Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Wesak Celebration In Tokyo

"Life is suffering."



The event poster at the entrance of the Sakura Hall.

Wesak is regarded as the most important Buddhist festivals, celebrated on the full moon in May. It marks the three momentous events in Buddha's life - his birthday, enlightenment and achievement of Nirvana, and his death. The exact date of Wesak however, varies according to the various lunar calendars (Buddhist calendar, Chinese lunar calendar, Western Gregorian calendar, etc.) used in different traditions.

Speaking about the Buddhist calendar, Theravada countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Sri Lanka still uses this calendar in their daily life. It means this calendar is widely used in their school, news, official documents, etc. It is just something like in Japan, where the Heisei calendar is currently used.


Those writings should be Sinhala, and although I cannot read them, I am guessing it's written "Happy Wesak Day". Correct me if I'm wrong. 


Donation box, which a paper made elephant to welcome the guests.

It has been years since I get to experience the Wesak Day celebration back home. Unlike in Malaysia, where Wesak Day is a public holiday, it is not the case in Japan. However, I recently found out that the Japan Theravada Buddhist Association is holding its annual Wesak Day celebration in Shibuya, Tokyo. Curious to see how the Japanese celebrate this auspicious day, I decided to drop by and witness the celebration. I asked Siriphong, a junior of mine to tag along as well.

The celebration was held in the Sakura Hall of Shibuya Cultural Center Owada (渋谷区文化総合センター大和田), just a short ten-minute walk from Shibuya Station. Each devotees was given a Dhamma book written by Rev. Alubomulle Sumanasara Thero, entitled, 'Tell me Buddha, Why do we Learn?' (教えて、お釈迦さま学ぶのは何のため?). The book is written in Japanese, but it should be an interesting read during my free time.

Most of the attendee were in their 50s and 60s; I hardly spotted anyone within our age there, except for a couple of them. Some came with bouquets of flowers, to be offered to the Buddha. I asked Siri if he's bringing flowers there because I thought it's quite awkward for a guy to hold flowers inside the train haha!


Unlike in Malaysia where chrysanthemum is the most popular flower for offerings, I see a wide variety of flowers - 
roses, daisy, dahlia, orchid, stoke, tulips, etc, brought by the devotees.

There were a few ceremony missing, including the 'Bathing the Buddha', where water is poured over the shoulders of the Buddha as a reminder to purify their own minds from greed, hatred, and ignorance. The released of caged birds, symbolising letting go of troubles and wishing that all beings be well and happy are also absent here. I remember I used to do that once when I was a little kid. Back then, I would pester my Mom to go to the pet shop to get a pair of birds, to be released at the temple on Wesak Day.

Another common practice of fruits and gifts offering to the Buddha statues and monks were not done here as well. This practice is to show respect and gratitude to the Buddha and monks for their life and teachings.


The main stage with a Buddha statue, which was brought in from the Royal Thai Embassy in Tokyo.


The seven lotuses which marks the first seven steps taken by baby Buddha upon his birth. Each of his footsteps caused lotus flower to bloom, 
followed by a self-proclamation of "I alone am the World-Honored One!" by the baby Buddha.


Beautiful and colourful gigantic paper lanterns made of paper and wood by the volunteers of the association.


A slide show presentation was shown before the event started at two.


Several Dhamma books distributed for all the devotees. It's my first time to see them written in Japanese!

As we waited for the commencement of the main event, we were presented with a fifteen-minute slide show entitled 'The Clearance of the Heart' (心の隙間). The songs used in the slide show was composed by Imee Ooi, a well-known Malaysian music producer, composer, arranger, vocalist who brings traditional Buddhist chants, mantras and dharanis (typically from the Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan or Mandarin languages) into sung versions with accompanying musical scores.

Then came the main event. It began with a ceremonious entry by the Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism monks into the hall. The entry itself alone was indeed a grand ceremony, as it was accompanied with traditional musical instrument such as the Dharma horns, drums and cymbals. Simultaneously, the devotees formed a ritual gesture of placing their hands - palms together, in the 'prayer' or 'praying hands' gesture which implies recognition of the oneness of all beings and is used variously to express respect, prevent scattering of the mind and to bring self into dynamic balance.


Rev. Alubomulle Sumanasara Thero, giving an opening speech in Sinhala and Japanese.


The Sinhalese monks. This is my first time to see this many monks from Sri Lanka because those I usually see are from Thailand.

The opening ceremony began with a welcoming speech by Rev. Alubomulle Sumanasara Thero. In 1945, Ven. Sumanasara, the master of Gotami Vihara, was born in Sri Lanka, and he became a samanera (novice monk) at the age of 13. In 1965 he was fully ordained as bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) and continued formal monastic training. After teaching Buddhist philosophy at a national university in Sri Lanka, in 1980, he came to Japan to study Japanese Buddhism on the funds of the Sri Lankan Government. He is an internationally renowned Buddhist scholar and meditation master, He is currently involved in Buddhist evangelism and in guiding people into the practice of Vipassana.

Through his sincere and gentle personality, and by his ability to give sermons fluently in Japanese and English, he has gained an excellent reputation among Japanese people. Moreover, Ven. Sumanasara is giving sermons at the Asahi Culture Center, and appeared several times on NHK Educational TV show, "The Age of Spirituality (Kokoro no Jidai)". Ven. Sumanasara preaches Buddha's teachings, which are actual and insightful wisdom to practice today (source).


The representative from the Thai Royal Embassy in Tokyo, with his spouse.


Followed by a speech by himself.


This is the representative from the Embassy of Nepal. No disrespect to him, but I couldn't make out what he was talking because of his thick accent lol!


Finally, the representative from the Embassy of Sri Lanka. This fella was damn semangat when he talk; like participating in a debate competition haha!

The ceremony was then followed by the drinks and flower offering to the Buddha statue by each of the representatives from the several Embassy who attended this celebration, including from Thailand, Nepal and Sri Lanka. As part of the Wesak celebration, a Cambodian classical dance was performed by Hitomi Yamanaka. Graduated from Ochanomizu University Department of Philosophy, Aesthetics and Art History, she has a wide experience in classical dance, performing for various guests including the King of Cambodia. Her brilliant work and contribution to the Cambodian dance had earned her high praises from all quarters.

The ceremony then stopped for a 30-minute break before a sermon by Ven. Sumanasara. It was conducted in Japanese and I was really looking forward to listen to the two-hour talk. However, due to other commitments I had to attend later that evening, I left the hall before the talk began. 


Hitomi Yamanaka (left), with her student performing a classical Cambodian dance.


I just learned that each steps and movement has their own meaning; for example, to represent a flower bud and a blooming flower.


One last photo with the beautifully decorated stage in the background before I leave the hall.

Back home, I usually follow both ways - the Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism customs. There is not much difference between the two to be honest. One of the difference though, is the way of chanting, especially the accent and tone. I'm pretty used to the Thai version, so sometimes I find it hard to switch it into the Sinhalese way, although the words are exactly the same. The reason is because my grandpa is a Sinhalese, which my grandma has Thai influence. So, as their grandchild, I do both to make things fair haha!

So, there you go; my brief experience of attending a Wesak Day celebration in Japan. It was indeed an eye-opening to see how people do it in this part of the world.

1 comment:

Mum said...

Sinhalese and Thai both fall under Theravada Buddhism. Buddhists practising Theravada Buddhism can be either vegetarians or non-vegetarians.

As for Mahayana Buddhists, they are strictly vegetarians.