I guess this is a week late as the celebration of Wesak – the day Lord Buddha was born, enlightened and passed – was last week. But I think Buddhist rituals don’t get as much publicity as those of other religions so I suppose this post might have something in it you might not have known. I’m just going to stick to the branch of Buddhism I know about within this although I’m aware there are other denominations of Buddhism in Oriental nations. This post is specifically regarding the Wesak, Poson and Esala days in Sri Lanka carried out on the full moon days of May, June and July. The Buddhists here are generally of the Theravadha variety; the Oriental ones are called Mahayana.
The Buddha I pay homage to is this one and he is called Siddhartha Gautama; lots of Western people that have come to know a little about Buddhism tend to confuse him with the Chinese Laughing Buddha. What Buddha means is “one who has achieved a state of perfect enlightenment” and there are several monks who have been bestowed with this title.
Wesak is the start of the Buddhist festival season in Sri Lanka. When I lived there, my cousins and I made candle lit Wesak lanterns and lighted small oil lamps to decorate our homes. Many older people used to dress in flowing white and meditate at temples from dawn until dusk. I found that tested my patience but ringing the temple bells was more fun. To me, the little places called Dansal that sold food and the Thorana statues that illustrated stories from Jataka in panels were more interesting and were much more successful in gaining my attention.
Poson is a festival on a smaller scale. It celebrates the introduction of Buddhism to the island of Sri Lanka. A famous story about the King Devanampiyatissa and the Buddhist envoy Arahat Mahinda Thera (son of Emperor Ashoka) meeting up on the sacred rock Mihintale is one that has been told many times and religious processions are held in its honour. You can read the story itself here. Also, Sanghamitta – the sister of Mahinda Thera, is credited with bringing a sapling of the Bo Tree under which Buddha received Enlightenment to the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.
Esala is another big festival but most of the festivities tend to be held in Kandy near the Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa). It is thought the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Lord Buddha is held here. There is a big procession held each July called the Esala Perahera. This parade held in honour of Buddha even has his tooth relic casket transported on the back of the Maligawa elephant draped in decorative robes. In addition, the parade has performances by fire twirlers, whip-cracking dancers, stilt walkers and male Kandyan dancers in traditional clothing who beat drums as they walk. This perahera dates back to the time of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe who wanted the tooth relic which happened to be the private property of the king to be venerated by the public.