Holy day unites Beirut’s Buddhists in humility and faith

Sri Lankan women pray during a ceremony in Beirut, Sunday, May 18, 2014. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

HAZMIEH, Lebanon: In a quiet corner of Hazmieh, some 3,000 miles from Colombo, scores of Buddhist Sri Lankans gathered to celebrate their faith Sunday.

The occasion was Vesak, known colloquially as Buddha Day, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha, explained Uduwe Dhammaloka, the presiding monk.

“In Sri Lanka we have been celebrating this for 1,000 years,” Dhammaloka said.

More than 500 white-clad participants chanted prayers in the Sri Lankan Embassy, some wearing traditional saris and sarongs, others wearing white jeans and T-shirts. An estimated 85,000 Sri Lankans live in Lebanon, mostly working as maids or menial laborers.

“Most of the Sri Lankans in Lebanon are from very rural areas,” said Dhammaloka, a popular Buddhist monk from Colombo who flew in for the occasion.

“They are not very educated. It’s hard for them to live their lives according to the Buddha’s teachings. I’d like to help show them how they can adjust their lives to be in accord with Buddhist teachings.”

In addition to the five core precepts of Buddhism – to abstain from killing, stealing, gossip, alcohol and sexual impropriety – faithful Buddhists adhere to three additional principles on Vesak: to eat at the proper times, avoid ostentation and eschew luxurious chairs and beds.

During the ceremony at the Sri Lankan Embassy, participants sat barefoot on the ground, an homage to the Buddha’s humbleness and poverty. Afterward, hundreds of people formed a line, passing plates of traditional food one-by-one to the end. Honoring the precept against killing, the food was vegetarian.

The Vesak celebration helps Sri Lankans in Lebanon reconnect with their roots, according to the embassy’s Head of Chancery Priyangika Wijegunasekara.

“At least for one day, they can think about their religion,” she told The Daily Star, adding that there are no Buddhist temples in Lebanon.

“It is important for their life.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 19, 2014, on page 2.




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