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Nature is the first to sense the need for a quieter, almost serene mood, as April folds into May.
The vibrant, dazzling hues that ushered in the New Year give way to the delicate lemon-yellow blooms of Esela, the serene floral harbinger of Vesak.
Vesak is a red-letter day in the Buddhist calendar the world over, with threefold significance to Buddhists - the Buddha's birth, his enlightenment and his passing away.
In Sri Lanka, Vesak has for long been a kind of celebration of lights, with the festive air seeming to override the essentially spiritual nature of the occasion. A myriad colourful, intricately designed Vesak lanterns and pandals with breathtaking patterns of light, transform Colombo and suburbs into a veritable carnival by night, with thousands of sightseers from all over the country descending on the city for an entertaining night out.Celebrations, however, are out of place in these sad times with the brave sons of Sri Lanka spilling blood and tears in a brutal war against terrorism. The need of the hour is reflection, a pause to rethink what has gone wrong with a society blessed with the Buddha's teaching in its pristine form.
The tragedy seems to be that there has never been a time Sri Lanka needed the sanity of the Dhamma more than today and with constant trauma and grief, there probably never was a time when Buddhists in Sri Lanka could have perceived the eternal truths of the Dhamma so easily. Yet, at no other time have Buddhists distanced themselves from the truth as today.
Most Buddhists have singled out the ritualistic side of Buddhism influenced by Hinduism and children have learned to utter stanzas they do not understand and to believe the deities can bring one's heart's desires provided the necessary pujas are done. The real Dhamma the Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree on Vesak day is out of sight, covered by the dust of ignorance.
A widespread myth is that the Dhamma is for the old and retired and not for youth. Many people mistake the Dhamma to be knowledge. Knowledge is infinite. Modern science keeps filling libraries every year with continuous discoveries. But knowledge is not wisdom. One may know the earth is round. But as a monk in Laos said, "Ultimately what good will all your knowledge do you?"
Jack Kornfield says in his book 'Living Buddhist Masters', "it is only wisdom,the development of a clear, detached mind that is important for liberation and peace." The Buddha once picked up a handful of leaves and asked his monks which was greater, the leaves in his hand or those on the trees in the forest. He compared the handful of leaves to the Dhamma he had preached against the infinite knowledge of the Buddha mind. But that, said the Buddha is all that is needed to end suffering. When the Buddha reached enlightenment on Vesak day, he was not sure if people would listen to him "not because the Dhamma is too complex, but rather because it is so simple no one would believe it."
The Buddha realised everything is impermanent as all physical and mental phenomena are constantly changing. Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, feel and think keeps changing from moment to moment. Thus, what we think is there, is really not there. We are craving for and grasping at illusions, which will only bring sorrow as the Buddha said. "Thanhaya Jayati Soko." Craving brings sorrow.
The Buddha also understood there is no abiding 'self''. Where the world saw an attractive human form, the Buddha realised there was only an empty process of mind and body happening all by itself. As Kornfield says, the Buddha understood there is nothing in us that can be seen as permanent, an abiding self or soul. There is simply "the orderly unfolding of mind and matter, arising and perishing moment to moment." It is only when the emptiness of the concept of 'self' is realised we understand the meaninglessness of grasping or clinging to things in the hope they will bring lasting happiness.
The Buddha said "Ehi Passiko" - Come and see for yourselves. But how many Buddhists parents have even bothered to glance at the truth? The only truth many people see today is that money speaks at every level of society. So, from morning till night, it is one exhausting round of pursuing even greater wealth, with more and more worldly possessions collected in the name of 'self'.
Caught in this web of desire and greed, with aversion and hatred for those who stand in the way, Buddhist parents are unable to guide their children anywhere near the truth. The only truth the child knows is: "I must do better, live better than everybody else." Since toddler days there is comparison and competition, and thus, constant lessons in selfishness, for the message is loud and clear, " To hell with everybody else, you get ahead."
