Singapore has a public holiday for each major religion represented here, so on Wednesday we had a day off to celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Budda (that sounds like a lot to honor in one day, but people seem to manage). The festivals surrounding the day are centuries old, but Vesak Day itself is relatively new: it was created by the World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950. It’s a day of temple-going, so Prescott and I made a trip to the largest Buddhist temple complex in Singapore to see how the traditions of the holiday are observed
Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery is a sprawling series of buildings. As is the case with many Buddhist temple complexes, there’s no one single temple; instead, there are many different worship spaces. The first building that you see when you enter is this giant edifice:
I thought it looked a little like a cruise ship crossed with a conference center:
Other buildings look much more traditional, based on the architectural style of Fujian Province in southern China:
The most striking building on the grounds is this rather utilitarian-looking square topped by Burmese-style stupas:
A very helpful docent explained that one of the abbots of the monastery wanted to make sure that all Buddhist traditions were represented in the complex, so he added Buddhist architecture representative of both Burma and Thailand to the usual Chinese fare.
This is a day on which Buddhists make lots of offerings to the Buddha, usually in the form of flowers, candles, and or/joss sticks.
All of the statues of Buddha are surrounded by flowers:
Another tradition of Vesak Day is releasing birds into the air, but that practice has been banned in Singapore for ethical and environmental reasons. You can see people engaging in another practice: bathing the baby Buddha:
Everyone doing this stands in a long line to take a little ladle and pour water over the Buddha’s head. If you can’t read the sign in the background, this ceremony is meant to re-enact the Buddha being bathed by celestial dragons at the time of his birth. It is also meant to represent purification and the washing away of defilements.
Buddhist temple complexes usually have statues of many different Buddhas. In the photo above, for example, you can see the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, in gold in the background. Another enormous hall (with an odd carpet choice) at this complex holds the Medicine Buddha, the Supreme Healer:
Note the people praying in front of the Buddha. There is a great deal of praying on Vesak day — some sitting, some standing, and some done while walking in circles (circumambulating, which is a great word) around a statue of the Buddha. Most prayers are silent, though there is also chanting at various times throughout the day.
Another of the Buddhas at this temple is Avalokiteshvara Buddha, the Buddha of Great Compassion, who is notable for having a thousand eyes and arms:
Seated on a giant lotus flower below is Vairocana Buddha, a celestial Buddha who seems to represent either bliss or emptiness (or perhaps both):
I’m a big fan of the guardians who surround this Buddha:
Of course, because this complex was founded in the Chinese style of Buddhist temples, there are also statues of auspicious animals everywhere. We found this multi-tusked elephant …
… this oddly proportioned tiger …
… this very scary traditional lion (which, to me, always looks somewhat doglike) …
… and these creepy tiny baby Buddha statues (Prescott really liked the koi pond and said you get used to the statues):
Some of the walls had storytelling panels in an unusual form of bas-relief. I have no idea what’s going on in either of these:
Prescott and I both liked the display in these wall tiles:
Nearby was a large wall with a depiction of an unusual sea battle — I like any art that involves warring turtles and clams and crayfish:
Some of the signage at the temple was excellent. This request for quiet made me smile:
And this sign made me worry about the scoliosis epidemic at the complex:
After we finished our monastery visit, Prescott and I went in search of an afternoon snack. We passed up the opportunity to try “rye placenta collagen drink,” and we also chose not to indulge in these violently-colored jello-looking delights:
Instead, we walked to Windowsill Pies, where we had excellent slices of banana cognac and sparkling yuzu (which included pop rocks!) and a pot of earl grey tea.