“It is appropriate that the enlightenment of Gauthama the Buddha 2600 years ago, a teacher who preached non-violence, tolerance, understanding and self realization, should be celebrated by the United Nations. This organization was created on the smouldering embers of global war and the resulting death, destruction and massive displacement, to maintain international peace and security, to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems and to develop friendly relations among nations based on mutual respect. Against this background, the Buddha’s message remains ever relevant”.
Dr Palitha Kohona led by the Sri Lanka Permanent Mission to the UN, and enthusiastically supported by other Permanent Missions from the South Asian, South East Asian and East Asian regions, the United Nations and the Buddhist community of the Tri State area celebrated the Sambuddhatva Jayanthiya (2600 Years of Buddhism) in exceptional style on Monday 16 May, 2011.
The day’s events commenced with a Pindapatha Charikave (alms round) in front of the UN at 7 A.M. Despite a thin drizzle in the morning, 198 monks, mainly in saffron robes, from different countries, (only 130 had been expected!) including Caucasian, black, some female, and many from the Mahayana tradition, walked, begging bowls in hand, serenely past the UN building along 1st Avenue into the Dag Hammarskjold Park and were served packets of food by the various national committees. (Sri Lankan, Thai, Myanmarese, Cambodian, Laotian, Bangladeshi, etc.). They then walked in single file, like in ancient times, to the Sky Lounge of the Dag Hammarskjold building (the residence of the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative) to quietly eat the food. NY had never seen such a spectacle, a veritable photo of paradise.
“Hatred ceaseth not hatred. It is loving kindness that conquers hatred”.
After the meal, the monks walked serenely to the UN General Assembly chamber to participate in the UN Special Event to commemorate the Sambuddhatva Jayanthiya. The proceedings started with an opening Statement by Dr Palitha Kohona who chaired the session, followed by the chanting of seth pirith by the monks – A first at the UN. Immediately afterwards, statements were made by Ambassador Hasan Kleib of Indonesia, representing the UNGA President, the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, and 10 permanent representatives (Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Japan (DPR), Lao People’s Democratic Republic (DPR), Nepal, Pakistan, The Philippines, The Republic of Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam). The Secretary-General said that “the teachings of the Buddha may be twenty six centuries old but they are as relevant as ever today.”
All the speakers effusively acknowledged in their statements the central organizing role played by the small Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka in putting together this unique event with the assistance of the Queens Temple, in particular Venerable Piyatissa and the Venerable Saddajeeva. The Khamba Lama of the Dashichoiling Monastery of Mongolia and a very senior scholar, Venerable Gnanissara from Myanmar also addressed the audience. The Honorable Wimal Weerawansa, the Minister for Housing spoke representing the President of Sri Lanka. The underlying theme of all the speakers was the message of peace, tolerance and understanding central to Buddhism. Over 1000 attendees from the diplomatic community, different nationalities, and the Secretariat packed the auditorium. The organization presented unprecedented logistical challenges to the thinly spread Sri Lankan Permanent Mission.
A commemorative volume entitled “Buddhism – 2600 Years and Beyond” was presented to the Secretary-General by the Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa and a publication “Sri Lankan Identity – 2600 Years” authored by Ambassador Shavendra Silva was also gifted by him.
“In a world troubled by endless violence, terrorism, inequality, natural and man made calamities, mistrust and conflict, poverty and deprivation, the Buddha’s message of tolerance, understanding and equanimity provides an abiding guiding light. It is not being paralyzed by the past but by calmly reaching to the future that one will achieve peace”, Dr Palitha Kohona.
In the afternoon, an interfaith dialogue was organized, also in the GA hall, chaired by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative, Dr Palitha Kohona, who made the introductory comments. Speakers repeatedly referred to the gentle impact of Buddhism in the societies that it touched. The underlying theme of peace, and non-violence and its impact on the history, the art, and the culture of the vast Asian continent was central to their presentations. 5 speakers addressed the theme from different perspectives, including a very senior rabbi from NY, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, an eminent Hindu priest from India, Swami Viditatmananda, a Christian academic from Columbia University, Professor John Knitter, a senior curator from the Metropolitan Museum of NY, Dr John Guy. Sri Lanka was represented by three eminent speakers, Dr Ananda Guruge, Professor Sudharshan Seneviratna, and Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. The Venerable Thich Tam Duc (Vietnam), the Venerable Ashin Nyanissara (Myanmar), Reverend Shogun Kumakura (Japan), Venerable Karunanada (Bangladesh), Reverend Dhammadeepa, Reverend Kodo Umezu, Reverend Kamiya, and The Khamba Lama of Mongolia spoke on behalf of their communities.
The day’s formal events culminated with an exhibition of photographs and artifacts from Buddhist countries at the Buddhist Heritage Exhibition which was declared open by the Honorable Wimal Weerawansa at the entrance to the GA hall. The Sri Lankan Mission, under the leadership of Dr Palitha Kohona, the Permanent Representative, ably assisted by Ambassador Shavendra Silva received praise from a large number of Permanent Missions and community members for coordinating the management of this event.
Later, in accordance with tradition, food was provided to the participants by the organizers at UN lobby and hundreds queued to be fed, evoking memories of dansalas in Sri Lanka.
(Photos by Sagara Lakmal De Mel)