Wesak at the United Nations
Posted on May 7th, 2017

In conversation with Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Dr Palitha Kohona

Sri lanka will celebrate the United Nations Wesak day with much pomp and ceremony next month in Colombo and Kandy and in almost every temple in the country. Prime Minister Modi of India who has sought to employ Buddhism as a vehicle for India’s soft power outreach will be the chief guest at these celebrations. Other international dignitaries are also expected to be present in Sri Lanka during this period. A special exposition of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy is scheduled. In New York, the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka will co-host a comemorative meeting with Thailand at the United Nations.

The History of the Effort to Make Wesak a Public Holiday

Over the years, many national leaders have clamoured to make Wesak an internationally recognised day and a holiday. Anagarika Dharmapala, American Civil War veteran Henry Steel Olcott, theosophist Madame Blavatsky, educationist Museus Higgins and others were at the forefront of this effort. They succeeded in having Wesak declared a national holiday during the colonial period (in May 1885) and were also responsible for the adoption of the Buddhist flag (1885). Their work was continued later by the leading lights such as L.H. Metthananda and Gunapala Malalasekara who wanted the United Nations to declare Wesak a holiday given that over 500 million people around the world professed to follow the teachings of Gautama the Buddha. The political headquarters of the UN, located in the United States, and dominated by Western Christian values, was not receptive to this suggestion, even though the sixties witnessed an Asian Buddhist, U Thant heading the organisation. In fact its bias towards Christian sensitivities is demonstrated by the fact that in the early days of the Organisation, all General Assembly committees sought to complete their workloads by the first week of December so that delegates could reach their own countries, those days by ship and then by train, in time for Christmas. This practise continues, with the exception of the Fifth Committee, although delegates travel by air these days.

Foreign Minister Kagiragamar Takes the Challenge to the United Nations. What Happened?

In the late nineties, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadiragamar, with impeccable charm overwhelming erudition, called on the UN to declare Wesak a holiday. Sri Lanka was supported by 15 other countries, some non Buddhist, including Russia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, but its endeavour was not fully successful mainly due to the lack of sympathy on the part of the Secretariat. The Secretariat advised that the days allocated for holidays at the UN were already occupied by host country holidays and Christian and Islamic holy days. Furthermore, it contended that any additional holidays on the UN calender would result in an extra cost burden to the Organisation and would be in an unbudgeted item on the UN balance sheet. The Fifth Committee of the General Assembly balked at the prospect of additional costs and as a compromise proposed that the UN recognise Wesak as a special day but NOT as an extra holiday. The sixteen countries which advanced the proposal, including Sri Lanka, settled for this diluted fall back option. The first meeting marking Wesak as a special day at the UN was hosted by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador John de Saram at the small  Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium. Wesak continued to be marked at the UN  enthusiastically but in a low key manner, over the next few years.

Sri Lanka Celebrates Sambuddhatwa Jayanthiya in an Unprecedented Manner at the United Nations in New York

In the lead up to the Sambuddhatwa Jayanthiya (Enlightenment) of Gauthama the Buddha in 2011, the Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to celebrate the event in a high profile manner, including at the UN in New York. The Mission in New York quickly mobilised the support of the Buddhist countries and a range of other countries to celebrate the event in an appropriate manner. The Secretariat, including the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who repeatedly referred to the fact that his mother was a Buddhist, came on board the project. The UN media unit extended it’s full support. In addition to the obvious religious aspect of the event, the Mission of Sri Lanka recognised the potential for projecting a softer and likable image of Sri Lanka through a high profile celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment at a time when allegations of human rights violations and war crimes were crowding Sri Lanka’s image in the international landscape..

The Sambuddha Jayanthi celebrations in New York provided the opportunity to highlight many Buddhist traditions from different Buddhist countries to New Yorkers. The event which was ably coordinated by Ambassador General Shavendra Silva, commenced with 200 monks from different traditions, both Heenayana and Mahayana, n yellow, gray and brown robes, walking in single file from opposite the UN building to the Dag Hammarskjold Tower for early breakfast (heel daane). It was a memorable sight. Along the way they were offered alms (pindapathaya) by hundreds of devotees from different countries. The slight drizzle did not deter them. The chief monks (the Mahanayakas) from Mongolia and Vietnam were among the participants as were leading monks from Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Breakfast (heel danaya) was served at the common room of the Dag Hammarskjold building where the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka, Dr Palitha Kohona, the chief dayaka, resided. The Sri Lankan community participated in the event with undiluted enthusiasm.

