‘Evam me sutan’:
‘Thus have I heard...’
“Buddhism is not merely a religion, it is also a whole civilisation,
with its historical background, its literature and art, and philosophy,
its institutions, social, political and educational, and its code of
- Dr. G.P Malalasekera
With only seven days left for Vesak, with the structures of pandols
beginning to obscure the billboards, with hitherto never seen young men
arriving on your doorstep to demand donations for religious events, with
massive banners claiming there will be the biggest dansal ever, here
there and everywhere it is hard to stifle the question, how best should
Vesak be celebrated?
The path to holiness Pic Nisansala Karunaratne
Religious traditions are, by their very nature, complex. In a sense
the physical involvements of constructing pandols, conducting dansal
often with the organizers forcibly throwing yellow coloured liquid down
your throat, give meaning to the most commonplace human needs and
symbolize the highest aspirations of the human spirit.
Yet, this should not be so. Rev. Prof. Kollupitiye Mahinda Thera, the
Chief Incumbent of the Kelany temple dismisses these celebrations
connected with the secular world as “conventions” which are less
important when compared to following the teachings of the Buddha.
He says, in simple terms everyone should eradicate three factors -
desire, hatred and ignorance which can easily be done by observing the
five percepts. “Lord Buddha mentioned repeatedly that we do not have any
differences among us. He emphasized “oneness of society” and every
Buddhist should follow this doctrine not only during Vesak but
throughout the year.” says Rev. Prof. Mahinda Thera.
Bhikkuni Vijitha Nanda of the Sakyadeepa Meditation Centre, Panadura
expresses the same view. She believes on Vesak full moon poya day
Buddhists should go to the temple and purify their minds of anger,
jealousy, revenge and see every human being as one’s kinsman.
“Going to the temple to simply light a lamp is not enough” says
Bhikkuni Nanda. “One should look at the bo leaves and discipline one’s
thoughts in the same way the Buddha defeated thanha, rathi, raga”.
Bhikkuni Kusuma the first and foremost among female monks in
Theravada Buddhism in the country, defining Nibbana as the defeat of all
attachments says the aim of every Buddhist should be that of reaching
She believes that on Vesak day everyone should try and overcome the
concepts of the “me and the I and the ego”. “It is wrong to believe the
“me and the I and the ego will come to an end with one’s death. It does
not end there.
When you are born again, the me and the I and the ego come back. The
best way you can overcome this is through Vipassana”. She quotes the
greatest message of the Buddha as “Sabba papassa akaranam - kusalassa
Engineer turned Buddhist scholar P Amaratunge too says what is
important is to live according to the Dhamma preached by the Buddha and
adds even though it is good to feed the hungry on Vesak day often this
is not the case and it is the affluent who frequent the stalls
distributing free food.
Dr. Raj Somadeva, Senior Lecture at the Post Graduate Institute of
Archaeology recalls the Vesak celebrations of the past by saying
according to historical, as well as archaeological evidence, there were
no celebrations at all in times of yore.
“There may have been special events held in the main monasteries to
mark the Vesak full moon poya day and some kings may have organized a
perahara or two but the common man had no time for Vesak celebrations.
His time was totally taken up with tilling the land and living in a
feudal society he would never have gone to the temple even on a full
moon poya day.” Dr. Somadeva believes the conventions of going to the
temple, observing the five percepts etc, came much later in our history.
Dr. Priyanka Baddevithana, who has a Doctorate in Psychology from the
University of Kelaniya, explains, ‘Vesak’ is a word which has its roots
in the Indian month of Sakai and is the most important day in the
Buddhist calendar, being the full-moon day of the month, Vaisaka. Many
cultural rituals and processions are woven into its celebration usually
spanning for two or more days following the full moon day”.
According to Dr. Baddevithana “the three auspicious events celebrated
by Buddhists the world over are the birth of Prince Siddhartha, his
enlightenment to become Gautama Buddha his passing away, which share
this day in the lunar calendar followed from ancient times in India.
“The three events occurred in India at Buddha Gaya, Lumbini and
Kushinara respectively and the Buddhists celebrate the event of birth in
a grand way by decorating their homes, temples and streets with bright
illumination, and colourful lanterns.
The second event of enlightenment is celebrated with huge illuminated
pandols depicting events before and after supreme enlightenment of the
Buddha at major places of public gathering where people congregate in
The third event is celebrated by observing eight precepts clad in
simple white robes at temples where universal compassion of the Buddha
and the higher canonical knowledge imparted are contemplated, discussed
and meditated “.
It is hard not to wonder if the Buddha had rejected excesses or
over-indulgence of sensual pleasures as they are not conducive to human
happiness if these three great events should be celebrated through
religious activities in a festive mood. Dr. Baddevithana has the answer.
“Vesak should not be commercialized, but those making a living with
art and culture should be given a sober opportunity to use their talents
and improve their economic condition in the spirit of vesak.
“Equanimity, serenity and bliss are associated with Buddhist wisdom
and the three most auspicious events for Buddhists of the world should
be according to the great teachings of the one who has dispelled the
darkness of ignorance from his mind with the light of knowledge to
eliminate all defilements and showed us the path to achieving the
highest purpose of human existence”.
And so, with seven days left to celebrate Vesak “Evam me suthan...Thus
have I heard....”