A Buddhist Full Moon in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is the oldest continually Buddhist country, with Theravada Buddhism being the major religion for approximately 70% of the island’s population.

For Buddhists, the full moon of each month (also known as “Poya day“) is a particularly special religious holiday, so much so that the government has declared all of them national holidays. Each of the 12 Poyas in the Buddhist calendar has a particular significance.  On these days, life across the country come to a grinding stop, as the observance of Poya affects everything from road traffic to the sale of meat and alcohol.

Today’s a Poya day. The September Poya, Binara, commemorates the Buddha’s visit to heaven to preach to his mother and celestial multitude. It’s the only Poya I will experience during my three weeks in the country and I was determined to observe the temple ceremony. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to convince two of the hotel staff to let me tag along to the nearby Village Temple. At quarter to seven in the evening, the three of us set off by foot.

I was told in advance to prepare 1) coconut oil, 2) incense, and 3) fresh flowers, which we picked from the hotel grounds. It didn’t take long to figure out why. Barefoot and clad in white, we followed worshippers as they circled about the main Buddha shrines outside (pictured below). At each of the shrines facing North, South, East, and West, we gently laid down flowers and prayed.

The ceremony itself was tremendously beautiful. First, everyone gathered in a circle around the white structure. One by one, we passed along dozens of baskets filled with flowers, herbs, incense, candles, and oils, all in sync with the beat. It had started to drizzle while we were waiting and the light rain, set against the background drumming and chanting, made for a particularly moving experience.

Some slightly shoddy phone camera photos, as I didn’t feel like bringing out the big gun:

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Lighting coconut oil and incense

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Coconut oil lamps

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The main structure outside which houses four buddhas, one in each direction.

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Laying down the flowers, herbs, and oils…
(The women in the photo above are doing precisely this!)

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Passing the candles around the circle.

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Waves of footprints from those previously passing through.

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