Following the heel daane, the monks assembled at the General Assembly Hall which was packed to capacity, including most of the diplomatic community. A day long discussion on Buddhism commenced. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Ambassador Dr Palitha Kohona chaired the assembly. For the first time ever, the GA Hall reverberated to the rhythm of pirith chanting by 200 monks at the commencement of the proceedings. This had never happened in the GA Hall before. The discussion followed, with key-note addresses being delivered by the Reverend Gunerathana and Bhikku Bodhi (the highly regarded Buddhist Jew from Brooklyn). His Holiness the Pope sent a message, read by the Papal Nuncio. A display of historic Buddhist art occupied the Kuwait Boat Room at the entrance to the GA Hall. Many Buddhist countries and countries which were Buddhist in the past contributed valuable pieces to this exhibition. The day’s events were concluded with a buffet dinner for over 1200 guests hosted by the countries involved in contributing to the event.

The annual UN Wesak Day event continued at the General Assembly Hall until renovations to the Secretariat building forced it to be moved to the temporary new building. The call for Wesak to be declared a holiday kept bubbling away in the background.

Sri Lanka Again Requests the UN to Declare Wesak a Holiday

Then in 2014, the Permanent Mission of Israel requested the UN to declare Yom Kippur, a day significant to 13 million Jews, a holiday. This was resisted by Saudi Arabia, obviously for geo-political and other reasons. Curiously, the Secretariat which had found reasons for refusing to accommodate the request from Sri Lanka to declare Wesak a holiday in 1999, now declared that it saw no financial or other reason for objecting to Israel’s request. Grabbing the opportunity presented, the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka (Chamitri Rambukwella was the Vice President of the Fifth Committee at the time) again asked that Wesak be declared a UN holiday. It successfully lobbied other member states and the Secretariat. However, to the surprise of many, the Indian delegate to the Fifth Committee threw a giant spanner in the works by first refusing to join the emerging consensus and later suggesting that four days sacred to Indian religions as possible candidates for holidays. (Guru Nanak Day, Mahavir Day, Maha Shiva Rathri and Pongal). All requests now seemed likely to be rejected but Sri Lanka kept up the pressure, including by keeping the Secretary-General informed on a regular basis as did Israel with the massive support it could readily muster in New York. Eventually, at the eleventh hour, a compromise emerged, The Fifth Committee agreed and the General Assembly unanimously endorsed that no meetings of the UN will be held on the day of Wesak at duty stations where there was a Buddhist majority and the day was a public holiday. Any person wishing to observe the relevent Buddhist rituals could also take leave on this day. While this is not ideal outcome for the Buddhist world, it was another significant step on the way.

Prospects for the Future

As the UN Wesak celebrations will be held in Sri Lanka next month, with the attendance of a number of Buddhist dignitaries from around the world, it would provide us with the opportunity to lobby for support for the call to declare Wesak a UN holiday – a demand that has the backing of over 500 million Buddhists. Given that Buddhism has begun to attract significant numbers of intellectuals and free thinkers in the Western world, a special effort could be made to include them at the celebrations. Buddhism is the fastest growing religion/philosophy in Australia. Mindfulness, based on Buddhist meditation techniques, is sweeping through Western business circles. The presence of Prime Minister Modi as the chief guest makes this opportunity even more attractive given his own efforts to project India’s soft power as the country that gave Buddhism to the world. Sri Lanka could also use this opportunity to mobilise the support of fellow Buddhist countries and others in a soft power outreach given the attractiveness of the Buddha’s message of peace and loving kindness in an increasingly strife torn world.

One Response to “Wesak at the United Nations”

  1. Christie Says:

    ඉන්දියානු බවයක් නැති අපි ඔක්කොම ඉන්දියානු අඩිරදයේ යටත් වැසියෝ.

    ඉන්දියාවත් ඉන්දියානු පරපෝසිතයනුත් අපිව පාලනය කරනවා.

    මෙය වටහාගන්න.


    ඉන්දියානු අදිරදයටත් ඉන්දියානු පරපෝසිතයන්ටත් එරෙහිව නැගීසිටින්න.

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