Thursday, June 18, 2015

Vesak Celebration In Singapore

"Peace comes from within.  
Do not seek it without."

Gautama Buddha


Beautiful flowers with messages for offerings.

Vesak is regarded as the most significant day of the year in the Buddhist calendar and is celebrated by Buddhist all over the world. The day commemorates the three momentous events in Buddha's life - his birth, enlightenment and achievement of Nirvana, and his death. 

The exact date of Vesak however, varies according to the various lunar calendars (Buddhist calendar, Chinese lunar calendar, Western Gregorian calendar, etc.) used in different traditions. Theravada countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Sri Lanka still uses the Buddhist calendar in their daily life. It means this calendar is widely used in their school, news, official documents, etc. In Singapore, Vesak Day usually falls in the month of May, on the 15th day of the fourth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar.


Large tent just at the exit of MRT Aljunied station for the Vesak Day 2015 celebration.


Amitabha Buddhist Centre (ABC) is a non-profit Buddhist organisation, officially established on 1 January 1989. It is affiliated to the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) that follows the Tibetan Buddhist lineage of Lama Tsong Khapa.


A Buddha statue surrounded with flowers and oil lamps for offering.


The lighting of a candle or an oil lamp represents the light of wisdom illuminating the darkness of ignorance.


Another way to pay homage to the Buddha is by  presenting symbolic tokens to the 21 Taras.


Lotus candles are also part of the offerings.


Another common ritual is the bathing to the infant Buddha statue. This ritual highlights a universal message that "it's easy to wash away physical dirt but it's much more difficult to cleanse one's 'inner dirt' of greed, anger and ignorance."


Devotees receiving auspicious blessings from Khen Rinpoche.

Vesak Day is a day of immense joy, peace and reflection. On this day, devout Buddhists and followers alike congregate at their various temples before dawn for the ceremonial, where the Buddhist flag will be hoisted, and hymns sung in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, The Dharma (his teachings), and The Sangha (his disciples). Devotees often bring simple offerings of flowers, lotus-shaped candles and joss-sticks to lay at the feet of their spiritual teacher. These symbolic offerings remind followers that life too, is subject to decay and destruction when the offering burns out or wilts away.  

Buddhists believe that performing good deeds on Vesak Day will multiply merit many times over. Buddhist youth sometimes organise mass blood donations at hospitals, while general rites and rituals practiced on Vesak Day include chanting of mantras; releasing of caged birds and animals; having vegetarian meals; and "bathing" a Buddha statue, a reference to the legend of the child Buddha being showered with the waters of nine dragons soon after birth. These acts of generosity observed by the Buddhist temples are also known as Dana. 


  The magnificent 50 by 30 foot thangka (a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, or silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala) of Amitabha Buddha Pure Land, which was displayed for all to see. It is said that anyone who merely sees the image of Amitabha accumulates vast merits and collects positive imprints. The merit that one accumulates by offering to and circumambulating a holy object is considerably greater.


  This bathing ritual is done in hope that the devotees will eliminate all evil thoughts, cultivate good deeds and help save all living beings.


  A Kuan Yin statue in a beautiful decorated pond.


  13-centimetre tall miniature stupa that contains microfilm rolls bearing thousands of the Four Dharmakaya Relic Mantras.


This reminds me of the movie "The Little Buddha". Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum are written in Sanskrit on the outside of these prayer wheel.


Mantras written on the Buddhist flags.

The Amitabha Buddhist Centre held its Vesak Day celebration recently at the Aljunied MRT open ground. I took this once-a-year opportunity to experience the uniquely extensive and vibrant festival in this part of the world. There were various events organised at this celebration, which included paying homage to the Buddha with an array of offerings, dedicating pujas (merits) towards one's own wishes and aspirations, circumambulating the thangka with light offerings, receiving Auspicious blessings, hearing the Dharma talk by the Buddhist monk, taking precepts, etc.

Most statues of the Lord Buddha are illuminated on Vesak Day, and the celebrations conclude with a candlelight procession through the streets. The Buddhist community in Singapore is made up of various sectors, each of them offering variant ways of celebrating the occasion - The Mahayana or "Greater Way" constitutes mainly Chinese Singaporeans and form the majority of Buddhists here, while the Mahayana strain of Buddhism arrived on these shores in 1884 through individual missionaries from China's southern province. 


Devotees holding lotus-lamp before they begin the circumambulation procession after the Dharma talk.


Led by the chief monk, they night procession of circumambulation with light offerings is believe to give everyone inconceivable meris.


  The rest of the devotees joins the night procession circumambulating the Amitabha Buddha as well as all the holy objects three times.

