By Malinda Seneviratne –
The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) is alleged to have warned that those who do not adhere to the BBS’s preference with respect to how Vesak should be commemorated will be caned. The BBS finds the festivities associated with Vesak, especially the frills, the color, the play of puppeteers and other kolam objectionable. Instead, the BBS advocates a deeper engagement with the dhamma and a temple-based commemoration.
Vesak commemorates the themagula, the three most significant life-moments of Siddhartha Gauthama, namely the birth, enlightenment and parinirvana or the ascendance to the supreme bliss of Nirvana. Thus, if Vesak is about the Buddha, then it makes sense to reflect on the life and teachings of the All-Knowing One. The dhamma, encapsulated in both the sutras as well as the commentaries, from the deeply philosophical Visuddimagga of Ven. Buddhaghosa to the more lyrical reflection/advocacy of the Loveda Sangharava, is replete with recommendations for wholesome life-practice as well as enumeration of things that could distract and compromise the same.
The Buddha wachana or the Word of the Buddha (Dhamma), then, is hardly recognizable in Vesak, in the glitter that its present day commercialized articulation, except as manifestation of its breach. This is of course not to say that all Buddhists have given up on the Dhamma. The hype is about that which has greater visibility, for example the pandols. The visible (and the visibly large) naturally attract and make for coverage and commentary. But just ask the BBS’s visibility and the coverage/commentary it attracts does not indicate that it represents all Buddhists in any way, the spectacle and spectator-appeal of certain elements of Vesak, does not mean that this is what all Buddhists do on Vesak. The temples are also full of those who observe sil. Many hang lanterns, but even they would not fail to light a clay lamp at home and offer flowers at the temple and before a Buddha statue or image at home. Not because the BBS says ‘this is the way!’ but just that they have a different understanding of doctrine and articulation of understanding.
What is objectionable in the BBS’s Vesak ‘manifesto’ is its quite un-Buddhist response to a vulgarized celebration (different from ‘commemoration’ of course) of Vesak. There is no ‘crime and punishment’ in Buddhism. There is no confession and expiation. The Buddha recommends a certain approach to life, elaborates on what is beneficial and wholesome and warns against acts that can be detrimental to the comprehension of truth, ultimate emancipation and even a peaceful journey through life. It is up to the individual to choose with cautionary caveats about consequences. No mention of canes and caning.
It is commendable that the BBS objects to the ‘glitter’ (from a Buddhist reading), which is but a mimicking of and even a we-can-do-better response to other ‘glittering’ of other faiths or rather the followers of other faiths (much of what is associated with Christmas is incongruent with the life and word of Jesus, for example). The BBS’s response, however, is not only inconsistent with Buddhism but amounts to a threat that infringes on freedoms enshrined in the constitution. The threat is in the public domain. What say the Police and the Attorney General? The BBS has demonstrated that they have strayed a fair distance from the Sathara Brahma Viharana (metta, muditha, karuna and upekkha – compassion, rejoicing in others’ joys, kindness and equanimity); there’s none of these in the ‘caning threat’. This alone scripts ‘failure’ into its project(s), but the state and the law cannot wait on such eventualities.
As for Vesak, we can but hope that it inspires Buddhists to seek refuge and answer, modes of being and choices of engagement in all things in the Word of the Buddha, enshrined in the vast archive that is the Dhamma and obtainable in even a random line.
The Nation chose the following with metta: Sabbe satta bhavantu sukhi-tatta, may all beings be happy.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com