Sunday, May 18, 2008

Religion in Singapore - Government Promotes 'Tolerance'

Singapore is a multi-religious country due to its diverse ethnic mix of peoples originating from various countries. Most of the key religious denominations are represented in Singapore and religious tolerance is promoted by the government.

The largest religion is Buddhism, with 42.5% of the resident population declaring themselves as adherents at the last census. Most, but not all, Malays are adherents of Islam with a substantial community of Indian Muslims.

Below are some statistics on the diversity and spread of religious faiths, which as a westerner coming from a country where Christianity is the majority, I found it quite strange not to be taking a public holiday for Easter Monday or Boxing Day (day after Xmas) - after having done so every year of my life. However, the number of vacation days in Singapore dedicated to religous faiths far outnumber those celebrated in Australia.

Monday, 19th May 2008 is a public holiday for all of Singapore and Malaysia, for the celebration of 'Vesak Day', a Buddhist celebration which I will elaborate more upon after stating the following statistics.


The Singapore census includes detailed data on religion and ethnicity, and is taken on a ten-year basis. Figures for religion are:

- Buddhism - 42.5%
- No religion - 14.8%
- Christianity - 14.6%
- Islam - 13.9%
- Taoism - 8.5%
- Hinduism - 4%
- Other religions - 1.6%

The above figures refer to the resident population only, and do not include the non-resident population. (Singapore authorities do not release figures for the non-resident population which accounted for 18.33% of Singapore's population in 2005. Given the profile and origin of the non-resident population, the breakdown by religion would be slightly different, with Muslims increasing and Buddhists decreasing by a few percentage points.)

Most Singaporeans celebrate the major festivals associated with their respective religions. The variety of religions is a direct reflection of the diversity of races living there. The Chinese are predominantly followers of Buddhism and Taoism with some exceptional agnostics. Malays are mostly Muslims and Indians are mostly Hindus but with significant numbers of Muslims and Sikhs from the Indian ethnic groups.

Religion is still an integral part of cosmopolitan Singapore. Many of its most interesting buildings are religious, be it old temples, modern churches, or exotic mosques. An understanding of these buildings do play a part in contributing to appreciation of their art.

Taoist, Confucianist, and Buddhist figures together with ancestral worship are combined into a versatile mix in Chinese tradition temples. In fact, these three religions had exerted their influences over Chinese cultures and traditions since ancient times. It is sometimes difficult to tell them apart when examining the Chinese heritage.


The most important event in the year for the Buddhist community in Singapore, is the observance of Vesak which commemorates the birth, Enlightenment and Final Nirvana of the Buddha. Vesak falls on the full moon day of the fifth month of the year. This occasion is observed by millions of Buddhists throughout the world.

For some Buddhists, the observance of Vesak begins early in the morning when they assemble at the temple to observe the Eight Precepts. Others may join the communal observance later by going through the ceremony of taking the Threefold Refuge, observing the Five Precepts, making offerings at the shrine and by chanting and recitation. They may also participate in processions and circumambulation , and listen to discourses on the Dharma.

In some temples, Buddhists take part in the ceremonial bathing of the statue of baby Prince Siddharatha. A small standing statue of the prince is placed in a basin of perfumed water strewn with flowers. The Buddhists scoop the perfumed water with a ladle and pour it over the statue. This act of bathing symbolises the purification of one’s unwholesome actions.

On Vesak Day, some Buddhists release captive animals such as birds and turtles. This act of kindness recalls the Buddha’s teaching of universal compassion. Many Buddhist also take vegetarian meals on this day. The temples are often colourfully decorated with Buddhist flags and lights. The shrines are also filled with flowers, fruit and other offerings brought by Buddhists. Vegetarian meals are often provided for all those present on this occasion.

