13 May 2014

Vesak thoughts

Inmates of the Magazine Prison, Welikada get ready for Vesak.
Pic by Rukshan Abeywansha
‘Dan ithin Vesak balanna yanna baya nehe; bomba pipirenne nehene (Now, after all, we can go to see the Vesak decorations without fear; there are no bombs exploding).’  This is what a neighbor who sells betel, sweets and sometimes king coconut told me a short while ago.  True.

There was a time when parents did not travel in the same bus.  Indeed, a time when families deliberately split themselves wherever they went.  This is one of the key differences between LTTE-time and post-LTTE time.  That, however, is not what I want to write about.

Today (May 17, 2011) is Vesak.  It’s a special Vesak. It is the 2600th anniversary of the Enlightenment, the moment when a prince destined to rule the world who became an ascetic discovered the dimensions of sorrow, the reasons for sorrow and the pathways to eliminate sorrow. It is a momentous occasion for all Buddhists but especially for those who place (too much?) value on dates, anniversaries and celebration. 

Today, most of the island is decorated with Buddhist flags. There are banners across the roads, pennants too, with quotes from the Dhammapada as well as other sections of the vast archive that holds the Word of the Buddha and the incredible output of commentaries over the past 2600 years.  The temples are clad in the white of sil and devotion, good intention and peace.  Tonight there will be light. There will be pandals, lanterns and vesak koodu, ‘bulbed’ and ‘candled’. There will be tiny clay lamps placed neatly on walls and doorsteps, with tiny flames swaying. Temples and houses will be fragrant with flowers, incense sticks, kapuru and burning oil, in humble veneration of a doctrine whose perfume outlasts all in akalika of the eternal verities. 

This is also a country that gets lit at Christmas, is made of non-Muslims who look forward to Ramazan, non-Hindus believe that ‘Vel’ is part of who they are. This is a country that on Vesak day and the day after turns into a nation or dansal (giving-stalls?), where each and every passerby, whether in a vehicle or not, is offered a soft drink, koththamalli (coriander), manioc with kochchi sambol, kadala (chick-peas), herbal brews, plain tea, coffee (hot and black or cold and with milk), bread or rice. Wherever you go.  This is a country that becomes a dansala twice a year in fact, with Poson (the full moon day in June), marking the arrival of Arahat Mahinda, being as colourfully celebrated as Vesak, and as devotedly too, i.e. in the temple-white of sil and offering flowers.

I can’t help thinking that this is also a country that on an auspicious day in April, almost every hearth (or cooker) gets lit at the exact moment and one where in most homes at another auspicious moment millions of people partake of kiribath.  That’s unity and unification that no constitutional enactment or emergency rule can decree and obtain. Or forbid, for that matter. 

There is something about this flawed land of ours that made Sinhalese people who had ‘bomb’ and ‘explosion’ hanging over every wakeful moment, spontaneously collect food and other essentials when the tsunami struck and send lorry loads of relief items to areas held by the LTTE.  These very same people, vilified outrageously for the crimes of politically motivated thugs, gave whatever they could, volunteered to provide medical attention etc., to civilians who were rescued from the clutches of the LTTE, even though it was known that there were LTTE cadres among them.  This is a country where the tax rupees of Sinhalese were regularly sent to LTTE-held areas, either as cash or as goods, even though it was well known that the terrorists either got a cut or helped themselves to everything sent. 

This is a country where Tamil people in the Jaffna Peninsula warmly welcomed visiting Sinhalese, even though they knew that the vast majority of soldiers who had in the battle caused the death and dismemberment of fellow-Tamils.  This is a country where Tamils and Sinhalese were and are ready to put aside identity-markers and unite against draconian laws and unfair regulations that impact particular communities or everyone.  This is not a country that is un-flawed, where chauvinism is absent. It is a country where suspicion often has deep roots.  It is also a country that can rise above these things on occasion, especially in times of trouble.  

This is a country that knows how to suffer and how to rejoice, how to err and learn, how fight and how to make peace, how to live and let live, how to forgive and forget.

I believe there is a particular ‘something’ about this nation that allows us to be like this, to fall but pick ourselves and each other up, to rise above hatred, to embrace enemy, to forgive conqueror for all excesses and embrace his/her progeny and accommodate his/her faith and related artifacts.  This ‘something’ is not there for anthropological picking or for journalistic description.  Those who know it, see it. Those who don’t see it are convinced that it doesn’t exist. This is good. 

This is a land made of hope and that’s because of this ‘something’ which is made to make us do certain things in certain ways.  This is a land, which, for all its many flaws, is still a paradise on earth.  I, for one, would not wish any other home. Not in this lifetime or in the next. This is good enough. No, this is more than ‘good enough’.

And not just because I can go to ‘See Vesak’ without having to worry about bomb explosions.

Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhitatta. May all beings be happy.


 *This was originally written for the Daily News three years ago. It's still valid, I believe.