SRI LANKA: Vesak – a thrice blessed anniversary

White clad people of all ages observing sil; temples full of pious devotees; trees laden with flowers and mounds of jasmine and araliya offered at sacred bo tree and temple alter, scenting the air. Come night and cities that were quiet and white turn garishly gaudy. Pandals light up and stories depicted on them are broadcast too loud. Electric jets dress buildings and people mill around to view illuminations. Equally raucous is the music that blares forth from dansales which are temporary built sheds that offer sightseers soft drinks or food in the way of rice and curry. This is one way of collecting merit in this life – giving alms.

Vesak however is not for celebration. It is not a festival to be enjoyed. It is a commemorative occasion which calls for restraint and immersion in the true philosophy of Buddhism. And in this drawing away from mundane life and immersing oneself in the Dhamma or Teaching, is happiness that no material possession or sense-motivated activity can bring. One has to experience it through meditation to realize the depth and intensity of the joy that is there for the taking by the truly dedicated Buddhist.

Significance of Vesak

Vesak is the full moon day of the month of May. It is the most important poya day in the Buddhist calendar. It is thrice blessed as it was on a full moon day in May that Prince Siddhartha Gotama was born in Kapilavastu in Nepal. He attained enlightenment and got to the root of the unsatisfactoriness of this samsaric existence, in Gaya, in north central India on a Vesak night. From then on he was known as the Buddha, and preached his Dhamma. In the evening of a full moon day in May, the Buddha passed away in Kusinara, under sal trees which gently shed their flowers on his tired ailing body, now 80 years old. Hence the term thrice blessed which epithets Vesak, for the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment and died on days when the moon was full in the month of May, separated by twenty nine years from birth to Buddhahood and fifty one years from His renunciation of lay life to His death.

A remarkable feature of this poya day and of the life of the Buddha is that the three most important events in His life occurred out of doors. Hence, perhaps, the fact that trees put on their full glory of blossoms during the month of May in Sri Lanka and other South and South East Asian countries.

Life of the Buddha

The to-be-Buddha was born to Queen Mahamaya, wife of King Suddhodana, in 623 BC, while she was on her way to her parents’ home for her first confinement. Resting for a while in the sal grove in Lumbini on the border of Nepal and India, she felt labour pains and gave birth to a son. She died while her baby was still an infant. Her sister, Prajapati Gotami, became the infant’s loved step-mother. Siddhartha Gotama was expected to be a mighty king and was trained thus, but seemed to be reflective. King Suddhodana had been warned by a soothsayer that the Prince could turn ascetic. Hence the prince was surrounded with joy and given all luxuries. At sixteen he was married to Princess Yashodara.

When Siddhartha was 29, his wife gave birth to a son. Naming him Rahula (fetter), he decided to leave his palace and princely life to seek the truth. Criticism is barbed here. What a heartless husband to leave wife and infant child! But disillusionment had been growing by the day in the prince’s mind and he felt that if he did not flee that night he would not do it later, but live a dutiful life of nonfulfilment.  Considering that he, because of his renunciation of family and kingdom, helped countless humans to gain their own salvation and gave the world a philosophy and way of life that draws more and more adherents dismayed by unsatisfactory lives, puts paid to the criticism. Buddhism is the way of life followed by more than 700 million people globally, with numbers increasing.

After much meditation seeking the truth and adhering to practices of intense deprivation and consequent suffering to the body, the Buddha, reduced to skin and bone, chose to take sufficient nourishment. Seeing this and presuming it was the call of the flesh overtaking Gotama, the five ascetics he was with in Sarnath, Benares, disdained him. He left them and reaching Gaya, sat under a wide spreading bo tree (ficus religiosa) determined not to rise until he had found the Truth to life and its continuation of unsatisfactoriness in the cycle of rebirths. At dawn, after hours of deep meditation, he realized the Truth and assembled it as the Four Noble Truths: life is unsatisfactory, the cause being greed and grasping; which could be eliminated by following the Middle Path as proclaimed by him. He spent six weeks in contemplation of the Dhamma he had evolved, the second week in offering gratitude to the bo tree that had given him shade and shelter. He wondered whether people would understand his doctrine and decided to test it on the five ascetics he had last been with. One attained full comprehension. The Buddha, subsequently, went on foot all over the northern states of India preaching his Dhamma, assisted by the Sangha of ordained monks.

