Vesak is the religious and cultural festival which celebrates Buddha’s birthday. It is always celebrated on the the first full moon, in the month of May!
Ben is on a business trip in Vancouver, Canada. I however, am here in Sri Lanka and am feeling the excitement building in the community around me, for Vesak day. Even though theoretically Vesak day is a day.. this has the feeling, and proves to be quite a few days of preparation and ongoing festivities and celebration…
Sri Lanka is in the news for hosting a UN international gathering of Buddhist leaders and heads of states from the Asia Pacific region, all gathered here, to celebrate Vesak.
Over 400 delegates from 100 countries have come to participate in this event, which is being hosted for the first time in Sri Lanka (previously in Thailand and Viet Nam). Celebrations include an International Buddhist Symposium in Colombo, with discussions on important themes such as inter religious understanding, Buddhist teachings for social justice and sustainable world peace.
Cody (tuk tuk driver and neighbor of ours), does not want me to be left out of the celebrations, and tells me that he will be back in the evening so that I can go to temple with him and his family.
Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, especially in the South, where we live. Westerners typically think of Buddhists as men in saffron colored robes. The men in saffron robes are Buddhist monks, much like priests or other religious leaders. Our neighbors are Buddhists. Tuk tuk drivers, shop owners, mothers and fathers, children… are of Buddhist religion (or culture) ~ everyday people, just like Christians, Jews and Muslims. Many Buddhists in Sri Lanka attend temple on Poya day once a month at full moon, but most go to temple for Vesak,( much like a majority of Jews will try to go to synagogue at least once a year perhaps for the Jewish New Year or Catholics attending Midnight Mass in Europe.)
Before Cody arrives in the evening, a short walk from the house takes me to the closest neighborhood Buddhist temple “Mihiriphena Temple. Ben and I often walk here to enjoy the tranquility of the temple, the ancient murals on the walls and to chat with the resident Buddhist monks.
This evening the temple is getting readied for the festivities. Lights are being strung, the sandy ground is being vigorously swept with palm made brooms and there is a general air of festivity.
The sun is easing its way down on this tropical island, creating silhouettes of soaring palm trees above our neighborhood Buddhist temple “Mihiripena Temple” ~ what we consider as “our temple” .
The little green tuk tuk pulls up in front of my house and I am dressed in white and eager to celebrate Vesak with Cody and his family. His wife and daughter are in the back of the tuk tuk and I join them as we head off….. Cody has very little English and I have no Sinhalese so communication is pretty basic, but I have no need to know how far and where, I just am.
We drive and we drive, deeper and deeper into the countryside, the sky gets darker as there are very few lights other than those lighting the temples and lanterns lighting the houses. The full moon is hiding behind clouds for now. The air is fresh and there is a light rain which releases a heady pungent smell of dry earth as the first rains of the monsoon season hit the ground. It is all quite magical.
Cody is intent on taking me to a variety of temples, something I discover as we go… Small ones, medium size ones and a very large one which is the main destination as this one, he tells me is “best”. His family’s favorite one. At the smaller ones there are fewer people and his wife and daughter are waiting in the tuk tuk until I encourage them to come out and join me, which they do, laughingly. This temple hopping is definitely fun and festive.
There is no rush and the evening slowly unfolds from one temple to another.
This temple has a large hall of people that apparently have slept there the night before and have spent the day chanting.
After an evening of temple hopping, I arrive home saturated with the magic of Vesak.
The second night of Vesak has a different feel to it. This night is not about temple, it is all about the lights and lanterns. It seems everyone is out and about on the streets where there are small stalls set up with different decorative structures. There are prizes to be had for the most creative ones. The crowds go from one to another taking in the sights and sounds and enjoyment of Vesak celebration.