Despite Covid containment, Sri Lankan Buddhists celebrate Poson Poya

Each year, Chathurika Dasanayake usually takes a bus with her three children and neighbors to the “cradle of Buddhism” in Sri Lanka on Poson Poya day.

Thousands of Buddhists in white robes flock to temples in villages across the country, although the main event takes place at Mihintale in Anuradhapura.

Dasanayake and his neighbors engage in the observation of Ata Sil (eight precepts), meditation and the preparation of lanterns, pandols (presentations of the life of Buddha) and dansals (offerings of food, drink and candy for pilgrims).

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A chief monk of the village temple sings the Eight Precepts early in the morning. By observing the precepts, pilgrims decide to promote good behavior and develop self-discipline.

It is the tradition for followers of Lord Buddha and other religious devotees to go on pilgrimage with family and friends to watch pandols, lanterns and Poson dances.

The day is the second in importance for Vesak and commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by the Buddhist missionary monk Mahinda in the third century BC.

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Mahinda met King Devanampiyatissa on top of a mountain in Anuradhapura and preached the first sermon. This is why Anuradhapura is often called “the cradle of Buddhism” in the country.

Of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, 70 percent are Buddhists, 13 percent Hindus, 10 percent Muslim and 7 percent Christian.

The Covid-19 pandemic has restricted Poson Poya celebrations this year. Buddhists have missed all of their temple community and ritual activities. They participated in online and live recorded programs during the festival on June 24.

The government has imposed strict travel restrictions across the country to control the spread of the third wave of the pandemic. Sri Lanka has seen a massive increase in the number of Covid-19 infections.

When Dasanayake listened to the sermons of Buddhist monks on the day of Poson Poya, she saw empty main roads, so different from the crowded roads of previous years.

Nuwangi Udayangani, a teacher from Kuliyapitiya, northeast of the capital Colombo, was very sad that all opportunities to work together as a community had been lost due to the pandemic.

“Although we are all helpless due to the coronavirus, we still help each other as a society,” Udayangani said.

Buddhist monks asked devotees to perform religious observances from their homes on the day of Poson Poya.

Fri. Walawahengunawewe Dhammarathana Nayake Thera organized the Rathana Suthraya chant for a week to invoke blessings for the country and the world.

Buddhist monks chant Rathana Suthraya for the well-being of those infected with the coronavirus around the world and to prevent the spread of the virus in Sri Lanka.

All liquor stores and butcher shops are closed every year during the week of the Poson festival.

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Fri. Dimbulkumbure Sri Wimaladhamma Thera said everyone must face the pandemic with great caution. “This time, we will not be able to offer dances and handouts at rallies,” he said.

These measures were taken to prevent people from gathering due to the Poson festival.

Sri Lanka released 93 prisoners, including 16 suspected LTTE terrorists held without charge, on June 24 after being pardoned by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a common practice during the festival.

The Poson festival was celebrated in a low-key way following the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

Dasanayake’s brother-in-law is a Catholic who also joins the pilgrimage to Anuradhapura every year under normal circumstances. She said that all religious faithful come together to celebrate the festival.

“Many Christian churches decorate their places of worship and join with Buddhists in organizing dances and pandols,” she said.