In his 80th year, worn out and tired, he fell ill with a stomach complaint. The Buddha walked with his devoted assistant, Ananda Thera, to Kusinara, in the State of Bihar, and desired a bed prepared for him out of doors. This was done between two sal trees. The Buddha lay down, and preached to a seeker of information. The Buddha then died or entered Parinibbana, chanting a stanza encapsulating his teaching: Aniccavata sankara, vayadammino. (It is in the nature of all formations to pass away, nothing is permanent). With his last breath he advised his followers to work out their own deliverance with diligence. The Buddha had severed his samsaric cycle of births and deaths and attained Nibbana.

Piety on Vesak poya days

Thus the contention that Vesak needs to be commemorated, not so much celebrated. The highest honour that can be given the Teacher is to follow His footsteps, hence the observing of eight and ten precepts on poya days and more so on Vesak day. Thus it is that on this poya many observe sil; temples and meditation centres are full of white clad devotees. Guided meditation is high on the programmes at such centres along with bana preachings by monks.

Activities of celebration

Other Buddhists prefer a more active poya day. They offer alms to monks and those who have observed eight or ten precepts. Still others are occupied with giving finishing touches to the pandals erected in strategic places dotting each big city. Pandals, (thorung in Sinhala), are wooden constructions of varied shape with hundreds of coloured jets and panels painted over to depict scenes of the Buddha’s life or stories of His time or Jataka stories which are stories of His previous births. With a nod to touching on the sensational, a much favoured story is of beautiful Kisa Gotami whose only child died. Inconsolably lamenting she ran around the streets naked until she was brought to the Buddha who asked her to get mustard seed from a house that had had no death, to cure her son. She went around begging but all families had been bereaved.  She comprehended the Buddha’s message and joined the Bhikkuni Sasana – the Order of Nuns. Fortuitously, the huge cutouts of Kisa Gotami are clothed – albeit diaphanously!

Vesak is essentially a festival of illumination. This takes various forms; the traditional being the clay oil lamp (Sinhala – meti pahana). Another classic decoration of light is the ‘bucket’ lantern – cylindrical constructions of coloured translucent paper within each of which a candle is set alight.  They are gentle light givers and perhaps best illustrate the fact that light of knowledge dispels the darkness of ignorance. Also that just as a whiff of wind could douse the light of the clay lamp and paper lantern, man’s life could be extinguished in an instant, proving the impermanence of all sentient beings.

Illumination now is more electric jets strung all over. Every Buddhist home is decorated with pahana, lanterns or jets and public buildings festoon themselves with Buddhist flags and electric lights. More elaborate lanterns called atapattam vie with the electric jets. The Sinhala name is because these elaborately filigreed and coloured lanterns are octagonal in shape. Streamers slip down from the joints which are of cane made into frames over which patterned paper is pasted. They are usually surrounded by a number of smaller lanterns. Innovation is plentiful in the making of these lanterns. Some emerge from the makers hands as lotus, others as airplanes. Recent innovations are coir rope attapattams and those made of stalks of paddy, seed and reeds.

Thus while Vesak is essentially a religious festival, it does take on a carnival ambience come nightfall. The big Vesak moon however is the nonpareil illumination, especially if spied through the branches of the Sacred Bo Tree in Anuradhapura or seen against the backdrop of the Ruwanveliseya Stupa in the vicinity. Again the significance of the out-of-doors and the magnificence of Wesak at night.  The rustle of the leaves of the bo tree are like no other; gentle winds call forth sibilant music.

The Five Precepts (Pansil)

Promise to refrain from

  • Killing/harming any living being
  • Stealing/taking what is not given
  • Sexual misconduct/adultery
  • Lying, gossip, slander, verbal abuse
  • Intoxicants – dangerous drugs & alcohol

Added three (Atasil)

  • Taking solid food after noon
  • Listening to music, using cosmetics, being entertained
  • Using luxurious chairs and beds

Added two (Dasasil)

  • Renounce lay life
  • Refrain from all monetary transactions
Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-035-2014
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Child rights, Extrajudicial killings, Judicial system, Right to food,