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Vesak 2016, One Like No Other

Today is Vesak Poya (full moon) Day. It is probably the most important festival of the year in the Theravada Buddhist calendar. Buddhists commemorate the three most important events that took place in the life of Lord Buddha on this Vesak Poya Day (always the first full moon in the month of May). First is the day Siddhartha Gautama was born, which took place under the arbour of Sat trees in in Lumbini Park on the Nepalese border where Queen Mahamaya gave birth to him. The second event was Siddharta Gautama’s supreme enlightenment as the Buddha, under the Bodhi tree in Gaya. The third event was Lord Buddha’s Parinibbana (passing away) over 2,500 years ago at Kusinagar.

lord-buddhas-parinibbana

Lord Buddha’s Parinibanna

YAMU states that “Vesak is traditionally the most observed day of uposatha, the Buddhist day of observance. Devotees flock to the temples to observe ‘Ata Sil’ (the eight precepts), spend the day in meditation and attending sermons, and generally partaking in dana (giving), sila (observing precepts) and bhavana (meditation). Vesak usually attracts the most number of attendees out of all twelve annual Poya days”.

“Even the seemingly ‘secular’ celebrations around Vesak carry deep spiritual meaning. Offering flowers is a way to contemplate the way the flowers wither and die in the sun, just as every being does, and a reminder to be mindful of the fragility and impermanence of life. The eight-sided classic Vesak lantern is meant to represent the Ata Lo Daham (the eight vicissitudes of life – gain and loss, good repute and ill repute, praise and censure, and pain and pleasure), and the candle inside is to remember not to get attached or affected by these – lest it be a cause for suffering (as the candle touching the sides of the lantern causes it to burn down).”

vesak3

Vesak Lanterns

As with all religious festivals (you need only look at Christmas), commercialism has left its mark, not always for the best. However, with the recent sad natural events in Sri Lanka with large parts of urban areas on the outskirts of Colombo and in the West of the country being flooded due to extremely heavy rains, and more disastrously several landslides more inland close to Kegalle causing nearly two hundred deaths (the definite numbers are not yet known as rescue operations are ongoing), this Vesak will be one like no other. I remember last year we were praying for Nepal during Vesak, now we are praying for the country I choose to call home, Sri Lanka.

Many relief operations are ongoing (see below if you want to help, especially the end note).

During Vesak the Dana (food) plays an important role. Every devotee gives alms. This symbolises sharing the joy and peace with people. Richer members of the community will usually donate food or money to poorer families and societies or just groups of friends will have collected money from the community in order to organise a local dansal (free gifts of food, coffee, tea and refreshments to people, in particular travellers on their way to worship at temples). In my village, Narigama in Hikkaduwa, the dansalas have been cancelled and the food and money collected has gone to help survivors of the floods and landslides.

If you would like to make a donation or help in any other way then this article has all the information you need:2016 Flood Relief by YAMU

2016 Flood Relief by YAMU

NB: if you are going up to affected areas with donations please use your common sense and do not hamper rescue operations in any way. If you do not have a direct contact where you are going I would advise you to bring your donations to a known collection point instead. In some areas supply is exceeding demand whereas other areas have nothing. There are also opportunists around who are all too happy to accept your donations with fake tears. Don’t go on the off chance you may be able to help – you won’t. By all means collect items that may be of use in the coming weeks BUT, LEAVE THE DISTRIBUTION TO THE PROFESSIONALS IN THESE EARLY DAYS. 

May the thrice blessed Vesak be a contemplative holiday for all.

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Poson & Weird Weather

Happy Poson poya day!

Mihintale: where Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka. A special place on Poson poya.

Mihintale: where Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka. A special place during Poson poya.

Today is a full moon day (poya) and in the Sinhala Buddhist calendar it celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC. It is a festival of great historical and religious significance and is celebrated island-wide, second only to Vesak. I like poya days for many reasons, written about here. So, as I often do on a poya day when less busy than usually, I ponder on things. It’s my form of meditation and for some reason a full moon helps. Feel free to call me as mad as a hatter but there are many that agree that a full moon has a special significance. There is even a wiki page on this phenomenon ‘Lunar effect‘. Far from going a bit nuts, though, I feel calmer.

I find it is a time to put the things of the month gone by in perspective and Poson is particularly relevant to what is to me just a very personal thing: “On the day, pilgrims gather at Buddhist temples across the country to Observe Sil (“Atamasthanaya”) – A practice where followers wear the most simplest of white clothes, and take time out for a period of reflection, on both the self, and on the teachings of the Buddha. This period of self reflection is said to bring one closer to detaching from worldly pleasures and coming closer to attaining Nirvana. Devotees also gather to listen and understand the teachings of the Buddha or “Dhamma”, through sermons and preachings by senior Buddhist monks.” (taken from amazingasia.com). I did none of this but the mention of self reflection hit a nerve. So, it is not all mysticism and talk of werewolves? The moon has an effect on tides, that’s pretty big is it not? So, why should it not affect our moods? Food for thought if ever there was any.

It is a lovely peaceful day. The girls and women in the village dressed in white walking to the temple and whole families enjoying themselves on the beach with picnics. Along the Galle Road other families are crammed into pick-up trucks or singing on a rented bus. Distant chanting of monks from the village temple ebbs and flows with the wind in my breadfruit tree. Yet, something is bugging me today. It is the light. Something about the light, something about the weather. And it’s not the moon bathing the garden in ethereal light these last few nights, it’s different.

It is no secret that India is in the midst of a pre-monsoon heatwave. The Times of India has proclaimed it the world’s 5th deadliest heatwave ever.  That is quite scary in general. All the more so here because Sri Lanka is not a million miles away. I have been hot, my fan is on higher, colder and I am complaining more. It’s humid, sticky and hot. Uncomfortable.

So yes it is very hot, we have established that, but I have noticed the light is off, it’s different. I have been observing this for a while but it was especially noticeable after having left the country for 6 days a fortnight ago. Now, when we have the cross-over from season to off-season this happens, but this year it is extreme. In Hikkaduwa where I live the sunset has moved quite considerably in position. Sadly I do not have good photos to compare but let’s just say it no longer sets where it usually does (or should do at this time of year, however, given our proximity to the equator it should not deviate much at all). The strength of the sun has also increased as I can testify by getting sunburnt in half the time I would have done in December, just a few days ago.

Pre-monsoon deceptively strong sun

Pre-monsoon deceptively strong sun

The sun shines when it doesn’t, it buckets down when it shouldn’t (or when you are least expecting it to). The BBC weather centre tells me the rains are coming, yet it told me this last week and we are still waiting, sweating. It’s different.

On this Poson day, this leads me to consider global warming, then suddenly remembering how the light was off in the weeks following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami when the weather turned weird and different. I was here then too, suddenly the memory is razor sharp and I remember nuances which I had pushed to the back of my head. Could it be Nepal, the earth’s axis adjusting once again? Shivers suddenly rush down my spine in this heat, and humidity. The earth changes, as do the seasons, the sun and moon are in a constant state of flux. The only constant thing is change.

I had a flutter of panic in my chest until I realised that. The only constant thing is change. Now I watch the moon and am at peace once again.

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