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.
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).”
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:
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.