|Forest Sangha Newsletter||April 1994|
Images of Sri Lanka
The catalyst for the visit was an invitation for some Amaravati nuns to attend the third International Conference of Buddhist Women organised by Sakyadhita ('Daughters of the Buddha') in Colombo. I was pleased to be asked to go as it seemed a worthwhile event; and I had never been to Asia or experienced a predominantly Buddhist culture before. 'Stay on for a while afterwards,' suggested Ajahn Sumedho, 'or you'll regret it later.' With this agreeable advice, flights were reserved showing two weeks of unplanned time. The prospect of just setting out, with faith that our few needs would be taken care of, was very appealing. Knowing the Sri Lankan reputation for hospitality, I suspected we wouldn't starve.
We left from Heathrow on an icy, grey October morning, descending at dawn the next day to land at Colombo through the sullen cloud of a monsoon downpour. There was just time for a brief glimpse of mud-swollen rivers and palm trees, dark-leaved and glistening wet, before we shuddered down on to the steaming runway. Where was the lyrical tropical sunrise I'd been led to anticipate? Once again, a reminder that life rarely troubles to align itself with one's expectations.
There was a warm welcome from the family of Amaravati regular Nalaka Rajaratna. Then, a dream-like drive to Colombo, adjusting to new sense-impressions: humid warmth and red earth and outrageously extravagant vegetation; a chaos of cyclists and cars, trishaws and trucks, jostling noisily for position on rough roads; streams of pedestrian commuters, and clusters of schoolchildren in immaculate whites; lethargic stray dogs and untethered cows ambling by the roadside lined with small shops and open stalls, and piles of coconut-husks and garbage; and glimpses of unimaginable lives in shacks and courtyards up muddy alleys.
Approaching the conference centre, the streets broadened into tree-lined avenues. Nalaka's sister suddenly raised her hands reverentially in anjali as if responding to a pre-arranged signal. Puzzled, I glanced back to see a huge Buddha-rupa gazing out imperturbably from a roadside shrine - startling reminder that we were now in a Buddhist land.
By the following day more than two hundred delegates had gathered for the five-day conference, with approximately equal numbers of nuns and laywomen (and a few husbands) representing nearly every Asian and European country, the United States and Australia. The broad aims of this and the previous conferences were to further the objectives of Sakyadhita: '... to promote world peace through the practice of the Buddha's teachings; to create a network of communications for Buddhist women throughout the world; to promote harmony and understanding among the various Buddhist traditions to encourage and help educate women as teachers of Buddhadharma and to provide improved facilities for women to study and practise the teachings.' And further: '... to help establish the Bhikkhuni Sangha where it does not currently exist; to provide support for women who are interested in ordination; and to conduct research on monastic discipline and the role of women in Buddhism.'
Each day would begin with chanting and guided meditation from a different tradition. Talks and discussion-groups followed, on a diverse range of topics: Challenges in Monastic Life Today; Bhikkhuni Ordination - Arguments For and Against Its Revival; Dhamma in Family Life; The Role of Laywomen in Buddhism; Japanese Women Monastics; and Buddhism in Bangladesh. And ... Can Women Attain Nibbana?! It was impressive to observe the consistent humour, compassion, maturity and wisdom of the speakers as various potentially emotive issues were explored.
Buddhist nuns are a rare species in Western countries, and we can often find ourselves rather isolated within our own small groups.
|The subject-matter would often gravitate towards the concerns of the ninety Dasa sil rnata (ten precept nuns) attending. There are approximately 2,500 Dasa sil mata in Sri Lanka. Those we met told us that although there are a few excellent nunneries, in general there is inadequate support and little opportunity to receive good training. In recent years the government has taken some measures to improve this situation. We explored further possibilities. The local laywomen took great interest in these exchanges, many expressing the wish to hear more Dhamma teachings from women. In conclusion, the delegates drew up a resolution calling for a new nuns' training and study centre to be set up in Colombo. The press gave this wide publicity, and before leaving Sri Lanka we heard that several possible properties had already been offered by lay donors.|
One afternoon all the foreign delegates were taken to visit the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, a well-known temple outside Colombo. On arrival, young flower-sellers clustered around bearing blue lotuses which our Sri Lankan hosts generously bought and distributed. As we approached the temple, the Abbot came to welcome us, accompanied by a procession of ceremonial temple drummers. Inside the entrance-hall, the pounding drums were amplified to a mind-stopping roar before abruptly falling quiet. In the powerful silence we were led through various chambers lined with stunning wall-friezes depicting scenes from the Buddha's life. Eventually we found ourselves before a large, seated Buddha-rupa; a gauze curtain gave the figure an air of ethereal mystery. We offered our lotuses to the flower-laden shrine and bowed. The Abbot led us into a further chamber almost entirely filled by a colossal reclining Buddha, overwhelmingly serene, again veiled. I remained for a while, watching as a steady procession of families, young couples and devout old women and men filed in and made offerings - handfuls of scented jasmine or temple flowers, nelum or lotuses. They would usually pause briefly, reciting a Pali gatha (verse) or perhaps asking for good fortune or favour, before moving on. The atmosphere was relaxed, familiar, and yet - because this depth of devotion was so obviously an everyday scene - very moving.