It is this selfishness that is manifested in later life as the ultimate in gross behaviour - corruption, fraud and other vices including murder, all of which is rampant in Sri Lankan society today. People talk of rights without a thought of responsibility. People enter public life with the sole intent of lining their pockets. Even something so day-today as using the roads is saturated with selfishness so travelling has become a nightmare. Above all, there is the scant regard for life when it comes to fulfilling one's ambition.
If adults would only pause awhile to listen to what the Buddha said they would realise they are merely pursuing a mirage. They would not egg their children on to perform beyond their capacity if they realised there was no abiding self, and that they should allow the children to do their best and be satisfied with their best, without envying those better off. After all what more can one do apart from one's best?When parents teach their children to lie so they could enter a leading school in Colombo, that becomes the turning point in the children's understanding of right and wrong. Thereafter, lying will become a way of life for the child.
The greatest gift parents could give their children is to make them feel wanted in the real sense of the word. Many parents in their quest for money, forget to be kind to their children, show them loving kindness, to rejoice in the children's good fortune and to be neutral once they make their own lives. These are the qualities in parents which make them the 'Buddha in the house' (Gedara Budun)
Today, far from being so, parents most often set a bad example to their children in every sphere of life. Living just to please the six senses, they have no respect for discipline. There must be some form of discipline to be aware of the true nature of physical and mental phenomena.Thus they go on finding transient pleasure in transient events, like the famous Buddhist stanza says about the lobster in a pot, finding pleasure in the water only till it begins to boil.
It is only awareness or mindfulness which makes us understand everything is painful and what we think of as happiness is merely an interval from pain. When we stand after being seated for a while we feel a relief. It is because being seated further would become painful. When we lie down after a hard day's work we think it is bliss. But after a while we need to get up because lying down further becomes painful.
This basic awareness is necessary to make people understand the folly of their lives today and to know the greatest tribute they can pay the Buddha is not to erect a pandal or build a temple but to try to understand the simple truth of the Dhamma and to live as true Buddhists.If, as the healing winds of Vesak blow across our strife-torn nation, people realise the Dhamma is not for senility but for those with their senses still intact, there is yet hope for redemption. The Buddha's last words to us were " Decay is inherent in all compound things. Work out your salvation with diligence."
These words which we keep hearing over and over again at funerals more than ever today, is the essence of the Dhamma if we would only listen.
Gal Gawa Mithuro or Friends of the Cart Bull was founded on the belief that the animal that suffers most at the hands of man is the cartbull. They work hard all day, pulling heavy loads. Finally, they end up in the slaughter house, said D. H. Balachandra, President and founder member of the Association. Set up in 1982 by a group of animal lovers, Gal Gawa Mithuro campaigns for the prevention of torture and cruelty to animals giving special attention to cartbulls.
The founder members of this association saw many instances of cruelty to helpless animals throughout the island. Since the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ceased to exist many years ago, they felt there was an urgent need for such an association. The Gal Gawa Mithuro came into existence and engaged actively in animal welfare, prevention of cruelty to animals and conservation.
"Our main campaign has been to update the age old, ineffective laws", said Mr. Balachandra. Although we do have several acts concerning the protection of animals, such as Animal Rights Ordinance, Animals Act, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, Butchers Ordinance, Buffalo Ordinance and Fauna and Flora Act, these are hardly enforced. Our laws have to be updated to conform to international laws, he said.Mr. Balachandra says the Gal Gawa Mithuro had drawn up suggestions for the amendment of these laws. They have been sent up to the Ministry for Home Affairs but nothing had been done yet, he said.
One of the suggestions made by Gal Gawa Mithuro is the killing of food cattle by stunning. The Society deplored the present methods used in slaughter houses as inhuman and barbaric. We do not campaign against the killing of food animals or the consumption of meat, said Balachandra. WE are against the inhuman treatment and methods of slaughter. He said that animals should not be made to witness the slaughter of other animals. In the stunning method used in many countries, the cattle are taken one by one. A captive bolt pistol is used against a nerve spot at the front of the head to stun the animal which then falls onto a conveyer belt. The other animals do not see what happens.
