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Indonesian Buddhists observe Waisak in solitude amid pandemic

Sausan Atika The Jakarta Post  Thu, May 7, 2020

Past and present: Thousands of Buddhists attend a Waisak procession to commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha at the 9th-century Borobudur temple in Magelang, Central Java. The procession this year was muted, with most rituals in the country accessible only through online streaming. (The Jakarta Post/Tarko Sudiarno)

JAKARTA  – The COVID-19 outbreak has reshaped the communal practice of Buddhism in Indonesia, as with other faiths, as worship moves online to comply with calls by authorities to remain home.

Under normal circumstances, Buddhists would have gathered in temples across the country on Thursday to celebrate Waisak, which marks the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha.

In the Borobudur and Mendut temples in Central Java, where large services normally take place, thousands of Buddhist monks and laypeople would have lined up at the venue, attracting thousands more visitors.

But this year, with COVID-19 measures preventing most gatherings, the temples have gone quiet.

The Council of Buddhist Communities (Walubi) has called on Buddhists to worship at home and has prohibited any public Waisak processions at the temples.

Instead, the rituals will be accessible via livestream.

To accommodate this, the Religious Affairs Ministry’s Buddhist Community Guidelines Directorate General has released schedules for Thursday’s nationwide processions.

For Bekasi, West Java, resident Hasta Arya Marga Yonanda, this year was the first time he had ever not gone to a temple on Waisak.

After cleaning his Buddha statues at home and reciting the paritta (Buddhist verses and scriptures), Arya would have normally gone to the temple with his family to participate in the procession.

But the 20-year-old university student joined the ritual only by livestream this year.

“I feel like something is missing because we’re celebrating Waisak with only a small number of people [at home],” he told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

Online religious services have been part of the “new normal” for Arya since March, when the government, backed by religious figures, called for the public to worship at home to contain COVID-19 transmission.

“At first, it was so sad knowing that I couldn’t observe rituals and meet friends at the temple. The first puja bhakti [devotion] livestream also felt very different,” he said.

“But as time goes by, I am getting used to it.”

Jakarta resident Dragono Halim, 33, expressed mixed feelings about the transition to online Waisak rituals due to the outbreak.

Dragono missed what he called the Waisak atmosphere of observing the procession with other Buddhists at the temple.

“On the other hand, we can always connect with [others] through routine meetings where I can listen closely to our teachings with interest,” he told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

While the 33-year-old private sector employee would have usually headed to the temple for processions and would have visited the elderly or given out donations to the needy, this year he had to follow the procession from home and give donations through community organizations.

Despite having gone virtual, Dragono said, the meaning of Waisak remained the same – to reflect on oneself as a human being observing the Buddhist way of life.

“Waisak is basically a personal celebration, but with social aspects,” he said.

“A lot of the events [in addition to the main processions] have been canceled due to social distancing measures, but actually, only the location and method have changed.”

Buddhism, while it is recognized as one of the country’s six official faiths and has a long history in the archipelago, is practiced by only a small minority of Indonesians.

According to 2010 data from Statistics Indonesia (BPS), Buddhists make up just 0.72 percent of the entire population, or roughly 1.7 million people. Walubi claims the figure is currently closer to 9.7 million people.

While religious activities nationwide have been upended because of COVID-19, Walubi vice chairman Jandi Mukianto said the smaller scale of the celebrations had not reduced the meaning of Waisak.

“We can still worship at home. [There are] no restrictions, and it can be done with our closest ones,” Jandi said.

“For now, the most important thing is to be able to raise the awareness of each individual so that people will live happily.”

from: THE JAKARTA POST, INDONESIA Thu, May 7, 2020

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