Original photograph REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

I have not hidden my increasing disdain for the way Buddhism is practiced and promoted in Sri Lanka. To say the least, we have not only forgotten what it is truly about, we often downright contradict and insult it. I wrote about it here, almost exactly a year ago, after the Poson holiday of 2010.

In the last year, I have become even more disillusioned with the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka – I am always shocked by the bigoted sermons given on TV, the terrible behaviour displayed by monks turned politicians, and how the Nationalistic element of Sri Lankan Buddhism has seeped into everything. I felt even more wary as we as a nation approached Vesak this year.

For anyone that needs a heads-up, the Vesak full-moon Poya day is a special day for Buddhists. The Buddha was apparently born, attained enlightenment and passed onto Nirvana all on Vesak poya days. Don’t ask me how he managed that timing, but it has long-been accepted that Vesak day was the anniversary of his birth, enlightenment and attaining of Nirvana. This Vesak is meant to be extra special, as we celebrate the 2600th anniversary of the attaining of enlightenment; of a prince becoming a Buddha, of an amazing journey of meditation, introspection and self-discovery that unveiled to him the truth about life and existence.

I look around and I think, ‘What do we have to celebrate?’ The disintegration of his philosophy? The complete bastardisation of everything he stood for? Of everything he discovered and taught? The total and deliberate misinterpretation of a value system that saw everyone as equal, now replaced by beliefs of superiority in race, sex and caste? The convolution of his message for political gain? What introspection has his teaching led us to, in 2600 years? What self-discovery? What revelations?

I always enjoy the sights and sounds of Vesak, and had already for the last few years, sought to enjoy it as a secular holiday filled with crowded nights, looking at Vesak lanterns and colourful pandols. This is of course once again ritual vs. philosophy, as I’m fairly certain the Buddha did not want huge pandols and lanterns erected in his name, and would rather have us reflect than worship. However, this is an ongoing Sri Lankan custom, now an imbedded part of Sri Lankan culture.

But Vesak pandols in particular are a wonderful and interesting thing; and this is how I stumbled upon this.

It seems that the advertising agency JWT is creating a special pandol for Vesak this year, depicting not the traditional Jathaka story (Jathaka stories are the stories of the Buddha’s previous births, told mostly as fables about the Buddha’s compassion, kindness etc.) but the various forms of abuse suffered today by women.

This to me seems by far the most fascinating thing I’ve seen during Vesak for years, and doubtlessly something the Buddha himself would support above the meaningless expenditures spent on celebrating and worshipping him. I think this is a really clever way to bring the topic into the consciousness of thousands of Sri Lankans who will be on the street tonight and tomorrow night, ‘seeing’ Vesak. Imagine walking past a seemingly traditionally constructed pandol to discover that it is about violence against women; it will compel you to look again.

They also have this great video , which is a clip of an interview with the man who built the pandol – someone who’s been doing it for years – and how he feels this is unique and interesting.

To me it seems as though this idea will be more in line with Buddhist philosophy than many things that pass off as ‘Buddhist’ these days. To create awareness about the fact that women deserve the right to live a safe life with respect and dignity, and to push people to truly feel inclined towards building a society in which women are respected and are given equal opportunities: this seems more Buddhist to me than banning Akon, or getting up in arms about a “Buddha Bar”. It seems more Buddhist than monks in parliament, or protesting on the roads with their robes hiked up to their knees. It seems more Buddhist than loudly blaring 1 hour sermons through megaphones across neighbourhoods.

In this day and age, when Vesak celebrations seem to have come a long way from their origins (just today I saw in stalls, alongside Vesak lanterns, a favourite item for sale seems to be masks of serial killers, such as the one from the famous Hollywood slasher flick, Scream.) it seems appropriate to spend this momentous 2600th anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment, reflecting on and celebrating one of the key cornerstones of Buddhist philosophy: equality.


For those of you who might not be able to access the Facebook page: this pandol will be open to the public from 18 May – 22 May from 7.30 pm onwards at the Buddha Rashmi Vesak Zone – Navam Mawatha Car Park (Behind Cinnamon Grand) Colombo, Sri Lanka.