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Celebration of the 2600th Anniversary of the Buddha’s Enlightenment

United Nations, New York, NY, May 16. 2011

By Ananda W. P. Guruge 

Venerables, Excellencies and Friends, 

May I, at the very outset, express my deepest gratitude to His Excellency Ambassador Palitha Kohona and the organizing committee for conferring on me the enviable honor of being the keynote speaker on this auspicious occasion. We have gathered together to celebrate what I call the 2600th Birthday of Buddhism. Buddhism began on the day when the princely ascetic Siddhartha Gautama attained Enlightenment under the sacred Bodhi Tree of Gaya in Bihar, India. It is symbolic that we meet in this majestic Assembly Hall where the united nations of the world meet harmoniously, discuss harmoniously and disperse harmoniously to meet again and again to pursue the noble mission of securing peace and harmony for the whole of humanity. An Interfaith Dialogue on the theme of Peace, Harmony and Co-existence is no doubt the most fitting tribute to the Buddha and his teachings. 

The Buddha was indeed a most eloquent exponent of peace and harmony in both precept and practice. In precept he stood for peace and equality of all human beings – nay for all sentient beings to whom it was everyone’s duty and responsibility to extend Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic joy and Equanimity with no reservation. He reminded us that all beings were scared of violence as life was dear to all and all feared death and advised us neither to kill nor get others to kill. In this he asked to make ourselves to be the standard of comparison. By example, he sat between warring armies in the battle field and asked the most pertinent question whether a drop of water was worth the lives of humans. He also created perhaps the longest standing spiritual organization of the world in the form of the Sangha and admitted to it all and sundry irrespective race or caste or class or socioeconomic circumstances. To the Sangha of all traditions we owe a great debt of gratitude for not only preserving the word of the Buddha but also taking the message to all corners of the known world for two thousand six hundred years. 

Wherever Buddhism went, it functioned as a most effective civilizing force and set an unparalleled example of nonviolence, tolerance, understanding and coexistence. While offering itself as a measure of rationality and a standard of virtue and morality, it allowed and even encouraged diversity in thought, belief, worship and ritual. 

Under its influence some incomparable demonstrations of selfless nonviolence are recorded. Two kings of Sri Lanka and Thailand settled their political future by single combat with their rivals in order to save the lives of their military outfits. A king of Sri Lanka voluntarily offered his head to prevent the ruthless slaughter of his look-alikes by the usurper to his throne. Asoka, the great Buddhist emperor of India, not only eschewed war after the havoc he saw in the battlefield but also advised his sons and grandsons to never to go into war. He told them, “If you have no alternative to an armed conflict, be forbearing and forgiving to the enemy and inflict only light punishment.” You will hear more details about the Buddha’s teachings as well as the practical steps he took from the learned panelists who are here to speak to you. 

May I touch on the most visible impact of Buddhism in the region that had come under its benign influence. It is a massive region bounded in the West by Bulgaria and Uzbekistan, in the North by Mongolia and Buryatia in Siberia, in the East by Japan and the Philippines and in the South by Maldive islands and Indonesia. In this region are to be seen the most astounding and impressive works of art, statuary, sculpture, architecture, painting, philosophy, poetry and narrative literature which owe their origin, inspiration and motivation to Buddhism. This vast cultural heritage belongs to the entire humanity and rightly appreciated and enjoyed. 

As regards the Buddhist literary treasures, Sri Lanka has preserved up to modern times the indispensable tools for the study of the authentic teachings of the Buddha such as the Pali language, the most comprehensive Pali Tripitaka and the extensive commentarial literature. China, likewise, has safeguarded the equally comprehensive Sanskrit Canon in the form of the Agamansutras in addition to the massive literature of Mahayana Sutras. Korea disseminated the Chinese Canon twelve centuries ago by means of wood-block printing and seventy-five years before the Gutenberg Bible was printed, the same Buddhist Canon was printed in Korea using movable metal type. Japan in 1924, made this enormous literary heritage available to the world through the Taisho edition of the Chinese Tripitaka. Here again, we will hear more from our distinguished panelists. 

Venerables, Excellencies and friends, 

I am proud to stand before you as a Buddhist born and bred in Sri Lanka. This little island nation has played an incomparable role in the promotion of Buddhism in the world. While Nepal is the birth place of the Buddha and India is where the Buddha attained Enlightenment and taught his supreme Path of Deliverance through self-cultivation, if Sri Lanka had not preserve the authentic teachings of the Buddha, we may not know who the historic Buddha was or what he taught to his contemporaries and did to impress them. 

More specifically, I am conscious of the way Buddhism has fashioned the Sri Lankan culture and influenced its policies and actions even in very dire situations. Japan, for whose recent natural and nuclear catastrophe we offer our heartfelt sympathies, expresses its gratitude to Sri Lanka for utilizing at the Treaty Conference in 1953 the Buddha’s dictum Na hi verena verani samanti’dha kudacana – hatred is never appeased by hatred and paving the way to renew itself as debt-free nation of peace and economic stability. 

In Sri Lanka itself was demonstrated how, even in a civil war involving incredible insecurity due to terrorist acts, the national government provided food, education and health care to people of the rebel-held areas for nearly three decades at national expense. This practical application of Buddhist principles of Loving Kindness and Compassion has been recently described in detail by a well-informed writer in the esteemed journal “The New Yorker.” Reflecting the experience elsewhere, he used the adverb “Bizarrely” to express his surprise. If he knew better, he could have told the world how Buddhism continues to pave the way for peace, harmony and co-existence by using another more expressive alliterative adverb, namely “Buddhistically.” 

Venerables, Excellencies and Friends, 

This in brief is the magic and the perennial relevance and applicability of Buddhism. So may I conclude by wishing “Happy 2600th Birthday, Buddhism. May it continue to serve humanity forever.” 

Thank you. 

Ananda W. P. Guruge is Senior Vice-President of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, Chairman of the World Buddhist University Council, Patron of the European Buddhist Union, Former Ambassador of Sri Lanka to UNESCO, France and USA and Senior Special Adviser to the Director-General of UNESCO, Dean Emeritus of Academic Affairs and Professor of Buddhism of the University of the West and Adjunct Professor of Buddhism, Hinduism and Peace Studies of California State University Fullerton.