From existing evidence of sort, it can be substantially argued that the Buddha was an avant-garde thinker along the “Hindu-Brahmin” tradition, who reinterpreted existing Hindu theories on life and existence. Shooting off yet often collaborating with (what in a mainstream reduction may be called) the “Hindu line of thought on life”, the Buddha’s influence, during his day, was felt across the region we today call Bihar. What the Buddha preached, or what ends he mapped out in our “worldly existence” is questionable – as all this happened over 2550 years ago. But, based on what is supposed is the “Buddha’s word”, an institutionalized religious order – which we today call “Buddhism” – emerges in the South Asian subcontinent in the centuries to follow. Of course, Buddhism dies a natural death in India, where a thin 3% remain as “Buddhists”, I am told. The seat of “Buddhism” – or, to be precise, the institutionalized religious order that traces its origins to the “word of the Buddha” – shifts to this island of our which, at present, is called Sri Lanka. Hence, in the centuries that follow, “Buddhism” becomes the twin line along which national and group identity is alloyed.
The week we saw through was aptly named the “Sambuddha Jayanthi” – a week that marked 2600 years of “Buddhism”. As Sri Lanka has its self-appointed status of being the pioneer “Buddhist State” celebrations of the “Sambuddha Jayanthi” took a magnitude rarely witnessed in the collective history of cultural commemoration. This is a reality that both you and I – Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike – witnessed over the past week or so. Gigantic lanterns and never-ending streams of decoration thronged the streets and pavements. A ceaseless transmission of religious truth and other sermons adorned the media channels throughout the festivities. Temples, too, had special programmes organized in order to mark the event – sil observances and other merit-oriented activity. Commercial giants and regional bodies of sorts (Lane Societies, Grama Societies etc) alike launched their “dhaana shaala” deriving peace and light through the free distribution of eatables and drinks. Seasonal songs of faith kept humming through loudspeakers throughout the proceedings.
Of course, “festivity” has to take its full course. “Vesak Celebrations” has its own rich history and is a cultural event that is aimed at welfare of the larger society. But, going through these motions of “merit” one cannot but reflect on the hypocrisy we practice by making the “Enlightened One” our departure. At its very worst, the “Vesak celebrations” with all its glamour and splendour have taken us far away from the principles of “moderation” the Buddha – we generally accept – preached to his grateful following. Culture is often transferred hypocritically – this is a political reality that we live through throughout history. But, since we claim to be the vanguard of all pristine Buddhist principles it is worth the while to take a second glance at what we are mechanically walking through.
The common mistake we make is in not demarcating the Buddha – the preacher – and the institutionalized religious order that champions what we are told is the Buddha’s word. Indeed, the Buddha’s doctrine is too fundamental to miss out on: shrunk into a single sentence, Buddhism encompasses a wider understanding of “existence”; that the nature of existence is both mutable and impermanent. The basic teaching of Buddhism (as we understand it) is to curb indulgence, which makes us expectant and aspirant even as we occupy the material world in transition. Juxtapose with this ideological premise the fact that we worship statues meant to represent the Buddha; that we worship Bo trees, out of “respect due” to the Bo tree that gave Siddhartha shelter in his search for “truth”. In the context of the logic of what the Buddha is said to have preached, our indulgence with statues and Bo trees sound out of tune – for these very emblems sustain a sense of “wanting to fixate” a reality or and order. The reason why we worship Buddhist statues and light vesak lanterns are easily explained – these are the “rituals” internalized in us by the “institutionalized agent” of the “Buddhist word”. These are customs and cultural rituals brought about by those who wish to hold forth a “Buddhist culture” and a “Buddhist identity”. But, in their doing so, we are already removed from the simple truth of impermanency. We are already made into detained followers of attachment and extravagance.
The “Vesak Week” brought together the scattered elements of the Buddhist society in a united spirit of merit – but, superficially. The “dhaana shaala” you hastily organize with your neighbour, for many, becomes a “one day” affair alone. Indulgent in ambitious and avaricious pursuits, living the competitive options of all forms of social and economic mobility we don the “mask” of giving for the purposes of hypocritical beguiling. Of course, we do know what we are doing. Underneath the grand narrative of the puritan Authority of Vesak being a “time to indulge in meritocracy”, we all know that we are limited in considering this “meritocracy” solely in the light of the season. “This time we’re having our dhansala much grander than last year” a champion of a dhaana shaala that I am told has a thirteen year history confesses to me. Here, the endeavour is jointly sponsored by a group of shop owners of the area. But, in the very testimony of the speaker one sees the “worldly indulgence” and the “competitive edge” of his enterprise.
One might argue that the “philosophy” of Buddhism is different to the “cultural practice” of a socialized version of that creed. The “philosophy”, then, is an excuse for us to indulge in extravagances; which, at one level, proposes an unmistakable contradiction. Let us not worry too much about it, since this is a kind of a contradiction we may encounter between the “preaching” and the “practice” of any idealized theorization. Nor is this article meant to be a repellent of any sort; but, a humble effort to phrase out the complexity of lay religious practice. So, at one level we have the fetishized “philosophical doctrine” of what we are told the Buddha has preached. Then, exclusive of that – but essentially drawing on it and making it the foundation of its right – we have the “socialization” and “ritualization” of it. You may be a greedy pig wanting to build a large lard empire. But, on “Vesak day”, you may give out a bit of that empire and dish out a few free drinks; and you “satisfy” the society’s vision of “being good”.
Take for instance what I heard in a morning radio news transmission: that the President, the Leader of the Opposition and a cohort of political VIPs observed “sil” with a mind of “shradda”. Leaving the corruption and the allegations to corruption some of these patricians are muddled up with, why should this “act of shradda” be transmitted over radio to a country to listen to? Some of the VIPs in question have appearances to keep; and public expectations to live up to. Others have political mileage to gain by assisting their seniors to events of this nature. Of course, mine should not be taken as a generalization, since, apart from the political concern, individuals may also have much sincerity towards their spiritual welfare. For the radio station in question, too, there are listener expectations to satiate and news to deliver. A more complicated, behind-the-doors process of advertisement revenue, planners and ratings all depend on the “non-detached”, “committed” production of the news.
The prescriptions of Buddhism have not led us anywhere less the competitive; as a society or as individuals. People are, indeed, smart – nor does they expect religion to be a balm that they can wear in search of the Eternal Hereafter. We may spend, compete, kill and rejoice; but find ample justification and the feasible logic to keep both the “fun” and the “excuse” alive. This has been the nature of civilization right throughout. We should expect very little else from ourselves.
[This was carried on the Lakbima News of 2011-05-22]