yi 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
On Vesak Day, Feasting and Offerings in Abundance

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