This Sunday, April 26, the Gustavus community will have the opportunity to participate in a cultural event not normally seen in this part of the world. Students and faculty are invited to join in the celebration of the annual Buddhist festival of Vesak, which is free of cost. Beginning at 10:30 a.m. in the Carlson International Center, participants will hear from a variety of speakers, including Buddhist monk Bhante Sathi and Professor of Philosophy Doug Huff. Festival goers will also have the opportunity to taste authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, meditate and be blessed by Buddhist monks.
“This is the fourth year we’ve had Vesak at Gustavus,” said Senior Biology major Asitha Jayawardena, who is the lead organizer for the event. “Traditionally Vesak is a time for meditation. It’s a very intellectual or learning-based holiday. This year we will have a ‘dhane’ ceremony—which translates to ‘giving’—so you will give the monks a gift of food, and they return the gift by giving you a blessing or a good thought. The theme for this year’s event will be ‘Why Religion?’ so we will have some philosophical discussion going on as well.”
Huff will be giving the keynote address and plans to lead his audience in a deeper philosophical reflection on the importance of religion. “I’m going to try and give an overview of Kierkegaard’s answer to why we should even be interested in religion. I will also interpret him with an emphasis on mysticism and the importance of the mystical experience to legitimate religious belief,” said Huff. Event organizers are expecting good attendance for the lecture and the following panel discussion, which will include Huff, Sathi, Chaplain Brian Johnson, Father Tom Harries and Associate Professor of English Florence Amamoto.
Professor of Religion John Cha explained that Vesak is a tradition with roots that go back to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. “While sometimes translated as Buddha’s birthday, it actually combines the meaning of Buddha’s birthday, enlightenment (Nirvana) and passing away, or final nirvana,” said Cha. “For the most part, Buddhists who celebrate Vesak grew up Buddhist, and their families are originally from Buddhist countries or cultures.”
“I think it’s a really cool cultural experience because we bring in monks from all over,” said Junior Spanish Major Liam Glover, who is also helping organize the event. “We have had monks come from around the Midwest and Canada and as far away as Tibet, so we’re interacting with people from different Buddhist communities. This gives us a new faith opportunity, which I think is an essential part of a diverse campus.”
Besides being a time to meditate and celebrate, Vesak is also an opportunity to learn about another culture. “This is why I like being a Buddhist at a Lutheran school like Gustavus—because we can have these educational experiences where other people who aren’t Buddhist can come and learn. Having this ceremony on campus is really important to me from a spiritual perspective but also from a community-wide perspective,” said Jayawardena.
“I always love our opening meditation because we have all the different monks there, and they ring a bell to signal the start. The sound of that bell with the silence of meditation is just splendid,” said Glover.
Event organizers are anticipating a successful celebration this year. “It’s a good little taste of Buddhism if you’re not familiar with it,” said Jayawardena.