‘Those who abide by the Dhamma are protected by the Dhamma,’ is a line that seems to be popular among Buddhists who own cars and are want to declare their faith with stickers. It is human to declare one’s identity one way or another. This is a phenomenon that is common in all communities, be it religion, ethnic identity or even political loyalty. Notwithstanding the arguably irrelevant nature of such assertions as per the Dhamma itself, the line warrants reflection of a kind that is relevant to Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists.
Vesak is a celebration of three important moments in the life of the Enlightened One, birth, enlightenment and ascension to the incomparable and sorrow-less state of nirvana. In fact ‘celebration’ is a misnomer, for what best reflects the Buddha’s teaching is not celebration but commemoration by way of reflection on the Dhamma.
Perhaps as a consequent of living in an era with particular material, communicative and cultural realities and forces that intrude with and without permission on sense and sensibility, doctrine tends to play second-fiddle to pomp-pageantry type celebration of the doctrine. This too is not a Buddhism-specific or a Buddhist-specific phenomenon.
Lost in the glitter, though, is the word of the particular teacher. There is nothing in Buddhism that condemns or forbids entertainment of course, but the glitter of Vesak even as it is used (for example in pandols) to articulate aspects of the Dhamma distracts and prevents from straying from the path rather than encouraging deeper reflection.
Vesak decorations illustrate this well. Embedded in the process of making, decorating, lighting and eventual disintegration by the elements (fire at times, and sometimes rain) are fundamental tenets of the Dhamma such as the transient nature of all things. Even little children delight in making vesak koodu and decorating them; they grieve when the paper catches fire or if the rain soaks it into pulp, but they take away much more than what a long gaze at a Pandol will not yield.
It can be put down to aesthetics and changing perceptions of the same, but there seem to be more congruence with Buddhist teachings in lighting a simple and humble clay lamp at home than bedecking temple premises with rows upon rows of bulbs, painted in the nil, kaha, rathu, sudu and thambili of the Buddhist flag. It is probably not the case that Buddhists prefer one or the other of these kinds of pooja, but the glittering kind blinds in a way that the softer and reflection-yielding but less-decorative kind does not.
Decorative preferences aside, an important day like Vesak (like other days of religious significance for those of other faiths) are special in that they call for identity or faith assertion and underline the call for abiding by the Dhamma or the particular doctrine/philosophy. Predictions of what that does and faith in the same notwithstanding, it makes for a more wholesome engagement with both self and community.