Out of respect for the followers of Buddhism and their beliefs, I will finish this blog post with a quote by the 'Venerable Mahinda' - the 'Significance of Vesak':

"Traditionally, Buddha's Birthday is known as Vesak or Visakah Puja (Buddha's Birthday Celebrations). Vesak is the major Buddhist festival of the year as it celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha on the one day, the first full moon day in May, except in a leap year when the festival is held in June. This celebration is called Vesak being the name of the month in the Indian calendar. "

The significance of Vesak lies with the Buddha and his universal peace message to mankind.

As we recall the Buddha and his Enlightenment, we are immediately reminded of the unique and most profound knowledge and insight which arose in him on the night of his Enlightenment. This coincided with three important events which took place, corresponding to the three watches or periods of the night.

During the first watch of the night, when his mind was calm, clear and purified, light arose in him, knowledge and insight arose. He saw his previous lives, at first one, then two, three up to five, then multiples of them .. . ten, twenty, thirty to fifty. Then 100, 1000 and so on.... As he went on with his practice, during the second watch of the night, he saw how beings die and are reborn, depending on their Karma, how they disappear and reappear from one form to another, from one plane of existence to another. Then during the final watch of the night, he saw the arising and cessation of all phenomena, mental and physical. He saw how things arose dependent on causes and conditions. This led him to perceive the arising and cessation of suffering and all forms of unsatisfactoriness paving the way for the eradication of all taints of cravings. With the complete cessation of craving, his mind was completely liberated. He attained to Full Enlightenment. The realisation dawned in him together with all psychic powers.

This wisdom and light that flashed and radiated under the historic Bodhi Tree at Buddha Gaya in the district of Bihar in Northern India, more than 2500 years ago, is of great significance to human destiny. It illuminated the way by which mankind could cross, from a world of superstition, or hatred and fear, to a new world of light, of true love and happiness.

The heart of the Teachings of the Buddha is contained in the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, namely,

The Noble Truth of Dukkha or suffering
The Origin or Cause of suffering
The End or Cessation of suffering
the Path which leads to the cessation of all sufferings

The First Noble Truth is the Truth of Dukkha which has been generally translated as 'suffering'. But the term Dukkha, which represents the Buddha's view of life and the world, has a deeper philosophical meaning. Birth, old age, sickness and death are universal. All beings are subject to this unsatisfactoriness. Separation from beloved ones and pleasant conditions, association with unpleasant persons and conditions, and not getting what one desires - these are also sources of suffering and unsatisfactoriness. The Buddha summarises Dukkha in what is known as the Five Grasping Aggregates.

Herein, lies the deeper philosophical meaning of Dukkha for it encompasses the whole state of being or existence.

Our life or the whole process of living is seen as a flux of energy comprising of the Five aggregates, namely the Aggregate of Form or the Physical process, Feeling, Perception, Mental Formation, and Consciousness. These are usually classified as mental and physical processes, which are constantly in a state of flux or change.

When we train our minds to observe the functioning of mental and physical processes we will realise the true nature of our lives. We will see how it is subject to change and unsatisfactoriness. And as such, there is no real substance or entity or Self which we can cling to as 'I', 'my' or 'mine'.

When we become aware of the unsatisfactory nature of life, we would naturally want to get out from such a state. It is at this point that we begin to seriously question ourselves about the meaning and purpose of life. This will lead us to seek the Truth with regards to the true nature of existence and the knowledge to overcome unsatisfactoriness.

From the Buddhist point of view, therefore, the purpose of life is to put an end to suffering and all other forms of unsatisfactoriness - to realise peace and real happiness. Such is the significance of the understanding and the realisation of the First Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth explains the Origin or Cause of suffering. Tanha or craving is the universal cause of suffering. It includes not only desire for sensual pleasures, wealth and power, but also attachment to ideas', views, opinions, concepts, and beliefs. It is the lust for flesh, the lust for continued existence (or eternalism) in the sensual realms of existence, as well as the realms of form and the formless realms. And there is also the lust and craving for non-existence (or nihilism). These are all different Forms of selfishness, desiring things for oneself, even at the expense of others.

