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The Global Significance of Vesak

Based on these landmark developments and in recognition of a number of other cogent reasons, Buddhists from all over the world have good cause to be proud of the high esteem the Supreme Self-enlightened Buddha, and also, of the reverence the Sublime Dhamma He unravelled and taught for the benefit of all humankind, enjoys throughout the world.

by Ambassador Dato’ Dr Ananda Kumaraseri 

( May 7, 2018, Kuala Lumpur, Sri Lanka Guardian) Vesak is today observed, all around the world, as one of the most auspicious days in the year. The Full Moon Day of Vesak embraces the commemoration of the trice-sacred day of the birth of the Buddha in the Royal Gardens in Lumbini, His Supreme Self-enlightenment in Buddha Gaya, and the Maha Parinibbna or the Passing Away of the Buddha into Nibbana in Kusinara. The term Vesak is derived from the Pali word, “Vesakha” or its Sanskrit reference, “Vaishakha” for the month of Mayin the Gregorian calendar. Vesak thus usually falls during the period April to May each year. 

As a result of the initiative of the Sri Lanka Government, more specifically the diplomatic acumen and strive of the island republic’s Foreign Minister, the late Mr, Kadiragama, the celebration of Vesak rightly assumed an international dimension and profile in contemporary times. To recapitulate briefly the astute diplomacy that finally brought this landmark achievement; on 13th of December 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised the fact that the Buddha Dhamma is one of the world’s oldest religions. The august Assembly also noted that for over 2550 years, the religion has made, and continues to make, significant contributions towards the welfare and wellbeing of humankind in numerous fields of endeavour. It envisaged that the Buddha Dhamma without question would play a pivotal role in humankind’s future success, wellbeing, happiness, harmony and peace, than ever before in the history of humankind. In pursuance of the lofty goal to further promote the profound contributions of the Buddha Dhamma in the world, the United Nations resolved that from the year 2000 onwards, Vesak would be internationally observed and appropriately celebrated globally. Since then Vesak has been celebrated across the world in keeping with the lofty ennobling age-old spiritual tradition, culture and rich history and civilisation of the Buddha Dhamma.

Based on these landmark developments and in recognition of a number of other cogent reasons, Buddhists from all over the world have good cause to be proud of the high esteem the Supreme Self-enlightened Buddha, and also, of the reverence the Sublime Dhamma He unravelled and taught for the benefit of all humankind, enjoys throughout the world. For indeed, the Buddha who, among His many inspiring epithets, is unreservedly honoured universally as the, “Flower of Humankind” and the, “Teacher of gods and Men”, is without question, the greatest human being ever known in the history of humankind. Equally significant is the fact that some of the most renowned personages throughout history are devout disciples or followers of the Buddha Dhamma. They include Arahant Nagarjuna the Patriarch of Mahayana Buddhism, Venerable Kumarajiva who spread the Buddha Dhamma in ancient China, Emperor Dhammasoka who is recognised as the greatest king of not only India, but of the world, the illustrious Emperor Kanishka of the Kushan Dynasty, the great compassionate and benevolent Buddhist emperors of China, and Buddhist kings of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia and Malaysia. In the modern era we have illustrious Buddhist leaders  such as Anagarika Dharamapala,  the unparalleled reformist  leader of the masses of downtrodden Indians, Babasheib Dr Ambedkar, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama to name a few towering personages.

Bodhisatva Prince Siddhartha was groomed and trained from a young age in Arthasastra and warrior skills to fulfil the prophesied destiny of Him becoming a Chakravathi Raja or a King of Kings. He was persistently taught to pursue the entrenched political ethos of Digvijaya, of territorial conquest and the subjugation and exploitation of conquered peoples based on this overriding political ethos of ruling vast territories by ruthless bloody  military conquest. But He chose instead to be a Chakravathi Dhamma by attaining Bodhi or Supreme Self-enlightenment and thereby created an even larger and lasting Kingdom of Righteousness. His Universal Kingdom of Righteousness exists to this day and remains as vibrant as ever with the ever increasing understanding, and devout embrace and practice of the Buddha Dhamma, in all regions of the world today.

The Buddha spent 45 long-years criss-crossing Northeastern India, from village to village, town to town, city to city and kingdom to kingdom to teach the Sublime Dhamma to all strata of society. They included many Brahmana high priests and other religious leaders and their followers. In fact many of His Arahant Disciples were hitherto Brahmin priests. In addition, kings, queens, princes, princesses, aristocrats, noblemen, merchants traders, artisans, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers were taught by the Supreme Self-enlightened Buddha on how to live a meaningful, noble, successful, healthy, harmonious and peaceful life.

