by Elizabeth J. Harris
Part 5 – Vesak
In May 1991 I travelled from war-torn Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka to the South. It was at Vesak, the time when Buddhists celebrate three major events in the life of their Master: his birth, his awakening into Buddhahood, and his passing away into final Nibbana. It was like moving from one world into another. In the North, the tension was palpable — towns gutted by fighting, vast stretches of empty roads, people with hardship in their eyes. But as we crossed over into the South, there was celebration. Groups of boys flagged down our car to thrust fruit drinks into our hands. Lanterns of wire and coloured paper hung in porches with their streamers flowing in the breeze. And nearer Colombo came the first of the pandals — massive, temporary structures by the road, brilliantly lit, telling in pictures Buddhist stories of how self-sacrifice triumphs over violence, how compassion vanquishes hatred.
Vesak is the most important religious festival of the Buddhist year. It is marked by light, pilgrimage, and the re-telling of stories. At its heart is remembrance of the Buddha’s solitary striving in meditation under a tree near Gaya in India 2500 years ago.
The serene face of the Buddha image can give the impression that this striving led to an experience of the metaphysical. But Prince Siddhattha became the Buddha not because he was lifted beyond the world but because he saw the real nature of the world. It had been his sensitivity to human suffering that had made him leave his wife and son years before. He had wanted an answer to the question: Why? Why was life shot through with the pain of illness, bereavement, and unrealized longings? At Bodhgaya, he found it. He saw that humans were bound to anguish-filled lives because their interpretation of the world was wrong. He saw that our fault was to believe that our lives, our possessions, and our hopes are centred around an unchanging self which has to be protected and promoted. He saw that only suffering was the result, fuelled by the greeds and hatreds flowing from selfish craving.
“All formations are impermanent,” is what the Buddha understood. Self-centred clinging, he realized, was the fruit of delusion. With this came liberation. The prison of selfhood evaporated. Raga and dosa, greed and hatred, were destroyed. Boundless compassion was released and he could teach the world that suffering has a cause and can be eradicated.
At Vesak Buddhists celebrate this knowledge that suffering can be ended, that within the pain of life there is hope. In 1991 and today in 1994, that celebration takes place against the backdrop of war, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere — war caused by interlocking structures of injustice, rooted in human greed and human illusion, throwing the innocent before the barrel of a gun or under the rubble of a shelled building. My hope is that the Buddha’s message will not only be heard but acted upon. All war and conflict can be traced back to some form of craving or delusion. It may be craving for power, or domination by an individual or group, or the delusion which flows from distorted history or myth. Vesak should call us to analyze the causes of our bloodletting, to see where craving and greed cloud objectivity and prevent peace.
The story goes that the Buddha was at first loathe to share with others what he had learnt because so few would understand its hard but liberating message. Our fortune is that he did share it. The health of our world depends on whether we act on that message.
Copyright 1994 Elizabeth J. Harris