Vesak Day is an important festival in Sri Lanka as Buddhists account for 70% of its total population. Almost all government organizations, companies and shops close on that day; local households will hang up white octagonal lanterns and everyone dons white costume that symbolizes purity and visits the temple to pay homage and gratitude to the Buddha as well as chant and seek blessings.
A few days before the Vesak Day which falls on 17 May this year, Tzu Chi volunteers in Sri Lanka held two Buddha bathing ceremonies in Colombo and Hambantota on 14 May and 16 May respectively. Close to 400 members of the public and volunteers got together to pay reverence to the Buddha, immersing themselves in the blessings of the Enlightened One.
Simple yet stately ritual
Sri Wijayanandaramaya Temple is located in the outskirts of Colombo. It is a traditional building in a peaceful and quiet environment. The ambience of the temple was rather different on 14 May as Tzu Chi volunteers could be seen busy preparing for the Buddha Day Ceremony in the temple’s hall. The Buddha bathing altar was embellished with purple lotus flowers and white lotus lamps. The volunteers also prepared about white lotuses for the participants to offer to the Buddha after bathing the Buddha, as per tradition.
With solemn music played in the background, the temple abbot and monks opened the ceremony. About 100 members of the public and Tzu Chi volunteers took turn to walk up the platform and bow to the Buddha’s feet to eradicate their worries and defilements; they also received a flower petal symbolizing the Buddha’s dharma staying with them as they lead their lives. Since it was the first time a Buddha Day ceremony had been held in Colombo, the simple but stately ritual left a deep impression on local Buddhist monks and Tzu Chi volunteers.
Soon to become the abbot of Sri Wijayanandaramaya Temple, Reverend Waduradeniye Somissara noted that Vesak Day is a very important festival for all Buddhists as it commemorates the enlightenment of the Buddha 2600 years ago. The Reverend added that although Tzu Chi’s Buddha bathing ritual is rather simple, it is nonetheless a sanctifying rite.
“The work that Tzu Chi does in Sri Lanka brings out the kindness in human beings and promote loving kindness among all, which is truly admirable,” commended the Reverend.
Shirani Waduge and her husband Daya Waduge got to know Tzu Chi when participating in the construction of the Great Love village when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004. They continued to take part in Tzu Chi’s volunteering work thereafter and are very happy and proud to have received their grey volunteer uniforms one day before the Buddha Day Ceremony.
Shirani works in the education line and was brought up under the influence of Buddhism where she observes the Buddhist precepts strictly. Taking part in the Tzu Chi Buddha Day Ceremony, however, was a totally new experience to her.
“There is a peaceful atmosphere at the ceremony and it is very modern in outlook, much to my liking. Tzu Chi brings Buddhism into our daily lives, and the Tzu Chi people make significant contributions by promoting the practice of Buddhism among the masses. I really revere Master Cheng Yen.”
Purify mind with fragrant water
In the morning of 16 May, a few hundred kilometers away from Colombo, another Buddha Day Ceremony was taking place in Hambantota with the hall of the Tzu Chi National School (the school located in the Great Love village) being turned into the venue for the ceremony.
Interspersed on the Buddha bathing altar were angsana and bougainvillea flowers plucked from outside the school hall. The yellow and red flowers contrasted each other elegantly. Close to 300 residents from Hambantota, the Great Love village and students of the Tzu Chi National School participated in the ritual sincerely.
Niwanthi is an English teacher from the Tzu Chi National School and that was the second time she participated in the Buddha Day Ceremony. Deeply touched by the dignified atmosphere, Niwanthi opined that albeit Tzu Chi’s Buddha bathing ritual adopts a different format, the significance is the same as other Vesak Day celebrations in Sri Lanka. The most lasting impression on her was the dipping of hands in the fragrant water when bowing to the Buddha’s feet. “It is like cleansing one’s mind with fresh and pure water.”
Sharing Niwanthi’s sentiment was Imesha, a Secondary 2 student from the school. The 14-year-old remarked, “Tzu Chi’s Buddha bathing is a very beautiful ceremony, it is a new way of making offerings to the Buddha. I like it very much.”
Honouring Buddha, honouring Tzu Chi
Half way through the ceremony, a trishaw stopped outside the school hall. A lady got out of it with much difficulty and walked very slowly, taking one step at a time with the help of a walking frame. After much effort, she finally got onto the platform to pay homage to the Buddha.
Perspiring profusely, she said with a grin: “This is Tzu Chi’s once in a year Buddha Day Ceremony. I want to take part under any circumstances.”
Wimalawathee, 52, had had problem with her left leg due to an improper injection. In 2004, while running for her life from the tsunami, she fell and suffered a bad fracture in her left leg. Though her wound has healed eventually, her left leg is now a few inches shorter than her right leg, making walking even more challenging for her. Tzu Chi provided her with a walking frame and a wheelchair during a free clinic and arranged for her to move into the Great Love village that she can now at least lead a decent life.
Though she has problem in moving around, Wimalawathee makes good use of her weaving skills and once weaved coconut leaves into roofing materials for one Tzu Chi care recipient.
“Were it not for Tzu Chi, we (victims of the tsunami) wouldn’t know what to do at that time,” said Wimalawathee. “I am very grateful to the Tzu Chi people. While bathing the Buddha, I feel that all my worries just disappear.”
At the end of both ceremonies, the congregations prayed for the purification of minds and for the world to be rid of disasters. While bowing to the Buddha’s feet, it is hoped that the innate Buddha nature in everyone is invoked and such peace and harmony would extend to the rest of the Sri Lankan society.