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The true meaning of Vesak

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Buddhist flags are fluttering in their thousands across Sri Lanka ahead of the Vesak weekend. Vesak has special significance because it encapsulates the impermanence of life but also the hope of a new beginning. It is a festival of light to drive away the darkness of ignorance, insensitivity and selfishness. Vesak is a time for self-reflection that should be used to understand the true nature of the universe. This is what all Sri Lankans need in the aftermath of the tragic Easter Sunday attacks and the subsequent anti-Muslim violence.

Vesak celebrates the birth, enlightenment and the passing of Lord Buddha. The central message of Vesak is to understand how fleeting life is and how important it is to understand its true nature and seek wisdom before this short human life ends and the journey of samsara continues. On Thursday, the leaders of the Muslim community came forward to request moderates of other religions and ethnicities to come forth at this difficult time and work with the Muslim community to restore communal harmony in Sri Lanka.

They called on the public to embrace the concept of a Sri Lankan identity and appealed to focus on the similarities between communities rather than their differences. They acknowledged there was need for self-reflection within the Muslim community to understand how outside cultural differences seeped into the local community and how they could be addressed by the community itself. But this process of self-reflection and self-analysis is not only the responsibility of the minorities. It would be disingenuous to believe that one person or one community or outside influence alone is responsible and removing it will repair the rents in Sri Lanka’s soul.

The attacks on Muslim communities in at least three districts earlier this week is yet again a reminder of how shallow genuine harmony is in Sri Lanka. The social media posts and instances of Buddhist, Christian and Muslim solidarity provide little comfort when faced with the sobering details of groups, at times made up of hundreds of people, attacking Muslim-owned shops and houses. Many were set fire to, and there is clearly a concentrated effort to undermine the economic prowess of the community, which is clearly shown by the groups targeting even large-scale businesses like the Diamond pasta factory in Minuwangoda.  

As the majority population, Sinhala Buddhists also have a responsibility to look inward and ask themselves how these groups came to be and why these attacks keep happening; why Aluthgama, Beruwala, Digana, Minuwangoda, Kurunegala and others keep happening; why there is a deepening of communal problems in Sri Lanka in such a short period of time. Obviously politicians and political actors have a large role to play, but they are not the only reason why there is so little effort to have genuine reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

Since the Easter Sunday attacks the general public view of reconciliation has become remarkably more hostile, and there is greater adherence to nationalist sentiments than ever before. This is understandable given the fear, disappointment and anger triggered at higher levels by the Easter Sunday attacks, but this must be addressed as soon as possible and the genuine, generous, moderate and true teachings of the Buddha would be a good guide. 

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