Wat Khemarangsaram, the Cambodian Buddhist temple in Bonnyrigg, like other places of worship, has been in lockdown since March 23rd. COVID-19 has brought major changes to the routine of the four resident monks who live in the temple. The daily ritual of worshippers coming to pray and make offerings of food has ceased. The monks, who can no longer visit people at home or perform rites for funerals, now carry out more of their pastoral care over the phone, comforting and offering advice.
Celebrations which attract crowds are no longer possible and in April, traditional Cambodian New Year festivities had to be cancelled. However, while the government classified religious gatherings as non-essential, protocols allowed for small groups to attend a place of worship to livestream services, providing social distancing is enforced. Srey Kang, the President of the Khmer Community, stepped in to help the temple livestream through Facebook.
Vesak Bochea, which falls on the full moon of the sixth month of the lunar calendar is the most sacred event on the Buddhist calendar, recognised by the United Nations as Vesak Day and celebrated by Buddhists around the world. It marks three events in Buddha's life, his birth, enlightenment and his death, when it is believed he passed into Nirvana. This year, it fell on Thursday 7th May.
The community usually attends the temple in the days leading up to Vesak to pray and make offerings. The prospect of not marking the day at all this year was a dismal thought for the committee of the Cambodian Buddhist Society of NSW, who manage the temple.
When the idea of a drive through ceremony, with people offering donations through their car windows was first put forward, some were doubtful. Advice was sought from the local police and once they were assured that worshippers would remain in their cars, they gave their approval. The "Drive Through Bon", as it was dubbed, took place on the morning of Sunday 3rd May.
Cars entered through the main gate and were directed by Sabouphary Tuy to pull up in front of the temple. One of the monks passed a bowl to the driver to receive a donation and blessed it before the car departed. The event raised not only much needed funds but also the spirits of the community
The main commemoration of Vesak took place on the evening of Wednesday 6 May. The temple grounds were lit up with hundreds of tiny candles and strings of twinkling lights. The monks had spent days beforehand painstakingly laying them out in traditional patterns, arranged in circles to represent the eight Buddhist precepts or spelling out Vesak in decorative Khmer script. Keen photographer Andy Ang came by himself to take photos to share with the rest of the community on social media.
The Ven Vuthea Cheth explained that although the community could not come to the temple, it was still important for the monks to carry out their normal rites and practices, as a symbol of Vesak.
In the evening, the monks chanted and preached sermons on the meaning of Vesak. The event was live streamed by the Khmer Community so the community could listen in. The Ven Mel Venglim, acting abbott of Wat Khemarangsaram, thanked Srey Kang for her help in organising the broadcast.