Tag Archives: temple

Wesak Day

(Confession: I really hate blogging out of chronological order.  But eh, I’ve got a two-month-old baby and our class has had lots of adventures worth sharing!  So I’m blogging still, even if it’s out of order. Stay tuned–there’s a bit more to come still!)

May 21 was Wesak Day, an important Buddhist holiday that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha.  The Gustavus students had their very last field trip of the semester, a trip to a couple of famous temples in Penang.

There was a little confusion at our first stop.  Joel, Penelope and I arrived a bit early.  We were soon met by our instructor, Wei, but no students could be found.  The students were to come from campus via minivan.  But we waited and waited, and they never arrived.  A few phone calls later and we had it all straightened out.  The USM drivers accidentally went to the wrong temple.  Because Penang is the type of place where you have to specify exactly WHICH Thai Buddhist temple you plan to meet at.

Anyhow, the students eventually made it to our starting location and we headed inside Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple, otherwise known in Penang as the Reclining Buddha Temple.  This temple was originally built by the Thai community in 1900.  It’s undergone extensive renovations, however, and as the Thai community in Penang is quite small now, it is primarily administered and visited by Chinese Buddhists.  The reclining statue of Buddha is 33 meters long, making it one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world.  Different depictions of Buddha represent different aspects of his character.  Reclining Buddha is meant to depict the Buddha at the instant of his death and his final detachment from the physical world.

Reclining Buddha.
Eat your heart out, Jamberry.

Naturally, this would be a very popular temple on a day meant to celebrate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death.  There were crowds assembling out front.  A small army of temple volunteers had set up large tents in the courtyard and were distributing free vegetarian food.  Highlights included cinnamon buns (colored green and flavored with pandan) and some sort of noodles.  

Because of the crowds, this particular temple does not allow the burning of joss sticks (incense) inside.  However, lotus candles are a popular devotional offering.  Candles represent light.  Light symbolizes wisdom; light drives away darkness.  For a small donation, devotees can purchase a bright pink lotus candle and add it to the many on the devotional tables.  We walked around the temple to see more detail. Behind the Buddha statue is a columbarium, where the ashes of cremated devotees are kept. Murals and paintings adorned the walls with stories from the life of Buddha.

Lotus flower candles.

Conveniently, two of the most famous Buddhist temples in Penang happen to be across the road from one another.  After we finished up at the Reclining Buddha Temple, we wandered across the street to Dhammakarama Burmese Temple.  This is quite a sprawling complex, with little rooms and free-standing temples dotted across the facility.  One highlight is the large standing Buddha.  

There were many lovely and detailed paintings in the main hall, depicting the life and experiences of the Buddha. I wasn’t familiar with most of the stories, but was admittedly amused by one titled, “The Buddha subduing the fierce, drunkened elephant, Nalagiri.”

Watch out, Baby Penelope!
In addition to the temple, there is also a monastery on site. In the corner of the main hall, Buddhist monks in saffron orange robes sat and offered prayers to visitors. Wei explained that this was not a blessing, but a prayer of protection for one’s mind. Several of us chose to receive a prayer while the monk dipped a leafy branch into a bowl of water and sprinkled it over their heads. Afterwards, they were each presented with a small yellow string bracelet, a physical reminder to remain strong against the challenges to one’s mind. Several students knelt for these prayers, and I took Penelope over as well.
Receiving prayers.

Everybody loves a man with a baby.

From there, we wandered outside a bit more.  Wei explained that there were many novelty attractions to entice visitors to come to the temple.  These were not necessary components of Buddhism, but just ways attracting attention, which will hopefully lead to more people being exposed to and embracing Buddhism.  For instance, there was a pond with rotating metal bowls featuring auspicious words (love, harmony, education, etc.).  Toss a coin into a bowl; win the prize.  It felt just like a carnival game, to be honest.  Many Gusties used up their loose change at that pond, although I don’t know if anyone was successful. 

The coin toss game. In the background, the mural depicts Prince Siddhartha as he abandons his life of royalty in seaerch of enlightenment. His distraught subjects beg him to stay.

The temple featured some other interesting statues.  In one corner stood two huge Panca Rupa, guardians of the world, and possessing the strongest features each of the elephant, lion, deer, fish, and eagle.  (These are not really a Buddhist symbol at all, but as with many religious sites, there is a blend of religious and cultural symbolism.)


Tossing Tangerines & Other New Year Traditions

Let’s back up just a little bit…  we got to experience a few other Chinese New Year traditions earlier this month and I never had a chance to write about them all.

Kek Lok Si is the largest Buddhist temple in all of Malaysia, and it’s situated right here in Penang.  From all across Georgetown, you can see the big temple built into the side of Air Itam Mountain.  It’s a sprawling compound, but the most famous structures are a three-tiered pagoda and a 99-foot tall statue of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy.

There is a Gustavus field trip scheduled to go to Kek Lok Si later in the semester.  But our family had to go sooner.  For two weeks following Chinese New Year, the temple is lit up with thousands and thousands of lights and lanterns.  Think of the biggest Christmas display you’ve ever seen.  This is more sparkly than that.  And so anyone who is ever in Penang during the month of February: you must definitely go to Kek Lok Si at night.


The first statue we came across was a qilin, my favorite creature in Chinese mythology.


Welcome to Year of the Monkey!



For a small donation, you can purchase a ribbon and hang it on a “prayer tree.”. There were many blessings to choose from, but I chose Constant Happiness for the new baby.


Prayer tree.


Guan yin.


Candles in the temple to Guan yin.


Every single structure had lights on it.

In Malaysia, the 15th and last day of Chinese New Year celebrations is called Chap Goh Meh.  Given the timing–mid-February–and the fact that it’s a holiday that​ focuses​
courtship, the day is sometimes called “Chinese Valentines Day.” Traditionally, on this day, young single women would get dressed in their best clothes and seek a suitor.

(In China, the same day is known as the Lantern Festival, and it will always be remembered in Carlin Family Lore as the day Simon took his first steps.)

Penang has its own special take on this holiday.  On Chap Goh Meh, single ladies go to the seashore and toss oranges into the sea.  A modern twist has them using a Sharpie to write their names and cell phone numbers on the oranges, so that any potential young suitor who walks the beach and discovers and orange can track them down.  It’s a blind date, taken to a whole new level through tangerines.


Interesting price structure for citrus.


Look at that tangerine floating on the horizon! This lady threw a couple of oranges into the sea. You can aim for the baskets by the nyonya ladies, but it doesn’t matter if you get them in or not.

The center of the festivities in Penang were at the Esplanade.  In addition to the orange-throwing station, there were cultural performances on a central stage and numerous food vendors were set up to offer Hokkien specialties.


Cute balloon creations.


Making dragon’s beard candy.

A little girl had a bubble gun and kept Simon entertained for quite a while.