Meanwhile, Buddhist priests decry the excess surrounding a festival commemorating a man who shunned his family fortune for an ascetic life, saying the waste around Vesak have become too much. They argue the festival as it is celebrated now often fails to promote the Buddhist traditions of simplicity and the pursuit of a life that sought spiritual satisfaction instead of acquiring material goods that they say weigh the soul down.
Vesak is celebrated in Sri Lanka when the first full moon of May rises. Buddhists across Asia observe the holiday, which may fall at different times depending on the calendar each country uses. Also known as “Buddha’s birthday,” Vesak is one of the most important holidays in the religion.
“We want people to focus on Lord Buddha’s birth, the spirituality,” said Piyal Kasthurirathne, a religious Buddhist preparing to celebrate the holiday. “This shouldn’t become a Mickey Mouse religion.”
Like others in this nation island, he looked at Christmas’s evolution with concern: Jesus Christ giving way to Santa Claus, church foregone for boozy holiday parties. Conservative groups in the United States are also reacting, demanding the country “put the Christ back in Christmas,” as the common refrain goes.
On Sunday, the devout, clad in all white, gathered at temples across Sri Lanka at the break of dawn to mark the start of Vesak, praying, burning incense or offering flowers to Buddha statues.
At Kelaniya, a temple that attracts some of the more dedicated practitioners in and around the capital Colombo, the crowds heaved in the morning’s already sweltering temperatures. Throngs of worshipers sat on the earth around the bleach-white stupa, a large dome that represents the earth’s elements and is used as a place of meditation.
About five miles away, at the Gangaramaya temple in the heart of Colombo, the urban elite gathered, those who are described as more “socially Buddhist,” the type of people the minister’s decree took aim at.
Vesak commemorations at Gangaramaya tend to be more festive, with prizes given for lantern building, another tradition that has become too commercial, critics say. Families historically came together at home to build lanterns on Vesak, but now the tradition includes a popular cash prize competition, with businesses and even separate police divisions competing at temples like Gangaramaya.