Every May, Malaysia’s 6.5 million Buddhists, about a fifth of the population, gather to celebrate one of the most important festivals in their calendar. Wesak Day commemorates three important events in the life of Buddha – his birth, enlightenment and passing.
In previous years, people met at temples at dawn to meditate and pray, make donations to the needy, and offer incense flowers and lotus-shaped candles as monks in saffron robes chanted the teachings of Buddha. Devotees stood in line to wash a statue of Buddha, a ritual that symbolizes cleansing and purifying. The day ended with a night parade of decorated floats flanked by people carrying flowers and candles.
It was clear that 2020 would need to be different. To control the COVID-19 pandemic, the government had suspended non-essential services and mass gatherings from 18 March under a nationwide movement control order. A relaxation from 4 May to a conditional movement control order allowed many activities to resume under certain conditions, but places of worship remained shut.
Venerable Sing Kan, Vice President of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), said, “The conditional movement control order raised a lot of questions about Wesak Day – what we could and couldn’t do, what were safe alternatives to gatherings and festivities during this Holy Day, and most importantly how could we keep ourselves and families safe from COVID-19.”
Buddhist leaders wanted to help people support each other during the pandemic, a time characterized by unknowns, uncertainties and sometimes even fear as health authorities continue to encourage people to stay at home, affecting religious events, gatherings and festivals.
It was clear that Buddhist leaders needed to re-think Wesak Day, which fell on 7 May this year.
To help answer questions and offer support in a time of uncertainty, WHO published guidance specifically for religious leaders and faith-based groups in the context of COVID-19. The new guidance aimed to help them better protect their communities throughout the pandemic.
Dr Lo Ying-Ru, WHO Representative to Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore, said “Since early in the emergency, WHO has recognized that religious and spiritual leaders are a key source of support, comfort and advice for the communities they serve, and can play a life-saving role in encouraging healthy practices and offering guidance in a time of uncertainty.”
WHO’s general advice covers cleaning and hygiene in places of worship, information on safely holding gatherings where they are permitted, using technology to maintain community and continue worship, performing safe burials, safely paying respects to sacred or devotional objects, and supporting vulnerable community members.
To adapt this general guidance to the Buddhist community, WHO worked closely with the MCCBCHST. Together, they devised a set of six simple, positive tips, beautifully illustrated, depicting small family groups worshipping or safe temple-based activities. To build a safe online community, the illustrations were shared on social media with the hashtag #WesakAtHome. The tips included:
- Any size of gathering risks spreading COVID-19. Celebrate and offer prayers for Wesak Day at home with your family members instead.
- Practice daily rituals, including for Wesak Day, in the safety of your own home.
- Use internet and web platforms to follow important services and announcements during Wesak Day.
- If permitted to proceed with safe gatherings, provide information to your community on key protection measures against COVID-19.
- Ensure that hand sanitizer or soap and water is available upon entry and that members can practice proper hygiene before, during and after gathering.
- Frequently clean places of worship and pilgrimage sites with detergents and disinfectant. Pay extra attention to commonly touched surfaces (e.g. door handles).
Online, the messages were shared by partners including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Development Programme Malaysia on Twitter, Instagram and other channels. Many people also posted photos of traditional Wesak lanterns – hung up at home for a change.
“WHO and MCCBCHST provided guidance and simple, easy-to-understand messaging and infographics that were shared widely. It has been great knowing that we have a network, people that you can count on and share tips to stay safe. It has been reassuring,” said Mrs Gowri P S Thangaya, Honorary Secretary General of the MCCBCHST.
Although followers are often brought up in traditional ways, the council supports members of the Buddhist faith, the Malaysian Buddhist Association and the Buddhist Missionary Society Malaysia to adopt modern means to communicate during the pandemic. As a result, many devotees were able to follow services on Facebook or YouTube to commemorate Wesak Day and maintain a peaceful mind during a turbulent period.
Dr Lo concluded, “Until there is a vaccine, many aspects of life will need to change. Seeing how Wesak Day was celebrated in a different but still special way, it gives me hope that we can adjust to a safe “new normal”. I believe that excellent communication and openness to innovation were key to making Wesak Day as colourful and meaningful as ever.”
Faith-based organizations and faith leaders
Practical considerations and recommendations for religious leaders and faith-based communities in the context of COVID-19
Infographics for Wesak Day celebration
For more information, please contact:
Dr Cory Couillard, Risk Communication Consultant, [email protected]