Sri Lanka is bad news. There’s a garbage dump everywhere you look, metaphorically speaking. Then again, this could in part be attributed to a determination to look for garbage. The truth is, Sri Lanka has its social, political, economic and environmental tumours, but these are as benign or as malignant than in most other countries in this
We could look with different eyes or rather be open to all things, good and bad. When vast swathes of the island turn into a dansala (a ‘giving kiosk’ doesn’t quite translate the term) twice a year, there has to be something special about the nation and its people; during Vesak and Poson.
The puritans and of course those who for their own political purposes demand Buddhists to be strict adherents of the dhamma. They forget that the Buddha himself recognized the parthagjana nature of the ordinary human being and advocated life practices that did not necessarily result in them acquiring marga-pala or stages along a no-turning-back path towards enlightenment. Consequently the spectacle of Vesak is
Let us not judge. Buddhism, after all, is not a doctrine of commandment. It is about self-discipline. As Prof Emeritus J.B. Dissanayake has pointed out, the logic of two holidays for Vesak draws from a recognition of this element; so there’s one day allocated (ideally, one may add) for spiritual pursuits and the other for celebration.
Of course the celebrations are not limited to a single day or to the two designated holidays. There are dansal offering all kinds of things. There’s rice and curry, bread and sambol, manioc and kochchi sambol, sago, soft drinks, kadala, koththamalli, ice cream and all kinds of other interesting things to eat and drink. Some communities, especially children, often organize a flower-dansala outside temples, for the benefit of the devout. There’s ‘spectacle’ here of course, but that should not detract from the spirit of giving and as importantly the coming together of a community. In most cases, let us not forget, the beneficiaries are total strangers.
There’s something precious about this ‘spectacle,’ then.
And it finds expression in numerous ways. A group calling itself “Rata Rakina Parapura” (The Generation that Protects the Nation), for example, has suggested that the Themagula (the birth, enlightenment and the parinirvana of the Buddha) be marked by planting a tree. It’s at once the offering of an alternative to ‘spectacle’ and also a call for deeper reflection on the word of the Buddha.
What is planting a tree if not helping arrest the wanton destruction of the natural world by the human species? While protesting all that is fine and even necessary, planting a tree is a quiet, determined and effective counter that seeks to correct the errors of one’s fellow creatures. More trees, more oxygen; more trees, more food for all creatures. Sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta. It is an affirmation of that simple but profound call of maithree
Vesak, then, is about the collective, not just family, but also village; not village alone, but nation; not only nation but the entire earth; and not just our fellow human beings in their differences and similarities, their embraces and call to arms, their indulgence in vilification and counter-vilification, ridicule and superiority, but all creatures big and small, on earth, under the surface and above it, visible to the naked eye and too small to notice.
Sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta. It is certainly something to reflect on, as the vast majority of people in our island nation celebrate their thiloguru and the themagula.