Poya Days

Twelve times a year, and occasionally thirteen, life in Sri Lanka grinds to a halt for the observance of a Poya Day. Sri Lanka’s brand of Buddhism follows a lunar cycle, and full moon days are especially meaningful. These poya days are public holidays, allowing the faithful to visit their favorite temple and take a break from work. It’s forbidden to sell alcohol and, to a lesser extent, meat.

Today’s a Poya Day. April 6th, 2012 is the Bak Poya, commemorating the Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka at Nagadeepa (on the Jaffna Peninsula’s Nainativu Island). Each of the year’s full moon days has its own name and significance — here’s a full list. This is the third Poya during our stay in Sri Lanka and, for the third time, we only remembered it after trying to order a beer.

Buddhists in Sri Lanka live by five holy precepts. (1) Don’t kill. (2) Don’t steal. (3) Don’t be a pervert. (4) Don’t lie. (5) Don’t be a drunk. (Exactly two of these holy tenets preclude me from being a Buddhist). And on Poya Days, the pious abide by an extra three rules: (6) No food after midday. (7) No music or perfume. (8) No fancy beds or chairs.

So even on the holiest of days, Buddhists only have eight commandments to obey as opposed to Christianity’s ten. And I don’t see anything on the Buddhist list about “honoring thy parents” or blaspheming against God, which are the two I most routinely break. Goddamn parents should have raised me a Buddhist!

We always enjoy Poya Days, when all Sri Lanka shifts into vacation mode. Temples fill up with white-clad worshipers, and hotels are packed with families on mini-vacations. And the country’s best festivals fall almost exclusively on full moon days. I especially like the fact that Buddhism places so much value on a natural lunar cycle, which lends a beautiful bit of mysticism to the ceremonies.

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