The central pillar of Mahayana Buddhism is that Nirvana can be obtained not just through self-perseverance but also through the help of bodhisattvas or "enlightened ones". One such bodhisattva highly regarded in Singapore is Guanyin, the "Goddess of Mercy". Mahayana Buddhist temples in Singapore like the Phor Kark See Temple on Bright Hill Road, practise the "three-step, one-bow" ritual on Vesak Day, where devotees take steps on both knees, bowing at every third step as they pray for world peace, personal blessings and repentance. The exhausting two-hour procession actually begins 24 hours before, when many would reserve a place in the procession, sometimes with only a small tissue packet.

Meanwhile another main variant of Buddhism is Theravada Buddhism, with a focus on seeking one's own path to salvation. Mainly practised by Singapore's Sri Lankan and Burmese communities, the Burmese Buddhist Temple at Geylang and the Sri Lankaramaya Temple at St Michael's Road practise a ritual of cooking a pot of rice in milk on Vesak Day, reminiscent of Buddha's last meal before his long fast toward enlightenment.

There you go, a short recollection of my Vesak Day celebration experience in Singapore. Thank you for reading.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fantastic Hospitality At Torasan's Minshuku Kanda

"In the cherry blossom's shade 
there's no such thing as a stranger."
Kobayashi Issa


Kanda Guesthouse.

In the past 4 years or so, I had participated actively as the tourism ambassador for Chiba prefecture. They gave us this title called the Chiba Kun Ambassador, and each year, there are about 20 foreign students and professionals who are selected to be the ambassador. Basically, Chiba Kun is a red mystical creature (although it is always mistaken for a dog) that is the mascot for the prefecture.

Each year, there are 4 prefecture-sponsored tours planned for us, which include cultural workshops and visits to famous spots in Chiba. We will then use these experiences to promote Chiba prefecture's attractions, such as popular tourist spots, cuisine, daily life, etc. in our own words via blogs and other social media medium like Facebook and Twitter.


The room which I shared with Zach, another ambassador from Wisconsin, US.

The best thing about this tours is that, one of them will be an overnight tour, which to me is the highlight of the whole year. This overnight tour was first introduced in 2013 and the second time was in November 2014, during the third tour of the year. Here, the ambassadors got the chance to stay in a traditional Japanese guesthouse and experience the local way of living as well as the sumptuous food.

Our stay this time was at Minshuku Kanda. "Minshuku literally means guesthouse. This guesthouse is owned by Mr Ezawa, but is more well known among the locals as Torasan. One amazing thing about our stay is that Torasan and his wife personally prepared the dinner and the breakfast for us. Needless to say, the home-cooked meals were just simply awesome!


Torasan, happily showing us his catch of the day.


The giant plate of sashimi that made everyone go woooww!!


Full course dinner. Nomnomnom.


Satisfied faces after our fantastic dinner.

When we were back from Aqua Place, a spa in the Hotel Mikazuki (which was by the way, has several different indoor and outdoor baths, where visitors can enjoy a spectacular view of the ocean and sunset), we noticed Torasan was busy grilling the seafood for our dinner. Once everything was ready, we started the feast together! The thing that got everyone's attention the most was definitely the enormous plate of sashimi, which was complete with red seabream's (tai) head and tail. The fresh sashimi was just orgasmic! The rest in the menu was great as well, as they were freshly caught and delivered from the nearby port earlier in the morning.

After our dinner, Torasan prepared a surprise for us. We helped him to arrange hundreds of cut bamboos along the beach and lighted them up to form several beautiful shapes, including a heart shape and also the head that resembles Chiba Kun! Added with the refreshing sea breeze and soothing sound of the flapping waves, it was a great way to end our long day in Katsuura.


The sky was so clear, that we managed to catch beautiful stars at the sky.


Does this look like the head of Chiba Kun?

But wait... 

Just when we thought it was time to call it a day, Torasan has other ideas. He had another story-telling session with us hahaha! During the pillow-talk session (but without any pillows lol!), he shared to us that how he used to work as a train operator and had experienced operating all the JR lines in Chiba. That is something quite cool, isn't it? He also didn't miss out on taking a pick on today's operators who drive the bullet train, because everything is automated and even a monkey can drive a shinkansen, according to Torasan hahaha! 


Story telling session for all of us hahaha! (photo credit: Tomohiro Kurihara)


Souvenir exchanged and took a group photo with Torasan.


This is from the ambassadors for Torasan.

At the end of the session, we handed him a card with hand-written messages by all of us. And in return, he gave us a token of appreciation as well, in which I was the representative to accept the card, which was written with the words, 

「渚の竹灯り 愛と平和とおもいやり とらさんより」
"At the bamboo lights by the water edge; Love and peace and compassion; From Torasan"


Breakfast the next morning. So healthy yet delicious!


One last group shot before we bid farewell (photo credit: Ayako Uchiyama).

