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Vesak: Of cheap plastic tat and ownership of truth

8 May 2012 09:26 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By L. Jovian
In the week leading up to Vesak many commentators used their positions to plead for the ‘true’ meaning of the festival not to become lost amid the  garish kaleidoscope of light and sound. 
Walking down Bauddhaloka Mawatha on Saturday, I began to empathise with these pleas.

I watched as the hordes hurried into line for their free cup of Nestomalt whilst simultaneously digging into their lukewarm Maggi pots. I stared as street vendors sold cheap plastic masks to teenagers, already on candy-floss highs.

In many ways this debate echoes that around Christmas in Britain, where these days it seems the festive countdown begins even before the summer ends. I have been reliably informed by people of Delhi that Diwali too has been engulfed by gaudy hoardings and money-making hawks.

However, whilst I share these concerns I believe that it is important to question what we are repulsed by. I am not a Buddhist. Neither am I a Christian or a Hindu. For me these festivals carry no more essential ‘truth’ than the sun, sea or supermarket. Why then am I concerned with the changing nature of these festivals?

My repulsion emanates from my distaste for the seemingly rampant commercialisation of all that ignites our passions, be it our faiths, our histories or even our sports. My concern is that no matter what an event may originally have meant, no matter where, why or how it was held, it will eventually become little more than an excuse for another homogenised homage to gluttony.
I realise however that to those with faith there are different fears at play; that the brashness of modern celebrations distract and remove the true meaning and practice of their religion.

There is some mileage in these claims.  One may question the ‘wisdom’ and ‘Virtue’ displayed in queuing for half an hour for a free Nestomalt. Equally the construction of gigantic LED-clad haloes may not be exactly what the Lord Buddha intended when he spoke of ‘enlightenment’.

However, rejecting these practices on spiritual rather than aesthetic or anti-commercial grounds opens a Pandora’s Box of questions about what should and should not be considered ‘true’.  I am concerned that these debates are increasingly becoming used by reactionary elements of society to propagate their narrow interpretations of ‘truth’. In Britain the debate around the meaning of Christmas has often veered towards anti-multiculturalism. Similarly in Sri Lanka Vesak has openly been used in certain quarters to call for a purge on fake Buddhists and ‘pretenders’.

In reality, the organisational and devotional practice of Buddhism varies widely between different cultures and sects, none of whom can presume ownership of the ‘truth’. Moreover, given recent events, whether the Vesak commemorations are carried out in silent devotion or amidst bright lights and babble should not be the main concern to the Buddhist community. I would argue that the continued adherence  to caste amongst Sri Lankan Buddhists, the politically motivated conflation of  Sinhalese and Buddhist identities and indeed the actions of the ‘monks’ in Dambulla are far greater challenges to the spiritual integrity of Buddhism than any opportunist hawking of plastic tat.

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  • parasnna aryapream Wednesday, 09 May 2012 11:28 AM

    very true


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