This  May, from 11th to 13th, the United Nations Day of Vesak  will be celebrated in Sri Lanka. This follows a request made to the UN Vesak Committee on behalf of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, by Buddha Sasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, to host this Day in Sri Lanka in 2017.   According [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Celebrating UN Vesak Day: Spare a thought for our four-legged beings


This  May, from 11th to 13th, the United Nations Day of Vesak  will be celebrated in Sri Lanka. This follows a request made to the UN Vesak Committee on behalf of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, by Buddha Sasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, to host this Day in Sri Lanka in 2017.   According to a government communiqué “the event is meant to spread the message of Buddhist philosophy around the world and to strengthen cooperation and exchanges among Buddhist countries and organisations.”

Tracing the origin of this Day, declared in 1999, Dr. Rohan Perera, Sri Lanka’s  Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York, in his Opening Statement delivered at the UN Vesak Day celebrations last year stated thus: “Sixteen years ago, Sri Lanka took the initiative to recognize the Day of  Vesak internationally by spearheading the adoption of Resolution 54/115 under the guidance of the late Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar, then Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, with the active participation of not only other Buddhist States but all Member States of the United Nations…………….Today, in this august General Assembly hall, we commemorate this thrice blessed day for Buddhists all over the world.”

This Day was first celebrated in 2000, at New York’s UN Headquarters. Since then, so far, Thailand and Vietnam have hosted the celebration.

According to the Buddha Sasana Ministry,  the celebration  will be inaugurated  with President Maithripala Sirisena, Indian President Narendra Modi and over 2000 other national and international Buddhist and political leaders.

It is understood that Sri Lanka will celebrate the event under the theme  ‘Buddha’s Teachings, Social Justice and Sustainable World Peace’.  Buddha taught Universal Compassion to all living beings – human and animal alike – where it is wrong to kill or harm any living being. Thus, animals too are entitled to social justice.  Empirical research reveals that humans who are cruel to animals are more prone to violence, thereby affecting the creation of peaceful societies.

Buddhism and animals are inter-connected; and animal rights are gaining global recognition as an international policy issue. Thus, in celebrating  this Day, can we not spare a thought for the animals of the world with whom we share this earth ?

In Buddhism, animals are living beings, with no distinction drawn between moral rules applicable to animals and humans.  Some Jataka stories portray the Bodisaththva in animal form, with qualities of kindness and generosity. Queen Mahamaya  dreamt that Prince Siddhartha entered her womb in the form of a white elephant. Kantaka, the Prince’s loyal horse, died grief-stricken when Siddhartha left the palace.  During the sixth week of the sath sathiya after attaining enlightenment,  a king cobra sheltered the Buddha from rain, under a mucalinda tree.  Globally, the UN has declared a World Wildlife Day; the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) has set international animal protection standards; European Union Treaties include Protocols on Animal Welfare; campaigns are underway for a Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare and for enshrining animal rights in a UN Convention; many nations celebrate World Animal Day; and, animals are by statutes and judicial determinations fast  gaining the status of non-human persons with rights, some nations affording them constitutional protection.

Based on global interests, past celebration themes include  Buddhist Response to Global Crisis, The Buddha’s Enlightenment for the Well-being of Humanity and Buddhist Contribution towards Achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals with the Day celebrated with spiritual programmes  and pageantry – Buddhist chanting, Dharma talks, spiritual tours, workshops, exhibitions, performances depicting Buddha’s life through song and dance, parades,  candle lighting, to name some.

The President, it is reported, has instructed that the festival be held in a grand manner. A high level committee is making arrangements, with the President himself reviewing the progress of the initiatives taken.   Buddhism  promotes austere practice.  Yet, the celebration will be spectacular, with our island nation lit up with a million bulbs and bedecked with a myriad of colourful decorations. However, if the objective of declaring this Day is to be realized, it is imperative to pursue also meaningful activities  having a lasting impact.

While the global theme will be given precedence to spread the message of Buddhist philosophy, cannot Sri Lanka also focus on some matters of current local relevance, for the festival to be truly meaningful locally and also inspire others? There are many animal welfare issues pending before our authorities – but pending for far too long.  An Animal Welfare Bill, submitted to the then President in 2006, finally approved by Cabinet only in 2016, still awaits enactment.  Animal sacrifice, determined unlawful by our Court of Appeal in 2013 (the Supreme Court upholding the decision) is yet to be banned by law, despite a key Minister pledging to do so.  A ban on exporting our baby elephants as ‘symbols of goodwill’ between nations,  to live in zoos, deprived of their natural habitat, after cruel separation from their herds or establishing  sanctuaries to shelter cattle who have served man for centuries, but are often sold to the butcher when the owner is unable to maintain them, and there is so much more that can be done to alleviate animal suffering; and, most importantly, to afford animals the justiciable  constitutional protection recommended by the Lal Wijenayake Committee, and not its diluted version of a non-justiciable Directive Principle, full of restrictions and left for subjective interpretation, as proposed by a Constitutional Assembly appointed sub committee, when today several nations  afford animals meaningful constitutional protection.  These will have a lasting impact, while the glitter, pomp, pageantry and verbiage will soon fade away.

An evaluation of past celebrations will show outputs – but what about the outcomes?  Does Sri Lanka care and dare to be different?  That is left to be seen.


In the not too distant past, in preparation for international events, like CHOGM 2013, Sri Lanka’s canine population on the street, cared for by the community, were cruelly removed from their habitat to ‘beautify’ the city and undertakings to return them, were violated by public officers, who abandoned them, elsewhere where they could not survive. We are confident that in celebrating this festival, mindful of the universal compassion in Buddhism, this will not happen; and more so since Local Government  Minister Faiszer Mustapha has recently assured animal welfare organizations that street dogs will be removed, where necessary, only in consultation with them, to assure the animals’ welfare.

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