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Buddhism: When is the Buddhist "Weekly Holy Day"?

Many other faiths have their traditional Sacred Day of the Week or Day for Prayers, like Christianity and Catholicism has on Sundays, Islam has on Fridays and Hinduism having each day dedicated to one deity, with Friday being the most auspicious (1). This is worldwide. However, go to Buddhist temples around the world, and you'll get very different answers.

Look at the number of times I have to use "a.k.a" (also known as) below - this is an indication that even universal observances throughout Buddhism like Wesak can have 3 different names.

Of course, the annual Buddhist Holy Days like Wesak Day (a.k.a Vesak, Veshaka, Waisak, Vaiskaha, 卫塞节 or Buddha Day), Kathina (a.k.a End of Vassa, 供僧节 or Kahthein), Dhamma Day (a.k.a Dharma Day) and Abhidhamma Day (a.k.a Abdhidharma Day). Then there are the days honouring various Buddhist figures other than the Buddha such as Guan Yin Bodhisattva (Avalokiteshvara) and Lord Sakka (a.k.a Indra or King of Heaven).

If you ask me, a Malaysian Buddhist, you will get two answers:

  1. Full Moon and New Moon of lunar calendar (bi-weekly)

  2. Sundays

Why is it so?

It's simple. For the first part, "full moon" and "new moon" are considered auspicious in all the cultures Buddhism has come in contact with in the initial centuries of Buddhism. For the second, Buddhism actually adapts to where it goes to. In the UAE, prayers for Buddhists happen on Friday (2), to coincide with office breaks for the main religion in the UAE, Islam.

"But why Sunday? Why not Friday, just like the UAE, given the same majority religion?"

The reason is simply because most Buddhist temples try not to hold Friday events as the streets are already crowded for the Mosque-goers. Friday nights aren't ideal as well, as some Hindu devotees actually join in Buddhist events as well.

Why is there Sunday (Dhamma) School? Where did Holy Water come from? Youth Group? (Puja/Dharma) Service? "Serve with Faith"? That sounds like another religion isn't it?

The answer is just as simple. All these were adapted from Christianity, in the 1890s, from the modern epicentre of Buddhism, Sri Lanka.

If you're interested in knowing how and why it is the modern epicentre, read the section below. It is so much of an epicentre that the current Buddhist Chief High Priest of Malaysia - Ven Datuk Kirinde Sri Dhammaratana - is from Sri Lanka himself.

I will also be discussing why Buddhist Youth Groups in Malaysia are becoming less active and smaller - and why and how we must make them great again in a separate article.

Fig 1: World Map of the percentage of population of Buddhists in various regions

Why is the modern epicentre of Buddhism so far away from its origin place?

Not only is Buddhism is practiced in so many places, but the center of Buddhism has shifted many times. The center of Hinduism has remained as India, the center of Christianity remains to be Jerusalem, Catholicism in Rome and Islam in Mecca. These are all well known, central pilgrimage sites. But Buddhism has:

  • Bodhgaya, India (since 500s BCE)

  • Lumbini, Nepal (since 500s BCE)

  • Saranath, India (since 500s BCE)

  • Kandy, Sri Lanka (since 500s BCE)

  • Gyeongju, South Korea (since 500s BCE)

  • Bihar, India (since 200s BCE)

  • Swat, Pakistan (since 200s BCE)

  • Potola, Tibet (since 600s)

  • Borobudur, Indonesia (since 1000s)

  • Angkor Wat, Cambodia (since 1100s)

  • Ayutthaya, Thailand (since 1200s)

  • Kedah, Malaysia (since 1200s)

  • China (since 1300s)

  • Malacca, Malaysia (since 1600s)

  • Klang, Malaysia (since 1800s)

  • City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, United States (since 1970s)

Fig 2: The spread of Buddhism around the world up to the 1300s

Buddhism originated in Kapilvastu, Ancient India about 2,500 years ago, which today is part of Nepal. Before I continue, the reason why there are three main forms of Buddhism is because the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) spoke multiple languages, but various villages and cities in India spoke only one or two. So, most of his sermons are only available in one original language, and hence when Buddhism spread from one particular village or city, it carried different sermons or Sutras. However, the teachings at the core, are the same.

Buddhism spread down South, where a new form of Buddhism was formed, focusing on parts of the teachings, called Mahayana Buddhism. This form of Buddhism went back up North, all the way to Central Asia and spread to China via the Silk Road. It was then spread to Southeast and East Asia. Meanwhile, further down South, in present day Sri Lanka, the earliest form of Buddhism was spread, focusing on the earlier part of the teachings, called Theravada Buddhism. This form of Buddhism also spread to Southeast Asia. Another form of Buddhism, which consists of the Buddha's later teachings, Vajrayana Buddhism spread up North to Tibet and Southeast to present day Indonesia, or the ancient capital of the Srivijaya Empire. This is why there are many Buddhist artefacts and relics buried or on display in Indonesia as well as Kedah (Ancient Bujang Valley), Malaysia.

Buddhism in India declined in the 1200s, and the epicentre shifted to the Srivijaya Empire (present day Indonesia and Malaysia) until the 1400s. The epicentre of Buddhism was now China, where Mahayana Buddhism flourished, which was brought back to Malaysia and starting in the 1500s and became the predominant religion of the Peranakan people, which is still is today. Post World-war, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants brought the religion to the United States and Canada, as well as Australia.

Today, Buddhism is the main religion in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Japan and a major religion in South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, China and Vietnam.

It is no longer the main religion, or a major one (based on population counts) in India and Nepal, the region of its origin, and based on percentage, it is not as big as it was in China like before.

Now, with English being the main language of communication internationally, and Buddhism being an adaptive, "keep up with the times" religion, an epicentre of Buddhism likely should communicate in English. Sri Lanka did well at this, ensuring all their monks could speak English.

Therefore, the modern center of Buddhism, is considered to be Sri Lanka, over 3,450 km away from the ancient Buddhist epicentre. Once again, even the Current Buddhist Chief High Priest of Malaysia, Ven Datuk Kirinde Sri Dhammaratana - is from Sri Lanka. However, the most well known Buddhist Figure, and de facto leader, The 14th Dalai Lama, resides in Dharmasala, India - holding both a citizenship of the People's Republic of China and Republic of India, according to his protected Wikipedia biodata.



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