Outside again, we circumambulated the Bodhi tree and finally the large chaitya (stupa). Nearby, racks of oil-lamps shimmered and smoked in the dusk light. Two old women silently offered Sr Upekkha and me some new lamps; we smiled our thanks before adding them to the stands, the surrounding sand stained oil-black by countless offerings. Many people strolled around the chaitya; others sat reciting Suttas, or chanting, or praying, or enjoying some peace at the and of a busy day. We joined them, meditating for a time in the soft evening air.
|As the conference continued, I realised that although I appreciated the formal presentations, perhaps even more valuable was the rare opportunity to meet so many other women - particularly monastics and others committed to community life - practising within many different cultures and traditions. Buddhist nuns are a rare species in Western countries, and we can often find ourselves rather isolated within our own small groups. This occasion was offering a chance to broaden horizons and to draw strength and inspiration from a larger source, sharing information and hard-eamed experience.|
The hot, humid nights presented us with their own unique brand of sharing as we learned to co-exist with the thirsty local mosquitoes. Our simple room had no nets and, for that matter, no closeable windows. We were provided with sachets of chemical repellant, to be scattered on a small hotplate, but decided against using it in case it killed the mosquitoes - or us. But by the third day I counted thirty-five bites, and rapidly became an enthusiastic convert to 'J. Pickle's Mijex', an evil-smelling liquid repellant which seemed to dissolve everything except (I hoped) human skin. We also gradually grew accustomed to Sri Lanka's answer to Big Ben - a deceptively benign-looking clock on a nearby government building (at first I thought it was being played on a loudspeaker in our room). Its unforgettable electronic chimes - an enigmatic three hours fast - would peal out loudly every fifteen minutes, day and night. We were later to hear slightly less strident variations elsewhere. Curiously, many Sri Lankans love to be aware of the passage of time, though by their own admission they are often not so keen on keeping to it!
The monumental stupa at Anaradapura, Northern Sri Lanka
|During our stay at the Conference Centre, we had many visits from various friends and relatives of supporters back in England. As 'Amaravati Nuns' we were the focus of an astonishing amount of interest and attention; it was obvious that Ajahn Sumedho and the Forest Tradition were widely known. Numerous people also told us of previous visits to Amaravati. We received many offers and invitations: 'Please come to my house for Dana - my relatives are so keen to meet you, and we'd like to learn to meditate.' 'The ground floor of my house is yours - just tell me when you can come.' 'Wherever you want to go, let me know and my driver will take you.' 'If you need anything at all, just phone this number.' It was heart-opening and inspiring to be a channel for so much faith and generosity. Before the conference had finished our 'unsche duled time' had become, as anticipated, a full programme of teaching and travel and visits, and the main difficulty became how to fit so many invitations into the two short remaining weeks.|
After the conference, we stayed on for five more days in Colombo. We were invited to establish our base at Ruby Abeysinghe's conveniently central house. Ruby quickly became our indispensable 'Tour Manager.' We spent most of the time offering informal teachings and meditation guidance to a succession of visitors. There was much enthusiasm for the Forest Tradition's direct, contemplative approach. During the conference several local people had told us: 'You know, this is a Buddhist country but hardly anybody actually practises here.' We were to hear this lament again and again during our stay. (They were referring to bhavana, or mind-cultivation - no-one could seriously say that the Sri Lankans were lacking in generosity or devotion.) Our experiences suggested that there was in fact considerable interest in practice - but that many people had been disheartened by theoretical teachings which they found hard to relate to everyday experience. One of our visitors was so struck by our approach that he arranged for us to take part in a televised Dhamma discussion on 'Rupavahini', the national network. Soon there was a further request, to take part in a Woman's Affairs programme' ... about prominent women of your category.' A rapid rise to fame!
Whenever possible, Sr Upekkha and I would take the opportunity to go on almsround. The early-morning city air would already be heavy with humidity as we stepped out through the high gates of Ruby's courtyard and set off in slow silence. Many houses were surrounded by high walls or fences, giving an air of fortification to the narrow lanes; sobering reminder of the fear generated by a war which for years had left no corner of the island safe, and which had provoked a general increase in violent crime. Now the conflict was generally confined to a grim deadlock in the North (the day we left the country, up to five hundred Sinhalese soldiers were killed in an attack on their base). There was quite a prominent military presence in Colombo. In almost every street, groups of soldiers would stand with automatic rifles, guarding vulnerable public buildings and homes, or manning road-blocks.Our limbs would soon loosen in the heat as we walked through a lattice of dazzling sunlight and shade, past gardens with improbable plants, until we came to Galle Road, where on the first day of our stay we had gone in search of an apparently mythical Tourist Information Office. As we stood perplexed, a suited man approached. 'Can I help you?' I explained that we were looking for somewhere that might provide a free map of the city. 'Wait just a minute, please.' He went to his car and returned beaming, holding out his English-language Colombo A to Z. 'For you, please. God bless you!' We parted feeling unsure about whether we had just been offered Buddhist dana or Christian charity, but this spontaneous gesture of kindness had lifted our hearts, and given us a small foretaste of the incredible generosity we were to meet throughout our stay.
As our rounds continued past open shop-fronts and street-stalls, people would respond with intrigued glances, shy smiles... or apparent indifference. In a curious way, this last was the most reassuring as it conveyed a sense of belonging. Here, despite being 'foreigners', we were part of the accepted order of things. It was a novel delight to feel so ordinary for once, rather than - as sometimes in the West - like an alien from a distant planet.We received occasional food-offerings despite not seeking them out (we already had dana invitations for every day of our stay). The sight of samanas walking on traditional almsround is quite rare now in Sri Lanka. Several times we were wistfully told: 'If only our own Sangha would still do this; it gives us such pleasure to make these offerings.' Eventually, feeling outwardly hot but inwardly peaceful, we would arrive back at the house to be welcomed by Ruby and her household as heroines returning from a perilous mission... to be continued
For those who are interested in making contact with Sakyadhita, the address is: 400 Hobron Lane, #2615 Honolulu, HI 96815.