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Friday, May 8, 2009

Wesak 2009 Special : Sacrilege of thrice blessed celebration

Sacrilege of thrice blessed celebration: Vesak

Vesak signifies the commemoration of the birth, enlightenment and parinibbhana (passing away) of the Buddha. To Sri Lanka, considered as the cradle of Theravada Buddhism, the event bears even a greater significance and calls for observance of the event in a manner befitting its true meaning and importance. Unfortunately, over a period of time, wrong practices and behaviour have become institutionalised as ‘tradition’ and the norm to erode the sanctity of Vesak and bestow on it an unsavoury flavour and character which is a blot on the Dhamma preached by the Enlightened One.

The efforts of the temple and the bhikkhu to celebrate Vesak in a manner befitting its true significance and importance are dwarfed by the efforts of a Vesak mafia who have hijacked Vesak and converted the thrice blessed celebration to a loud, un-Buddhistic display of vulgar materialism. The commercialisation of Vesak has relegated spiritualism to a position of relative unimportance and insignificance. Although adhering to a way of life spelt out by the Dhamma should be continuous and not confined to any particular day of the year, the fact is that a particular day is being designated to celebrate the three significant events associated with the Enlightened One and that day has been officially declared a non-working day. Consequently it helps to focus attention and inspire the followers of the Dhamma to give thought to the Buddha and his teachings and indulge in certain token acts of homage to express gratitude to the Buddha. Moreover, participation in collective acts of veneration is a source of inspiration to the average followers of the Dhamma who are yet to attain the disciplined state of mind moulded by advanced stages of meditation. Thus, clad in white they flock to temples to participate in token acts of veneration.

This aspect of Vesak, however, is eclipsed by other practices which have acquired “traditional” status in Sri Lanka. Almost a month in advance, groups of youth visit houses with “alms” lists purportedly for “dansalas” or for erecting pandals. As for dansalas the origins date back to times when roads as we now know them and mechanised transport did not exist and pilgrimages to places of worship were undertaken in numbers over long distances. The provision of food and drink to such pilgrims were considered meritorious acts which would stand the givers in good stead in their journey through samsara. The sequence of events that lead to present day dansalas being opened and the recipients of their “alms” is a far cry from the original concept. So, too, are the compelling reasons which induce the givers. A week before Vesak the vicinity of the dansala is decorated with Buddhist flags and “ralli parlang” strung across the public highways. The dansala itself is built on public pavements and most times extend to the public highways, obstructing both pedestrians and vehicular traffic. Both activities are unlawful. To draw attention to the dansala: it is opened by a VIP with the lighting of crackers and loudspeakers blare out “traditional” Vesak songs (noise pollution). The precincts of the dansala is strictly out of bounds to street children and beggars! Meanwhile, buth packets are dispatched to associates of the organizer/s. As the evening advances, in the vicinity of the dansala, the “main sponsor/s” of the dansala and his/their cronies declare open a “muth pan sala” with accompanying music to rival the dansala music.

Pandal designing has been developed to a fine art in Sri Lanka and Vesak brings out creativity at its exquisite best. However, the beautiful spectacle of an illuminated Vesak pandal with its multi-coloured and painted scenes from the Jathaka tales tells a different tale. My lament does not relate to Vesak pandals per se, but, to the ulterior motives of the pandal sponsors. A few months prior to Vesak the “sammadan” lists make their appearance to do house rounds or vendor stall. Whatever the financing arrangements, the guiding motive is to erect the biggest pandal or the pandal incorporating the most number of coloured electric bulbs an ego-boosting exercise rather than a genuine desire to treat the viewing public to an eye-pleasing experience and perhaps, convey to them the moral of the Jathaka tale scenes depicted on the pandal in a creatively convincing and effective manner. In a majority of instances, individuals who finance Vesak pandals do so to lessen the unfavourable public image as a result of their unethical vocations (such as illicit liquour business); to gain social recognition and to assert their “power” in the area. Apart from undesirable motives, other negative aspects of Vesak pandals are noise pollution through blaring loudspeaker magnified music; damage to public roads by digging holes to erect the structure of pandals; hindrance to pedestrians and vehicular traffic. Invariably, an integral component of the Vesak pandal scenario is the pandals’ role of playing beacon to tipplers who are assured of a sure-fire source of illicit liquor in the vicinity of the pandal on a day where the licensed liquor outlets are closed.

In my opinion, the colossal amounts of money spent on pandals could be better utilized to provide food and clothing to the needy, which altruistic act would far outweigh the ulterior and unsavoury motives of pandal promoters and would be a true expression of compassion during Vesak. Another all too familiar and deplorable scenes witnessed during Vesak are the baila-singing, “bera” thumping sightseers either walking in groups or packed into lorries or half trucks and generally making themselves a spectacle and a nuisance to all other road users. The significance of Vesak is completely lost on these raucous hordes.

The Dhamma, in essence advocates compassion and altruism. It conveys the important message that one’s thoughts, words and deeds should not cause pain of mind or body to others and that one must respect and not infringe on the happiness and well-being of others. The aforementioned thoughtless practices associated with Vesak in Sri Lanka, thus, are an antithesis to the very essence of the Dhamma and a blot on the sanctity of the occasion.

Lakshman Dissanayake- Dailymirror

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