Back in 1956, shortly after Independence from more than four centuries of colonial rule, the people of Sri Lanka were agog over religious events to mark the 2500 (Buddha Jayanthi) years of 'Parinibbana', the passing away of Gautama, the Buddha whose teachings the majority followed even through those 400 years.
On Tuesday, this country and the world celebrate 2600 years of the 'Sambuddhathva Jayanthi', the event associated with the Enlightenment of the Buddha after six years of rigorous meditation. What is historically significant about the occasion is the fact that about two months after Enlightenment, the Buddha, 35 years old then, walked from near Gaya (now known as Buddha Gaya) to Saranath, near the ancient city of Varanasi and at a site called the Deer Park at Isipathana first communicated his message to the world. This was the Dhammachakka Pavathvana Sutra more commonly known in the English speaking world as the Doctrine of the Middle Path. That message, the Dhamma, the Supreme Law in Buddhism, was soon to reverberate not only across India, but all of Asia spreading a wave of humanism from Persia (present-day Iran) to Japan, and Sri Lanka.
This pacifist philosophy has, over the centuries since lost its flock in numbers, but not its relevance in a world still locked in a crisis of civilizations and religious wars. That is why for Buddhists and those who study and follow the Dhamma, the 2600 years of the Buddha's message is of greater significance than even the birth or passing away of Gautama, for birth and death are natural phenomena of which he preached.
Sri Lanka prides itself as being the repository of the Buddha's teachings in their most pristine form. The 'Dhammadvipa' (or the island of the Dhamma) is one of the names we have given ourselves. How much it is a Dhammadvipa today is there for the people to see -- the good, the bad and the ugly. How much genuine work is being done under the guidance of the Dhamma, and how much it is abused under the guise of Buddhism are not difficult to distinguish.
For those who argue that there is too much emphasis placed on Buddhism as the foremost religion in a secular country such as Sri Lanka, with Constitutional status, it must be said that Sri Lanka is neither a theological state as are some countries in the world, nor is the Head of State the head of the main religion of the people -- like the Queen of England for instance, is the head of the Church of England. There is a healthy State-Religion separation and by and large, a harmonious relationship exists notwithstanding the occasional incidents such as when the authorities sabotaged a collegiate meeting planned by the High Priests of Kandy to discuss unwelcome steps being taken by the Government by ensuring the local post office didn't dispatch the telegrams summoning the meeting.
If Sri Lanka is to consider itself as a 'Dhammadvipa' it is important that it plays the part. It must introspect - as the Buddha said -"turn the searchlight inward", and see how the world sees us. Unfortunately, this country that a few years ago introduced a resolution successfully at the United Nations to declare Vesak, the full moon month associated with the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha a public holiday, is ironically at loggerheads with that same organisation over the country's human rights record.
Sri Lanka had to face a brutal insurgency bordering on a 'civil war' waged by a terror group classified as "the most dangerous" in the world by none other than the US State Department. Thirty years since the first shot was fired in that insurgency, there was closure in May 2009 with the last shot being fired. The quelling of that insurgency was not easy, and no surgery is possible without the spilling of blood. But a legacy remains for interested parties to exploit. And one diplomatic faux pas after another has portrayed Sri Lanka not as a 'Dhammadvipa' but one where manic war-mongers reside.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his message to commemorate UN Vesak Day has referred to the problems that plague the modern world. He has pointed to climate change and the environment, food and fuel security, the spread of terrorism - and - "the growing search for peace and democracy". He has so correctly said the core teachings of Buddhism can overcome the widespread problems around the world caused by "the incessant search for material wealth, fuelled by greed, instead of the great spiritual and ethical values of tolerance, understanding and compassion".
No doubt the President will build on this homily come Vesak and speak of the core values that must guide not only the people of this country, but that of his own administration.
The Buddha also taught how rulers must rule. In one of his stanzas he enunciated this credo. He said they must rule "Justly and Righteously -- according to the Dhamma". That was the operative word. To rule according to the tenets of the Dhamma, and the creation of Dharmishta society (a society based on the Dhamma) earned a bad name when a former President said he would so govern, but failed to do so.
The day-to-day administering of a modern State with all the inherent social and economic ills in a globalized world is not easy. Today's Sri Lanka is not only a prisoner of these ill winds, but internally, mundane electoral compulsions have compelled rulers to yield to materialistic realities. That is why casinos are mushrooming in this thrice-blessed land, while Buddhist monasteries are closing down.
The grand display of lights, pandals and flags to commemorate the 2600 Sambuddhatva Jayanthi is a good thing, as it 'shows' the respect of a nation to a doctrine that has nurtured its people for more than two and a half millennia; but it must not be seen to be paying mere lip-service to an ancient teaching that has been ingrained in a people.
It is indeed difficult to reconcile an emerging one-party police state, despite the end of that dreadful insurgency, and the erosion of democratic rights and freedoms of the people with that of a caring state that rules by the wisdom enunciated 2600 years ago in Saranath and the shadow of which fell over this island nation and influenced its people; but the rulers must always try to bridge the gap if this country is to be as close to a Dhammadvipa as possible after the celebrations are over.