Not realizing the true nature of one's Self, one clings to things which are impermanent, changeable and perishable. The failure to satisfy one's desires through these things; causes disappointment and suffering.

Craving is a powerful mental force present in all of us. It is the root cause of our sufferings. It is this craving which binds us in Samsara - the repeated cycle of birth and` death.

The Third Noble Truth points to the cessation of suffering. Where there is no craving, there is no becoming, no rebirth. Where there is no rebirth, there is no decay. no, old age, no death, hence no suffering. That is how suffering is ended, once and for all.

The Fourth Noble Truth explains the Path or the Way which leads to the cessation of suffering. It is called the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold path avoids the extremes of self-indulgence on one hand and self-torture on the other. It consists of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

These path factors may be summarised into 3 stages of training, involving morality, mental culture and wisdom.

Morality or good conduct is the avoidance of evil or unwholesome actions -- actions which are tainted by greed, hatred and delusion; and the performance of the good or wholesome actions, - actions which are free from greed, hatred and delusion, but motivated by liberality, loving-kindness and wisdom.

The function of good conduct or moral restraint is to free one's mind from remorse (or guilty conscience). The mind that is free from remorse (or guilt) is naturally calm and tranquil, and ready for concentration with awareness.

The concentrated and cultured mind is a contemplative and analytical mind. It is capable of seeing cause and effect, and the true nature of existence, thus paving the way for wisdom and insight.

Wisdom in the Buddhist context, is the realisation of the fundamental truths of life, basically the Four Noble Truths. The understanding of the Four Noble Truths provide us with a proper sense of purpose and direction in life. They form the basis of problem-solving.

The message of the Buddha stands today as unaffected by time and the expansion of knowledge as when they were first enunciated.

No matter to what lengths increased scientific knowledge can extend man's mental horizon, there is room for the acceptance and assimilation for further discovery within -the framework of the teachings of the Buddha.

The teaching of the Buddha is open to all to see and judge for themselves. The universality of the teachings of the Buddha has led one of the world's greatest scientists, Albert Einstein to declare that 'if there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism'

The teaching of the Buddha became a great civilising force wherever it went. It appeals to reason and freedom of thought, recognising the dignity and potentiality of the human mind. It calls for equality, fraternity and understanding, exhorting its followers to avoid evil, to do good and to purify their minds.

Realising the transient nature of life and all worldly phenomena, the Buddha has advised us to work out our deliverance with heedfulness, as 'heedfulness is the path to the deathless'.

His clear and profound teachings on the cultivation of heedfulness otherwise known as Satipatthana or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, is the path for the purification of beings - for the overcoming of sorrows and lamentation, for the destruction of all mental and physical sufferings, for the attainment of insight and knowledge and for the realisation of Nibbana. This has been verified by his disciples. It is therefore a path, a technique which may be verified by all irrespective of caste, colour or creed.

- Venerable Mahinda


Click the thumbnails for large size view - credit for these pictures to "KosongKosong"!

Picture 1: "The Main Hall Buddha - World Peace" - The heart of the path is so simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are. That is all I do in my own practice. ...Achann Chah

Picture 2: "Sleeping Buddha - Metta" - Peace and Harmony. Do Good. Cease From Evil.Purify The Mind. Walk the Middle Path, avoiding all extremes - always mindful of the eight doors of the physical and sensual worlds. May All Living Things Be Well and Happy. May They Be Free From Pain,Anguish and Suffering.

Picture 3: "Bathing of the Statue of Baby Prince Siddharatha"

Picture 4: "Bodhi Tree of Wisdom" - This Bodhi Tree is a scion of the sacred bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka and is hence a direct descendent of the sacred Bodhi Tree at Bodhigaya, India

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a big day for many countries. Not many buddhists from China mainland celebrate it. The governement will not allow religious holidays of any kind in China.