With no plans in place for a 2020 BC Buddhist Festival, Vesak celebrations – the annual holiday of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death – may have to take place from home this year to adapt to the measures in place to deal with COVID-19.
The BC Buddhist Festival usually draws large turnouts for the celebration of Vesak. Normally, thousands of Buddhists would be assembling at Queen Elizabeth Park for a day of traditional music, art, dancing, and vegetarian food, with many attendees wearing their saffron robes and dresses.
“When Buddhists gather together from around the world – with similar centers doing similar meditations at the same time – it makes for very strong prayers on days like that,” says Kelsang Sanden, principal teacher at the Kadampa Meditation Centre in Vancouver.
The holiday is observed on a different day each year, during the full moon of Vesakha (an ancient lunar month), which falls between April and June on the Gregorian calendar. In 2020, Vesak falls on May 7 ( date varies).
“It’s a time for an in-depth exchange of ideas. There are so many unique Buddhist traditions and they have different norms established,” Sanden says, adding that the Kadampa Meditation Centre follows the Mahayana teachings of Buddhism, which recognize the holiday as “Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.”
Enlightenment of the Buddha
Although traditions vary among Buddhist communities, there is consensus about the significance of Buddha’s enlightenment.
“It’s when he demonstrated the potential all human beings have for obtaining enlightenment,” explains Sanden. “It’s about showing everyone what they can achieve – it’s profoundly hopeful. It reminds us not to be judgemental of others, even if they’ve messed up in this life, it doesn’t mean they won’t become amazing, or that they can’t achieve great things after enlightenment. Whatever issues are going on with a person right now, that’s not the main thing – the main thing is they can achieve enlightenment.”
Given the social distancing practices presently in place, Buddhists will still be able to meditate in unison on Buddha’s birthday, albeit not from the same location.
“We do prefer meeting in person, because if you’re around other meditators it’s easier to find yourself meditating, especially for people who are not very strong in meditation practice,” Sanden says. “Instead of consuming too much news and getting wound up and stressed about things, meditation allows you to spend time with a group of people doing the opposite, being surrounded by people who want to be more peaceful and that group energy has something to it. We still check in on the news, but we actively try to not get wound up.”
Streaming ceremonies to compensate
While there are no plans to celebrate the BC Buddhist Festival this year, organizers are offering worshippers the option to celebrate Vesak with them from home. No matter where the holiday is observed, the goal remains the same: for people to find peace, mindfulness, love, compassion, and wisdom. And like many temples and meditation centres in Vancouver, Kadampa is hosting virtual gatherings, allowing worshippers to begin their day with a formal ceremony online.
“There are special intentions to start the day, intentions to carry through the whole day, where we recognize the potential of all living beings to achieve enlightenment,” says Sanden. “Then for the rest of the day the idea is only to have good intentions towards other living beings. When you sit down to meditate, the whole day will be happening in the context of that greater awareness. It’s not just meditating on behalf of yourself but on behalf of everybody, fostering that feeling of connection. It is a lot more intense than just fitting meditation into a regular day.”
Even though he sees more value in physically attending spiritual gatherings, Sanden suspects virtual ceremonies will remain relevant in the future, even after the world opens back up.
“I think people will be shy about gathering in large groups for quite a while. Live streaming can be an effective way to help people connect in the meantime,” he adds.
Hindering such a sacred tradition is a major drawback of social distancing measures, but Sanden has noticed many positive effects come from the drastic changes over the past month.
“One of the upsides of COVID at the moment – not to say it doesn’t come with all sorts of problems – but its presence has made humans realize that other human beings aren’t their enemy; it’s this illness,” he says. “When I was out walking, there were not a whole lot of people out there, we were all meeting eyes and waving to each other at a good distance. People were showing that feeling of connection when normally we would be too busy to notice each other.”
For more information, please visit: Kadampa Meditation Centre at www.meditateinvancouver.org