(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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.)