Further, the Dhamma the Buddha taught brought forth a bust of freedom and a most powerful liberation of the creative spirit in the Indian psyche. This free spirit of inquiry and creativity likewise were ignited in the countries the religion  spread and took root. This explains the uniqueness of the Buddha Dhamma of possessing well springs of creative excellence in all art forms, creativity, learning, scholarship etc. The cradles of civilization such as Ghandara and Taxasila, the fabulous Ajantha and Ellora Caves, the many historical Buddhist sites all across the Indian sub-continent, in China, Mongolia, the Korean Peninsula, Japan and Southeast Asia, is an unsurpassed enriching history and civilisation of Buddha Dhamma. This awe inspiring culturally steeped Buddhist heritage spawned a spiritually inspired flowering of and holistic education and creativity evident in the wellsprings of and artistic expression in various modes in the great Buddhist civilizations that blossomed across Asia.

India is without question a glorious Buddhabumi -- a heritage which every Indian should be proud of and be inspired to imbue the Sublime teachings of the Buddha. As such, great substance and meaning have to be given by the Government and people of India to live up to their noble nomenclature of India as  Buddhabumi. We are to recall with gratification, Prime Minister Nerandra Modi’s initiative and the efforts of past prime ministers to perpetuate the special status and role of India as Buddhabumi by spreading the Buddha Dhamma, and, the religion’s rich cultural and civilisational heritage to the masses in India and to the world, as an integral of national policy. The many projects and programs in promoting the ethos of the Buddha Dhamma in India are worthy of appreciative applause. It is equally noteworthy that Prime Minister Nerander Modi has also made it a point to project his empathy and deep shraddha or confidence in the greatness and wholesomeness of the Buddha Dhamma in his numerous –personal participation and patronage of Buddhist events and programs in India. Significantly, he has likewise demonstrated his empathy towards the Buddha Dhamma in his overseas sojourns, especially on his Official Visits to traditional Buddhist countries such as to Japan and Sri Lanka.

India is without question a glorious Buddhabumi -- a heritage which every Indian should be proud of and be inspired to imbue the Sublime teachings of the Buddha.

On this auspicious Vesak Full Moon, I wish to invoke the fervent prayer among the world Buddhist fraternity that the sacred places of the Buddha Dhamma in India be managed by Buddhist. It is to be recalled at this juncture that it was as the result of the courageous untiring efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala of Sri Lanka who risked his life to secure the administration of Maha Bodhi Vihara which is the most sacred place of Buddhists, instead of unjustly by the Hindu Mahantha, the Maha Bodhi Act of 1949 was legislated. The Act was aimed at placating, the growing disenchantment expressed by the Buddhist around the world at that time over the pathetic state of the Sri Maha Bodhi Vihara and other ancient Buddhist sacred shrines and sites in India. It provided for an eight-member Management Committee comprising four Hindus, including the Mahantha, four followers of the Buddha Dhamma and the District Magistrate of Gaya as Ex-Officio Chairman, who mandatorily has to be a Hindu.

The sad and painful fact is that, in reality, the Sri Maha Bodhi Vihara continues to be managed by Hindus, whilst the sanctity of the sacred shrine continues to suffer improper management. This paradoxical situation goes against the very ethos of justice, multiculturalism and inter-religious understanding and harmony which India avows to uphold.

This paradox of the most sacred place of a religion being managed by people of another religious persuasion is unprecedented in the world. It will be hugely constructive, if Prime Minister Nerendra Modi were to legislate that religious and lay leaders of the Buddha Dhamma are henceforth responsible for the management of the Sri Maha Bodhi Vihara and other sacred Buddhist sites in India. In the all-embracing compassion the Buddha personified and taught, we pray that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will forthwith rectify this injustice the world Buddhist fraternity had had to bear for far too long. While on this point, I wish to also appeal to the compassion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of the fervent prayer of the world Buddhist fraternity for the name of spiritually steeped town, where the Buddha attained Supreme Self-enlightenment, be reverted to its correct historical and spiritual name, “Buddha Gaya” in place of Bodhgaya. This is all the more so imperative since it is commonly contended that Bodhgaya connotes that a person’s mental faculty has left her or him. The time is long overdue for this corrupted nuance of the most sacred place of the world’s Buddhist fraternity to be rectified so as to correctly project and promote Indian’s glorious Buddhist ethos. In the same spirit, the State of Bihar should rightly be renamed Vihara Bumi – the Land of Viharas which has characterises the State since the time of the Supremely Self-enlightened Buddha. I must say that the world Buddhist fraternity feels confident that under the leadership of Prime Minister Neranda Modi, or for that matter, of any Prime Minister, India can, and indeed must, play a leadership role in sharing the Supremely Self-enlightened Buddha’s Teaching and the cultural and civilisational heritage the religion has bequeathed for the benefit of all humankind.

