Something I think most people don’t realise is that all our life experiences are very much our own, and hence special. That song by Taylor Swift that I love could be considered banal and pandering to the next person. From the moment we are born, to our last breath on our death bed, we go through vastly different and infinitely unique experiences. 

This is why, personally, I find that learning about people’s experiences to be extremely interesting. With each story retold, I am one step closer to understanding your completely unique experience, and my best friend’s experience of being a Sinhalese Buddhist was sure to be unique. 

Bhanuka and his family. Image source: Bhanuka

Sinhalese in Singapore 

You might be wondering, why would I be interested in this? With Vesak Day upon us, I started to think about how Buddhism was mainly associated with people of Chinese ethnicity – 98% of Buddhists in Singapore are ethnically Chinese.  

Bhanuka and his family are Sinhalese Singaporeans. Sinhalese people make up only 0.3% of the population in Singapore. Apart from being family-oriented, he is a proud Buddhist who was eager to share his experiences with me. I was on the cusp of learning something exciting and personal to a highly specific community. But first, I had to learn a thing or two about Buddhism. 


Buddhists believe that human life is a cycle of suffering and rebirth, but that if one achieves a state of enlightenment (nirvana), it is possible to escape this cycle forever.  There are three main schools of Buddhism: Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana. Bhanuka’s family practises the Theravada subset of Buddhism. 

Vesak Day 

Vesak Day is very significant for Buddhists – it is the day Buddha is born, enlightened and died.  Buddha was, according to legend, a Hindu prince who renounced his status and riches to seek enlightenment. He is attributed to have founded Buddhism in India in the 6th-5th centuries BCE.  

 In preparation for Vesak Day, it is customary in Sri Lanka to make Vesak lanterns at home. Lanterns are traditionally made of wooden sticks and paper, but the more creative Buddhists will use glue guns to design more complex lanterns. 

Typical Sri Lankan lanterns are lit and hung up on Vesak Day. Image source: Bhanuka
Bhanuka’s lanterns this Vesak Day. Image source: Bhanuka

What is done on Vesak Day – a Sinhalese Perspective 

Vesak Day starts early for Bhanuka’s family. They get up and eat a traditional Sinhalese breakfast consisting of kiribath (coconut rice), sambol (spicy onions) and kavum (oil cakes). On this day, only vegetarian food can be consumed – animal by-products cannot be eaten either e.g. eggs, cheese, milk. 

A traditional Sinhalese breakfast. Image source: Bhanuka

Bringing lotus flowers and bananas bought the previous day and donned in white, they drive to Sri Lankaramaya Buddhist Temple. On arrival, they leave their food offerings with the resident monks and proceed to make their rounds making offerings, relighting candles and offering joss sticks at the various altars. At each of the altars, you will find Buddha statues. A prayer is usually said when making offerings. 

A typical altar at a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple. Image source: Learning to Live Peace Blogspot

His family typically spends an hour at the temple, but many of the visitors spend their day there, listening to the monks giving their lessons and enjoying the food cooked by volunteers. These volunteers cook traditional Sinhalese food, not unlike the breakfast Bhanuka and his family partake in. 

When Bhanuka leaves the temple, he feels a little lighter – like the weight of the world has lessened on his shoulders. He feels a little closer to something divine. 

Lessons from a Different Perspective 

What can we learn from Bhanuka’s experience? 

To me, I learnt something new about my friend – another significant facet of his identity. I had a vested interest in his story. 

But what about you, my reader? Why should you care? 

Bhanuka’s experience is that of a minority in Singapore. Stories like this matter because we live among these minorities, and they are just as much a part of the wider Singaporean community as the majority. And their experiences matter: they are just as important, even if they aren’t spoken about often.  

Image Source: THÁI NHÀN via Pixels

Enlightenment Eases Suffering  

The question, “Does discrimination against minorities still exist in Singapore?” remains relevant in the Singaporean context, seeing that our culture is a mishmash of cultures of the different races and religions here. It is my belief that though we have come a long away in terms of racial and religious inclusivity and harmony, there are still ways to go. There is still suffering today among minorities. 

By learning about Bhanuka’s family, and the practices of his religion specific to the Sinhalese culture, we have taken tangible steps to educate ourselves about a minority group. In other words, we are enlightened. 

Buddhist beliefs focus on one’s own suffering and enlightenment. By achieving enlightenment, one can escape suffering. 

This Vesak Day, I invite you to think about the suffering of others, and how they may one day escape it. I believe the enlightenment of the majority is instrumental to this escape of suffering of the minority. By learning, we understand. By understanding, we empathise. Maybe one day, we can be close to something divine: a world where suffering is no more. One day, we will be greater.