On Saturday evening, Sam didn’t make it to her bedroom. She napped on the living room couch, woke, ate, napped and… that was the point when we all went up to bed. Apparently, she didn’t sleep straight through the night. I know because there were used plates and glasses on the coffee table when we woke up the next morning. And she must have watched a lot of TV too. I know because, on Sunday, she told me that on May 24, Food Network Asia will feature vegetarian cooking on several shows. And I promised her I’d watch. I am excited, actually, because it’s an opportunity to learn more techniques for cooking vegetarian dishes.
Fast forward to a day later. Monday evening was very noisy. Over dozens of jokes that ranged from the elections to beauty contest booboos to my typos and mispronunciations — the biggest jokes being about the elections — someone pushed a button on the remote and there was a preview of the May 24 vegetarian cooking marathon that Sam mentioned the day before. Vesak Day on Food Network Asia, it said. I paused, and — what the heck is Vesak Day?
Google and Wikipedia to the rescue. Citing Jeaneane Fowler’s World Religions: it is celebrated to mark the birth, enlightenment and the passing away of the Lord Buddha. An Introduction for Students and a translation of Ajaan Lee’s Four Years’ Sermons, Wikipedia defines Vesak as a holy day observed traditionally by Buddhists in Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and the South East Asian countries of Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Sometimes informally called “Buddha’s Birthday”, it actually commemorates the birth, enlightenment (nirv?na), and death (Parinirv?na) of Gautama Buddha.
After reading the article, I felt uncomfortable over the Food Network Asia’s use of “Vesak” to promote its vegetarian cooking marathon on May 24. It just felt like a trivialization of Vesak. Buddhism is practiced by hundreds of millions (some say close to two billion) and the life and times of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha, is central to its teachings in the same way that Christians pore over the life of Jesus. And it felt wrong to use “Vesak” to describe a series of cooking shows even if the common theme is vegetarian food.
Vegetarianism is not even a mandatory way of life in Buddhism. Buddhism itself is divided into various schools of thought. Both Therav?da (the oldest branch) and Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism) believe that Buddha himself never said anything about not eating meat but simply to refrain from eating animals slaughtered specifically for the purpose of eating. What led to strict vegetarianism in some Buddhist schools of thought seems to be the result of Buddhist followers’ attempts to interpret Buddha’s teachings.
So, to call a vegetarian cooking marathon as Vesak Day is clearly a misunderstanding of Buddha, his life and his teachings. I’m sure there will be a lot to learn in the shows. But I’ll forever take exception to the use of the term “Vesak Day”.