Stressing the inadequacy of the preventive measures, Balachandra says thousands of cattle are being slaughtered illegally. These include stolen bulls, milk cows and also buffaloes which are protected animals. The law permits food animals to be slaughtered only in licensed abattoirs between 6 am. and 6 p.m., after inspection by a veterinary surgeon to pass the meat for human consumption. However he says, much illicit slaughtering takes place in back yards within the city. Cattle are being robbed from rural areas and brought to the city for slaughter. This poses a hazard to health and the environment. The punitive measures are insufficient deterrent to offenders who find it a lucrative business.
There is also apparently a practical difficulty in bringing to justice these offenders who steal cattle and slaughter illegally. They often get away with a fine since the law enforcers have no facilities to confiscate and house the cattle.
The Gal Gawa Mithuro has made several suggestions for remedial action. The establishment of one or two model abattoirs, which could demonstrate how cattle could be killed in a more humane manner has been mooted by them. They have also called for the setting up of a Meat Board for the inspection of meat slaughter houses.
To enable more effective action against theft and illicit slaughter of cattle, they have suggested the establishment of some Holding Farms to accommodate stray and stolen cattle. These could be made viable by making use of the manure and also making of compost. Promotion of organic fertilizers in preference to artificial fertilizers is also a project of the Gal Gawa Mithuro.An approved charity, the Gal Gawa Mithuro is affiliated to several international organisations such as the RSPCA. It has an affiliated fund entitled Animal Welfare Educational and Research fund. The interest from this fund is utilised mainly for the school programmes which they conduct. The members of the society visit schools and carry out programmes to inculcate in children a love and compassion towards animals. It is important to foster these attitudes in children so that they grow up into compassionate and peace-loving citizens, said Balachandra. As Mahatma Gandhi said, The civilized nature of a society can be judged on its love, compassion and concern towards animals.
Gal Gawa Mithuro assists the police by bringing to their notice, cases of cruelty to animals. In fact, in 1986, as a result of their agitation, the IGP issued a circular to all police officers in charge of divisions, districts and stations to record and take immediate action on any information given by members of the association. The police were also asked to enforce the laws of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance. A senior police officer participates at the monthly meetings of the Gal Gawa Mithuro whenever possible.
This Association of Animal Lovers has ambitious plans for a project to run a farm for aged and infirm cart bulls and milk cows where they will have a safe haven in their last days. However, the society does not have sufficient funds to embark on this project yet. It expects to have its own property very soon. In the interim, the members retrieve a number of aged cart bulls from slaughter by paying the carters for their live weight. These animals are sent to estates of the members and other animal lovers, to spend the rest of their days in peace.
Balachandra says this could be done in limited numbers due to constraints of finance and space. There is an estate at Haputale where compost is made for sale. The management of this estate is willing to provide accommodation to unwanted cattle. However, the problem that crops up is where the animals could be accommodated until they are collected by the estate transport.As an ongoing project, many of the carters of Colombo have been organised on a zonal basis and a rapport is maintained with them. They discuss problems concerning their animals with Gal Gawa Mithuro, who try to assist them. Many carters like to send their animals to estates rather than sell them for slaughter, but they need money for a replacement to carry on their work.
According to Balachandra, Gal Gava Mithuro has many aims but one of its constraints is the lack of active volunteers. He says, in England, associations such as this campaigned against the stressful transport of food animals and were successful in getting a ban imposed. Gal Gava Mithuro intends to continue their campaign through all available means to bring awareness of the rights of animals. Animals have a right to live and must be protected against wanton killing. The protection of animals also preserves the ecological balance of nature. During this week of the Vesak Festival, it is perhaps relevant to dwell on the verse from the Dhammapada.
All beings are terrified by cruelty.
All beings fear death.
Taking yourself as example
Do not inflict cruelty, do not kill.
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