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The dawn of the month of Vesak
Gaveshaka discusses the most significant day for Buddhists

May is the month of Vesak – the most precious occasion for Buddhists the world over when they
celebrate the Birth, Enlightenment and Passing away of the Buddha.

This year Vesak week begins today. The full moon Poya day falls on Friday May 8, when the vast majority of Buddhists will throng the temples throughout the country to observe 'ata sil' – Eight Precepts instead of the daily 'pan sil' – the Five Precepts. Full day religious programmes are arranged at temples for the benefit of the devotees with the accent on Dhamma sermons, discussions and meditation.

Most devotees will observe 'ata sil' for 24 hours which means that they will not have a meal at night. Only light liquids are permitted after the alms taken at noon. Devotees will get to the temple by 6 o' clock in the
morning when a monk would lead them in observing 'sil.' He will get them to repeat the precepts which he would first say one by one, at the end of which a short sermon will be delivered describing the significance of Vesak.

Morning offering of alms to the Buddha in the form of 'Buddha Pooja' then takes place in the Budu-ge, the image house, followed by the monks in the temple themselves being offered alms. The devotees themselves would take their morning meal before participating in the planned programme for the day.

Vesak poya is a busy day for monks. They deliver dhamma sermons, participate in dhamma discussions, teach meditation, lead the chanting of 'pirith' – stanzas of protection, and conduct the 'Buddha Pooja' – offerings to the Buddha.

At least for some lay devotees too, Vesak Poya is a hectic day. In each temple a group of devotees would see to the arrangements to make the vast numbers coming to observe 'sil' as comfortable as possible, particularly looking after their accommodation and meals.

Meditation forms an important item in the Vesak programme. Generally a monk would guide the devotees first and then get them to meditate on their own, following the instructions given by him. It can either be in the form of concentrating on one's breath – the 'ana pana sati bhavana' or spreading loving kindness on fellow beings – the 'maitri bhavana.'

Vesak is a festival of lights. The 'aloka pooja' – offering of light, forms an integral part in Buddhist worship. The lighting of hundreds of 'pol thel pahan' (oil lamps) is a common sight at any temple. The offering of light symbolizes the dispelling of darkness or ignorance through light.

The pandals which are works of art, are decorated with large numbers of bulbs thus making it an offering of light, in addition to relating a Jataka story or an incident of Buddha's life.

Offerings made in the name of the Buddha not only bring happiness, peace and relief in one's mind, but also these can be used as objects of meditation. Devotees can concentrate on the fact that the existence of the flame and its brightness, the beauty of the flowers, the aroma of incense is not permanent – they
symbolize impermanence as manifested by the final fading away of such brightness and beauty.

Vesak is also the time of giving. 'Dansalas' can be seen everywhere when the community get together to offer a treat to passers-by. A band of youth would get together and plan a 'dansala' by obtaining assistance particularly from the traders in the area and philanthropists either in kind or cash.

It involves a lot of planning, from erecting a shed at a convenient place (generally a public highway), laying of tables and chairs, cooking meals, to serving the large numbers who come to enjoy a free meal. In recent years, 'dansalas' have been heavily promoted with announcements that they serve 'fried rice and noodles ' while some are identified as 'ice cream dansalas'or 'kottamalli dansalas!'

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