Why Vesak? | Daily News


Why Vesak?

As we try to live by the teachings of Buddha, we need to ask ourselves, why we are doing anything, before we do it. Buddha did not teach us to follow him, or accept his words in blind faith. He has pointed us on the path we need to take for our escape from suffering and samsara.

When we see the “celebration” of Vesak around us, we have to ask ourselves why we are doing it, when these practices began, or from where we borrowed them. We have to ask ourselves what would be the Buddha's reaction if he were to visit Colombo on the Vesak day. To try to live by the teachings of the Buddha, is a continuous process, 24/7, or day and night every day of the year, everyday of our lives. Trying to live by Buddha Dhamma cannot be limited to one day or one week in the year, or one day every month when the moon is full.

During Vesak, and sometimes on Poya days, we hear so much on “Prathipaththi Puja” (homage through practice) instead of “Amisa puja” (homage by offerings of material things). It is not “homage” in any form that Buddha would have expected, but mankind to practice “Metta”, Loving Kindness, to all life on earth and to control our “Tanha”, greed. On the Buddha Jayanthi we talked of “Pilivethin pelagasemu” meaning let us practice the teachings.

However we continue like pre-programmed robots or mindless creatures, imitating or following others blindly, aping their actions, without asking why.

The Buddhist flag is reported to have been designed by J. R. de Silva and Henry Steel Olcott, in 1880.

Buddha Dhamma had survived for nearly 2.400 years without a flag, and it had to be an American, who introduced the flag. It was a man who had grown up as a Christian and later embraced Theosophy, which is a denial of all that the Buddha tried to teach. According to the Buddha Dhamma Education Association, “Colonel Olcott designed a flag from the six colours of the aura that he believed shone around the head of the Buddha after His Enlightenment”. The aura and the colours are what “he believed”, a person who also believed in occult “science” and of the mysterious “Mahatmas” or “adepts” who lived in the Himalayas and elsewhere.

In the flag the five colours were given symbolic meanings. “ The colonel’s flag later came to symbolize the unity of Buddhists. Thereafter, it has been used worldwide and has been used in nearly 60 countries during Buddhist festive seasons, particularly during the Vesak celebrations.”

However, the flag has failed to create the unity that Olcott expected, since we have so many “Buddhisms” around the world today and within each “Buddhism” also there are many divisions among the monks and even among the lay followers. A flag, which originated as an identification for the armies in face to face battles, and carried by warmongers, would never have had any place in Buddha Dhamma for it would be totally unnecessary for peace and harmony. The Crusaders carried a flag with the symbol of the cross, when they went to war with the Islamic countries.

A flag also promotes religious chauvinism, by the false pride in some minds as they wave the Buddhist flag, in the same way they wave the school flag at inter-school sports events.

There are no specifications or standards laid down for the “Buddhist flag”, or how and when it should be used. Thus there is much abuse in the use of the flag, and at the end of the Vesak week, many of flags end up in garbage heaps or blocking storm water drains, along with images of the Buddha, in flags, banners and Christianized greeting by Vesak cards.

Christanization we see again in the Bhakthi Geetha, in total imitation of the Christmas carols. The intentions could be good and harmless, because the songs are about Buddha and the Dhamma, but do people listen to the geetha, and try to understand what they contain and contemplate on their message?

We come across “Dansala” everywhere, by the roadside and public places. Some offer the dansala with their own funds, while others go around the neighbourhood, pestering residents for contributions. The many dansala offer regular rice and curries, and then others offer manioc, gram, noodles, fried rice, ice cream, iced coffee, and even bread with seeni-sambol. We have to ask ourselves, why we have dansala, what we offer, and to who do we offer. There may have been a time where people from distant villages would travel to the nearest towns, or the city, to see the Vesak Pandals, or would travel to far away temples. Since there may not have been many restaurants or ‘eateries’, unless the travellers carried their own food, they may not have been able to find any food on the way. Not many people would have been able to afford to purchase their food. At the time offering food to the weary travellers would have been a really meritorious deed. Today even though there are very poor people even in urban areas, some of them nearly starving, we do not see many such hungry people, or the street people and beggars receiving food at the dansalas.

Another unfortunate development is the apparent unconcern or disinterest of the dansala organisers about the health and hygiene of the food and drink they offer, that authorities have to intervene. If all dansala organizers are serving food for the needy with serious good intentions, there would not have been any need for supervision, intervention or to lay down a code, even the instructions on the use of the Buddhist flag.

There would also have been a time where Vesak pandals served a purpose, when they depicted Jataka stories or teachings of the Buddha, explaining the stories and the message to the people, specially the less literate, or those who did not have access to the literature. Today people gather at the pandals to watch the decorative illuminations and sometimes look at the paintings.

Till a few decades ago Vesak decorations were limited to homes, where the children, and sometimes even the adults would get together, make a few lanterns and light them up in the evening. The children enjoyed making the lanterns and then watching them lit up. Today that fun has been deprived of the children, even in the villages, with the commercialization of the Vesak decorations. We buy all the ready-made lanterns available on the streets, or which have been imported, probably from China. Last year there were lanterns in rainbow colours, to celebrate Vesak. Then there are also dedicated zones organized by the state, where public institutions and sometime private organizations display huge Vesak decorations.

We recite the Five Precepts everyday, but if we observe them everyday, the meat and fish stalls and liquor shops need not have to be compulsorily closed on Vesak and other poya days, if we observe the First and Fifth Precepts. We would not need a commission to investigate bribery and corruption if we are observing the Second and Fourth Precepts. There would be no adultery, no prostitution and no threat of HIV if we observe the Third Precept. Many of us observe the Eight Precepts on Vesak and other poya days. But now it is only from about 7.00 am to about 5.00 pm, which means the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Precepts become meaningless. We also need to think about what we do, what we talk about, and what we think, during the ten hours we are supposed to observe the Eight Precepts.

People flock around all these events, enjoying the decorations, illuminations, the food offered, and the adventure itself, and are happy and satisfied with visiting temples, offering flowers and food and lighting lamps for the Buddha, and observing the Eight Precepts, offering food to people at dansala, decorating homes and offices, all in the name of the Buddha and Buddha Dhamma. Let us try to think for a moment how Buddha would have seen all these “celebrations” had he been here on Vesak day.

Let us stop saying “evam mesuthan”, accepting and following blindly what we have heard or read. Let us be “ehipassika”, think and see for ourselves, trying to understand the Dhamma. We boast of such high literacy, but we are reluctant to read the Tripitaka, and prefer to listen to he interpretations made by others. We prefer to be guided towards Nirvana and the state of Arhath, by others who had not attained the state themselves. We have the powers of thinking and reasoning, thus we need not be followers or disciples.

“atta hi attano natho
kohi natho paro siya
attanahi sudantena
natham labathi durlabam”
Dhammapada 160

“One indeed is one’s own refuge. How can others be a refuge to one? With oneself in thorough control, one can attain a refuge which is so difficult to attain.” 

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