Viewed from a global perspective the Dhamma that the Buddha taught is more relevant today than ever before in human history. The Buddha Dhamma provides an effective and practical way to address the ever-escalating global problems and challenges such of environmental degradation, climate change, peace building, embracing diversity and multiculturalism, prevention of drug abuse and a host of other social ills and crimes. The Buddha Dhamma provides a realistic and effective framework for humankind to live a noble and contended life and enjoy real lasting happiness and inner peace here and now in this very life regardless of one’s clime. The Supremely Self-enlightened Buddha realised that ignorance of the realities of life and of Nature is the Root Cause of human suffering and misery. Upon attaining Buddhahood or Supreme Self-enlightenment, the Buddha taught that the way to address the Root Cause is to cultivate the mind which is the forerunner of all of our thoughts, speech and actions. Based on Right Understanding of the realities of life and Nature, the Buddha unravelled and taught the Noble Eightfold Path for us to live successful, healthy, happy, peaceful, meaningful lives. Briefly, the Eightfold Path to live a wholesome and purposeful life comprises: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration which can be followed by anyone irrespective of her or his religious persuasion, culture, ethnicity, gender, social status or station in life.

Viewed from a global perspective the Dhamma that the Buddha taught is more relevant today than ever before in human history.

The Buddha’s sole motive and motivation was to overcome the universal reality of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness and aversions of humanity by showing the path of attaining sukha or real lasting happiness. He expounded a wholesome way of thinking and living that is eminently applicable to all human beings. His Teaching is especially meaningful to our contemporary high-pressured world where people live hurried lives and are uncertain of how to cope with the ever-mounting demands and stresses we encounter daily. By the pedagogy of His own life-example, the Buddha taught us to develop our spirituality realistically and effectively by cultivating our mind and eradicating it of defilements. If we were to remove the religious labels Buddhism and Buddhist, and objectively and dispassionately examine the Buddha’s Teaching; we will find a comprehensive and effective framework for humankind to achieve contentment and lasting happiness or sukha.

In addition, apart from the profound spiritual revelations and Universal Truths the Buddha Dhamma embodies, one can find in the Buddha’s Teaching, a complete system of education and a training program for personal self-development, and the way to actualise excellence of one’s innate skills and talents. For, in a sentence, the Buddha Dhamma is a comprehensive education and a training programme for actualizing success, wellbeing, happiness and inner peace here and now in this very life. Furthermore, the Buddhist way of life is based on a sound moral and ethical code which ensures the holistic development and progress of the individual, the family and the larger society. Thus, on a broader social dimension or matrix, the Buddha Dhamma provides a realistic framework for realising universally sought objectives such as mutual understanding, tolerance, patience, goodwill, harmony and peace. These are essential for fostering wholesome, socially structured stable societies which world leaders should take heed.

The Dhamma the Buddha unravelled and taught is based on the cumulative experiences of humankind. In this sense, the Buddha Dhamma is regarded as the common heritage of humankind. The Buddha disclaimed any outright monopoly over the Sublime Dhamma. The forty-five years the Buddha spent in dispensing the Dhamma was undertaken purely out of His Maha Karuna (All-encompassing Compassion) for disillusioned, suffering humanity. The Buddha repeatedly declared that anyone, including those belonging to other religions, can practise the Dhamma and benefit greatly from the Teaching here and now in this very life. This is because in essence, Buddhism calls on us, “To avoid evil thoughts and actions; to do what is wholesome and to purify the mind”. The thrust in the Buddha Dhamma is the cultivation of a wholesome mental self-culture that is so essential for o0ne’s personal self-development, success, wellbeing, happiness and inner peace.

The Dhamma the Buddha unravelled and taught is based on the cumulative experiences of humankind. In this sense, the Buddha Dhamma is regarded as the common heritage of humankind.

Objective analysis and dispassionate judgement are fundamental to Buddhism. The Buddha was absolutely rational in His thinking and approach to addressing spiritual as well as temporal matters. He maintained that a person should accept a doctrine or belief only after proper and thorough investigation. This means that the Dhamma must first be preceded by Right Understanding. Further, the Buddha Dhamma has to be practised and experienced in daily life, for it offers a practical and effective guide to managing one’s life successfully and meaningfully. Apart from these cogent benefits to be derived by practising the Buddha Dhamma, it is to be appreciated that the Sublime Teachings of the Buddha provides great therapeutic benefits that would enhance one’s well-being, happiness and inner peace by reinforcing and enhancing the symbiotic relationship between one’s mind and the body.