The next day, we were served with another meal of sumptuous breakfast. Although they were just simple food, the personal touch on each and every dishes made us felt the warmth of the host - Torasan, his wife and the staffs. Before we left, we had a group photo with Torasan as well as the tour guides who brought us to the Katsuura port, morning market and also the nearby shrine.

Next time if you are visiting Katsuura, you should know where to spend your night at.

P/S: Torasan blogged about our trip to his guesthouse here.

Minshuku Kanda (民宿神田)
Owner: Mr Ezawa (江沢 修), nickname: Torasan (通称 : とらさん)
Address: 818-19 Tona, Katsuura City, Chiba Prefecture, 299-5225 Japan (千葉県勝浦市墨名818-19)
Check-in Time: 15:00   Check-out Time: 10:00

Number of Rooms: 8 rooms (for 30 people)
Room Rates: 8,000 yen per night / person (including 2 meals)
Room Amenities: TV, cooler, heater, wired LAN cable
Other Amenities: Hot bath pool, barbeque garden, 1-minute walk to the beach, morning market

Website: (Japanese only)
Tel: 04-7073-1554
Parking: Available
Access: Train: From JR Katsuura station (JR勝浦駅), walk for approximately 5 minutes.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Celebrating The Extraordinary - 28th SEA Games 2015

"It's never meant to be easy 
when you're trying to be more than ordinary."
Celebrating the Extraordinary


The main venue for the SEA Games 2015 - the brand new Singapore National Stadium.

My recent vivid memories about the SEA Games was the grandstand finish of 111 gold medals by Team Malaysia at the 21st edition in 2001, when Malaysia last played host, and also defending the gold medal in men's football event at Jakarta in 2011. Being a sports avid, I never had a chance to watch the event live. It was all seen though the TV screen down the years.

But this year, in 2015, I finally broke that duck by watching it live from the Singapore National Stadium. What made it even more special is that I saw two golden returns from our national hero - Nauraj Singh Randhawa (high jump) and Muhammad Irfan Shamsuddin (discus throw). Both of them, favourites for their respective events, did not disappoint the small contingent of Malaysian supporters and their coaches.

What's more special is to watch them competing together with their family members, and we joined together in giving motivational cheers to these boys. Here are some shots I managed to capture at my first SEA Games experience.


This world-class stadium hosts a few sports such as athletics, soccer, as well as the opening and closing ceremony.


Billboard of the games mascot in different kinds of sports. There are 36 sports contested at the 28th SEA Games this time.


The 55,000 capacity National Stadium has a retractable seating capability making it the only stadium in the world custom-designed to host a multitude of events such as rugby, cricket, football, athletics, concerts, family entertainment shows, national and community events. 


The 19.2 meters high cauldron, which was lit by Singapore's favourite football son, Fandi Ahmad and his son, Irfan Fandi. This elegant sculptural showpiece incorporates the thematic essence of the SEA Games and its primary design motif of the show - The DNA


Flags of the 11 participating nations at the SEA Games.


Happening at the sidelines of the venues, the SEA Games Carnival is perfect to keep the visitors and the family entertained.


Another section of the sports village at Sports Hub.


Here you are, the mascot for the 28th SEA Games - Nila. The name finds its roots from Sang Nila Utama, the founder of Singapore.


Looks familiar? Getting free Milo drinks from the iconic green van.


Meanwhile, back in the stadium, the Malaysian coach giving some tips to the national discus throw athletic.


Congratulatory hug from the coach after the gold medal was confirmed.


Irfan led from the start and did not disappoint with a gold in his event.


Celebrating his victory with the supporters.


At another corner, the parents of our national high jumper, Nauraj was there to cheer him up too.


Clearing 2.13 meters at his second attempt.


The medals and mascot for the podium finishers.


Khairy was there to present the medals to the winners.


Tears of joy from a Mom. Irfan was surprised to see his Mom there, who kept her presence at the stadium from her son.


Both Malaysian athletes in the high jump event finished on the podium.


A great moment to hear the Negaraku played at the Singapore National Stadium.


And again, our Sports Minister was there to present the medals to the winners.


Khairy even took a selfie with our golden boys hahaha!


Ehh, see who I bumped into.


I guess all sports avid in Malaysia will know this familiar face - Dato' Sieh Kok Chi, who has been the Secretary General of the Olympic Council of Malaysia since 1992 and still going strong at the golden age of 76. He used to be a national water polo representative at the SEAP Games in 1965, 1967 and 1969.


Also managed to have a photo with our national high jump athlete, Nauraj Singh Randhawa. He is certainly a new star in high jump after Loo Kum Zee and Lee Hup Wei, and lets hope we can see he can do us proud in the Asian Games and possibly, Olympic Games as well!


The local crowd cheering the home team at one of the tracks event. Three more days to go until we reach the end of the SEA Games!

Thanks for reading.