Malaysia is often described an Islamic country, but Muslims make up at most 60% of the population, which leaves a hefty 40% of people who practise a whole range of other religions, from animism to Zoroastrianism. The largest minority, comprising one in five Malaysians, are Buddhists, most of them ethnic Chinese.
Although a majority of Chinese Malaysians identify themselves as Buddhists, many practise a syncretic belief system which also includes elements of Taoism and Confucianism, known as San Chiao. Indeed, many local temples have shrines to all three faiths, such as the Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur (pictured above) and the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Melaka (Malacca).
While most Malaysian Buddhists are descendants of 19th and 20th century immigrants from China and Sri Lanka, the Buddha’s teachings first came to the Thai-Malay peninsula some 2,200 years ago. Islam is a comparative newcomer, only becoming the dominant religion in the 15th century.
All three major schools of Buddhism — Mahayana (the Great Vehicle); Theravada (the Ancient Teaching); and Vajrayana (the Diamond Vehicle) — are represented in Malaysia. For all three schools the most important festival of the year is Wesak.
Wesak commemorates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, and by tradition takes place on the full moon in the Indian lunar month of Vesakha. In the Western calendar, it normally falls in April or May, but not all countries calculate the lunar month in the same way. This year’s Wesak in Malaysia is on May 5, the same as most of Southeast Asia, but one month ahead of Thailand.
Many practices are associated with Wesak, including charitable donations and other acts of kindness; lighting candles, incense and joss sticks at temples; meditating on the Eight Precepts (core beliefs of Buddhism); and eating vegetarian food.
The central message of the festival is to pay homage to Buddha by recommitting oneself to his teachings. Not surprisingly, Wesak is celebrated with particular gusto in areas with large ethnic Chinese, Sri Lankan or Thai populations, such as KL, Penang, Perak and Selangor, but it will be marked in every Buddhist temple around the country.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 29th March, 2012.