Mirroring the diversity of Buddhist traditions across Asia, the celebration of the Buddha’s Awakening takes place on various dates, depending on the country. In Taiwan and in the Chinese cultural sphere relying on the lunar calendar (nónglì 農曆), it occurs on the day corresponding to the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, which this year was Saturday, January 24, 2015 (year 104 in the Taiwanese calendar beginning in 1912). Thanks to the kind invitation of a Dharma friend, I went to attend the celebration at Zhōngtái Chánsì 中台禪寺 in Pǔlǐ zhèn 埔里鎮, central Taiwan, one of the flagship Chan monasteries known for its magnificent architecture and the quality of its teachers.
Since I had no idea about what to expect, I was there for a surprise when finding out that more than ten thousand followers were gathering for the occasion, with hundreds of buses full of people coming especially for the occasion, often travelling more than four hours (one way) to come from remote hometowns. I simply had never seen so many people in a Buddhist temple! We were not allowed to take pictures inside the monastery, but this may give an idea of the first few buses who had arrived around 4 p.m.
Participants were grouped in different units, identified with jackets featuring distinctive colors and indicating the subsection from which they came. The leader of the group, carrying a placard, would be responsible for taking care that the individuals in his or her group would stay together. Here is one example:
Around 5 p.m., everyone moved into different spaces, including the huge dining hall in the basement of this structure, fully equipped with video screens retransmitting live all the events taking place in the main hall. The highlight was the arrival of Great Master Wei Chueh (Wéijué Héshang 惟覺和尚), who gave a substantial address to his many guests. At the age of 86 his speech is still precise and his memory phenomenal. He often illustrates his teachings with poetry quoted from his vast repertoire.
This was followed by several performances, in particular by pupils attending the neighboring schools belonging to this denomination. The banner in the dining hall read “Friendly Gathering and Dharma Assembly of the Year 104 Zhongtai Chan Monastery Celebration of the the Buddha’s Awakening” (Zhōngtái Chánsì yìbáilíng nián Làbā wéilú fǎhuì 中台禪寺一百零四年臘八圍爐法會). It is interesting to see the expression wéilú 圍爐 (tentatively translated as “Friendly Gathering”) being used in this context, because it literally refers to a circle of people [chatting] around a fireplace or hearth. The Taiwanese climate usually does not warrant setting fireplaces but I imagine that this must be a remnant of traditions from colder areas in mainland China. In any case, this provided an invaluable glimpse of the vitality of lay supporters coming from all wakes of life, including teenagers, young parents, and children. The gorgeous vegetarian meal was far from frugal and included the traditional làbāzhōu 臘八粥, a nutritious rice gruel enriched with nuts and dried fruits.
To return to the various approaches to the Buddha’s Awakening, this joyful gathering around a dinner table contrasts with the more austere way the same event is celebrated in Japan. In Japanese Zen monasteries, it is called Jōdōe 成道會 (Ceremony [to commemorate] the Realization of Awakening) and takes place at the end of the harshest meditation retreat known as Rōhatsu Ōzesshin 臘八大攝心. The ceremony is usually performed at dawn on December 8, after a whole week during which practitioners barely slept and were pushed far beyond their usual limits. This week of extreme asceticism stands in stark contrast with the laxism prevalent in the way Buddhist precepts are practiced, or rather disregarded, by the modern Japanese clergy. In Southeast Asia, they have regrouped the three celebrations of the birth, awakening, and passing of the historical Buddha on a single day called Vesak. An official United Nations Day of Vesak (UNDV) has even been established. This year an academic conference will coincide with the event and will be hosted by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Thailand between May 27–31, 2015. This plethora of interpretation begs the question of whether it may be more accurate to speak of “Buddhisms” in the plural, as suggested in scholarly circles.