The Buddha’s Teaching transcends religious and other barriers that have been devised by narrow, religious leaders who proclaim their religion as being superior. To further their ulterior selfish interests, they have deliberately misguided people into doing their sinister bigoted biddings and jeopardised harmony and social stability. This is truly unfortunate since the goal of all religious teachings is moral uplift. The Buddha endeavoured to change our way of thinking through his Maha Karuna and not by injecting unwholesome and negative techniques such as through fear psychosis of harsh retributions by an Omnipotent Being, or by coercion of any other sort.  His call to promote a correct and meaningful approach to one’s inward development through self-investigation, self-reliance and self-practise of the Dhamma would most certainly ensure healthy and stable societies irrespective of the clime. The Buddha Dhamma thus provides a realistic framework to forge wholesome, vibrant societies that would effectively prevent social, political, economic ills and other unprecedented challenges presently characterising the so-called modern world.

In respect to the celebration of Wesak, in countries where the Buddha Dhamma has been traditionally practised, the auspicious spiritual festival is celebrated by numerous meaningful religious undertakings, cultural traditions, spiritual togetherness and wholesome rejoicing among devotees from all strata of society who gather at viharas from dawn. In sharp contrast to most religious festivals of other faiths, Wesak is celebrated in a most unique manner.  The religious festival is completely devoid of merry-making, feasting and sensual indulgences. The religious celebration begins with the hoisting of the Buddhist Flag and the recitation of geethas or Buddhist devotional hymns, followed with the observance of religious ceremonies such as puja offerings as expression of veneration to the Noble triple Gem (namely the Buddha , Dhamma and the Maha Sangha), and recitation of sutras or religious verses. The display of a colourful festival of lights, the construction of towering illustrative pandals(murals depicting the life of the Buddha and Jataka Katas or moral folk stories), and display of large decorative lanterns of various designs and sizes abound the viharas and in public parks and grounds.

The religious festivals and festivities bring forth spiritual exertion among devotees. Their various noble acts of metta (unconditional friendliness or boundless goodwill) and karuna (indiscriminate compassion to all living beings and Nature), spring forth unreservedly from their compassionate hearts. This manifests in various charitable deeds of giving to the needy and caring for all living beings and Nature. In viharas where the community customarily congregates, one would find streams of devotees making their way, right from the early hours of the morning until late into the night to partake in the religious celebrations. They express by various symbolic and tangible deeds, their shraddha in the Buddha Dhamma. Acts of veneration are performed by offering flowers, burning incenses and lighting oil lamps and candles in honour of the World Renowned One, the Buddha. Pirith (recitation of protective sutras)is chanted. Pujas are observed invoking the aspiration for unconditional benevolence, goodwill, friendliness, wellbeing, happiness and peace, in the all-embracing compassionate spirit of the Buddha Dhamma.

On this auspicious thrice-sacred day, significantly, fulfilment of dana is preferred by devotees as a more meaningful way to celebrate than to wine and dine and engage in sensual self-indulgences.

The various religious observances and time spent in reflective prayers also render the celebration of Wesak a special effort on the part of devotees to bring happiness to the unfortunate, the aged, the disadvantaged and the sick. Such sentiments of compassion are carried out in the spirit of the Buddha’s maxim that, “The One who serves the sick serves me”. Thus, apart from observing religious ceremonies, devotees participate in numerous compassionate and charitable activities. They offer dana(charitable acts and offering of alms), such as food, clothing, educational materials and other items to impoverished individuals and destitute families. Some devotees make it a point to liberate birds caged in captivity, or save cattle and other livestock from being slaughtered and sold for their meat in the market place. The motive of devotees is to do wholesome deeds out of unconditional compassion, love, kindness, goodwill and generosity, in the letter and spirit of the Sublime Teaching of their Exalted Teacher, the Buddha.

On this auspicious thrice-sacred day, significantly, fulfilment of dana is preferred by devotees as a more meaningful way to celebrate than to wine and dine and engage in sensual self-indulgences. Thus all around the world numerous virtuous deeds are accomplished by devotees in accordance with the Buddha’s Teaching of Brahama Vihāra, that is, the Four Sublime Mental States of mettā, karuna, muditha (sympathetic or altruistic joy) and upekkhā (equanimity), on Vesak Full Moon Day. In many countries where the Buddha Dhamma is traditionally practised, acts of friendliness, compassion, goodwill, kindness and unconditional benevolence abound in commemorating the humanistic spirit of the Sublime Dhamma. In traditional Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, dansals comprising temporary canopies, make-shift shelters and stalls are erected by local community-based organisations and generous business establishments and devout individuals. These dansals offer drinks and food to passers-by and revellers who throng the cities and towns to witness and/or to take part in the Wesak festivities. The acts of unconditional goodwill and generosity carried out in conjunction with Vesak, regardless of one’s ethnicity, culture and religious persuasion, merit adulation and imbuing, as they resonate hugely with promoting multiculturalism and fostering of social cohesion among divers social groups in the country.

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