Buddhist Flag and the Vesak full moon.
I hope you’re enjoying the Vesak weekend, celebrating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. I went to a calm and beautiful temple, took one of the new city buses downtown and walked around the Beira Lake. It hasn’t been a huge Vesak thus far, but the streets are packed with cheery and friendly people, lining up for dansal (free food and drink) and piled into the back of pick-up trucks and Dimo battas, to see the lights. Sri Lankan Buddhism is fundamentally a positive and beautiful thing. It’s nice to see it in the light.
Votive lamps and a Buddha statue.
Sri Lankan Buddhism, or Sinhala Buddhism if you will, has gotten its share of bad press lately. In the calm of temple I could reflect on how offensive and shameful it is to interrupt people at worship, as Muslims were heckled and harassed in Dambulla. People of faith have that in common and churches, temples, kovils and mosques remain safe places, and should remain so. I’m terribly sorry and I oppose moving the Dambulla mosque and fully support equal religious rights for all Sri Lankans.
That said, the general practice of Buddhism here is a positive force in peoples lives, and a positive force in our society and nation. I’m not the most ritualistic Buddhist, but I do try to meditate every day and I’m aware that my practice wouldn’t be possible without the knowledge Sri Lankans have preserved over thousands of years, at least partly through ritual. I used to think that I’m above the ritualistic, cultural side, but as I get older I’ve realized that my practice may not have been possible without it, without that cultural substrate. So I no longer begrudge the seemingly unrelated ritual.
The Vesak crowd.
Indeed, I rather enjoy Vesak. The lights, the food, the crowds, the general happiness and chill. People crowd into vans and trucks and the backs of lorries just to see the lights, to be together. There are old people, young people, babies; crowds of boys popping wheelies on bicycles, wearing Scream masks (some demon thing), being boys but safe. Vesak is a bit less this year, but you can see the difference from the recent past. I mean, we are safe on the streets again. People can live in their city without fear of being blown up by terrorists, and it’s so great to see.
I wouldn’t even bring it up again, it’s so far from memory. I know a lot of kids for whom the war has to be explained. But I remember. This scene wouldn’t be there with the ongoing violence, so I am thankful. That we have our city and island to live, eat and sleep in, in peace.
Buddha statue in Dehiwela.
Perhaps that isn’t what Vesak is about, but perhaps it is. Buddhism has always had a relationship with power and the state. Even the Buddha depended on donated land and political patronage. Today, most of the Vesak floats I was were done by the armed forces and police. The dansals were more private sectors, but a different sector than you might thing. Radiant Cabs, smaller banks (but also Nations Trust), communities – those were the people giving out free food. And even a non-self faith like Buddhism still needs food, land, and ultimately political cover to exist.
The troubles with Sri Lankan Buddhism come from this need, this attachment if you will. Yes you get festivals and a space to preserve knowledge and meditate and be. You also, however, get drama and racism and violence and abuse and all the concomitants of human administration of religion. I choose to see the positives of Sri Lankan Buddhism, but there’s a whole bunch of negatives that I don’t choose to see, they get shown to me, to my great embarrassment and shame. I’m not excusing the intolerance done in the name of Sri Lankan Buddhism, but I hope you can understand the faith and that it’s personal, social, and generally good.
See Vesak for example. Sometimes territorial, but generally chill. I’ve been enjoying it so far, I hope you have too, whatever faith (or non-faith) you are. My best you and your family. May you be well, peaceful and happy. Preethi Vesak.