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Buddhists turn to internet for e-Vesak Day during Covid-19 pandemic

Buddhists turn to internet for e-Vesak Day during Covid-19 pandemic
Temple Manager Bryan Long, with 1,000 candles behind him, speaks during a live stream at the Thekchen Choling temple on May 6, 2020.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

From giving offerings, hosting guided meditation sessions, chanting and observing other rituals online, the practice of Buddhism in Singapore, like other faiths, has evolved as the coronavirus pandemic has restricted religious gatherings at places of worship.

Buddhist temples and groups have found their own innovative ways to continue their spiritual practices in the days leading up to Vesak Day today, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha.

Traditionally, Buddhists visit temples on Vesak Day for rituals like chanting, three-step-one-bow and bathing of the Buddha statue, or take part in retreats.

With the circuit breaker extended until June 1, temples are not able to organise their usual Vesak activities.

Devotees who wish to make offerings at Thekchen Choling, for example, can create an online account with the Tibetan Buddhist temple and pay for the items — be it incense for $18, a compassion lamp for $10 or food offering to Buddha and the temple community for $30.

Devotees make these offerings to dedicate merits to themselves or their loved ones.

Mr Vincent Kessler, head of the Vesak Day organising committee at Thekchen Choling (Singapore): "The online offerings portal is part of an IT integration system that we have been working on for almost three years.

"This has enabled us to transition to a full online mode practically overnight much more easily."

He added that the temple found it necessary to go online to reach new and younger audiences.

The portal also came in useful for its devotees when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and they could no longer go to the temple to make offerings in person.

To make vegetarian food available to more people who may not be able to leave their homes during this period, the temple has also filmed its nun cooking vegetarian dishes such as fried nian gao or Indian dhal so that its devotees can follow the videos on the temple's Facebook page to cook the dishes at home.

To lighten up the mood and generate some awareness for Vesak Day during this pandemic period, some Buddhist groups have come up with catchy puns to centre their activities on.

Singapore Buddhist Mission had a #OneMettaApart theme, which is a word play on the country's social distancing measure of keeping 1m apart.

Metta is a word in the Pali language that stands for "loving kindness" or "boundless love" and the mission hopes to spread metta around through its Vesak Day activities.

About 60 of its youth members took part in an online "escape room" session last weekend, when they played games and quizzes to ultimately uncover the code #OneMettaApart, and the registration link for its Vesak Day celebrations.

In a play on the popular work from home trend, Buddhist Fellowship also had a #WesakFromHome activity. People posted pictures and shared their preparations for Vesak Day, which was spelt as Wesak Day until the 1970s, from home.

Some people shared that they have been listening to Buddhist talks online or lighting candles while meditating and chanting at home.

Due to the global pandemic, many iconic Vesak activities have had to be cancelled.

One such event is the annual three-step-one-bow ceremony at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, where thousands of Buddhists would walk and bow for about 2km around the temple, with the procession starting from Vesak Day's eve and continuing till the next morning.

Its cancellation did not stop a group of about 30 Buddhist families from performing the ritual at home together at 8pm yesterday through a Zoom session, complete with the accompanying prayer music. It was streamed live on the Buddhist Youth Network Facebook page.

Separately, a group of young people from the youth network also organised a virtual countdown to Vesak Day yesterday.

At about 11/2 hours to midnight, the young adults gathered via Zoom and livestreamed an e-countdown, after which they thanked front-liners for their role in fighting Covid-19 and prayed for the alleviation of the pandemic.

Ms Ong Siew Woon, 24, an undergraduate: "Since young, my family and I have visited the temple on Vesak Day every year to pray, seek blessings, do the bathing of Buddha ritual and eat vegetarian food. This year we had no plans and just intended to stay at home.

"However, I joined in when I found out about the e-countdown so as to kick-start Vesak on a good note."

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This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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