|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1994|
Images of Sri Lanka
It was time to move on to Kandy, in the interior hill country. Susheela Ranasinghe collected us one afternoon. Eventually emerging from Colombo's urban sprawl, we passed through a succession of roadside villages and towns. A string of open shops and stalls in each crowded main street would usually display the local speciality: at Radawadunna, elegant cane furniture and baskets; elsewhere, coir matting and rope; at Cashew ...cashews. The economy in other areas seemed largely dependent on pineapples, or coconuts, or bananas.
Graceful white chaityas (stupas) could be seen on rocky outcrops or glimpsed through temple entrance ways. We passed many roadside shrines and Bodhi trees, usually surrounded with railings, sometimes with prayer flags, and always the focus for much devotion. The presence of religious minorities was evidenced by ornate Hindu temples and the occasional mosque or church.
The surroundings grew increasingly rural. A patchwork of paddy fields, mud and emerald, alternated with swathes of palms and fruit plantations and scattered farming villages. As dusk fell the road began to climb abruptly. No longer able to see the passing scenery in the failing light, I turned to cultivating maranasati, contemplation of death. This was the natural theme induced by being driven on Sri Lankan roads. The basic policy for overtaking seemed to be: If in doubt, have a go. As most of the vehicles on the crowded road were ancient buses or trucks, our hired driver had frequent opportunities to try his hand. He produced many heart-stopping moments, launching out on hidden bends and blind stretches, honking furiously. If there wasn't another oncoming vehicle, the chances were high that there would be a cyclist (no lights), or buffalo-cart, or pedestrians, or a stray dog or cow. Amazingly, as everyone, even the dogs, seemed to be in the conspiracy together, disaster was usually averted, though we did come upon several accidents.
For contemplation of anicca to bear the greatest fruit it should be focused on specific aspects of experience, such as the body or feelings, rather than being too general.
|Finally, seventy miles and six hours later, we arrived. Exactly where was uncertain. "Please be careful of the leeches," warned Susheela. Perhaps the explorations could wait till morning...it was time for a much-needed rest, anyway. We fell asleep almost immediately to a loud night-symphony of jungle sounds. |
Almost as immediately, it seemed, I was awake again; was that someone calling? I checked the clock: 3.55am. The sound of voices became unmistakable now, at least twenty people were approaching, shouting heartily in rhythmic unison. Improbable images flashed through the mind, struggling to create an explanation. A local dispute? Exorcism? The yells were fierce enough, but with light-hearted undertones. Gradually the crowd drifted past and faded back into the early-morning darkness. After a brief lull they were back, enthusiasm undiminished, heading in the opposite direction. Quiet returned. Suddenly loud music started blasting fiercely from a loudspeaker. This was a noisy jungle! For the next hour we were treated to a succession of what sounded like love-songs, interspersed with, could it be?, bhikkhus chanting traditional pirit blessings. This unlikely combination continued intermittently through the morning.
Over breakfast Susheela's husband, Ajith, explained: "That was the local Kathina procession." [Kathina is the Buddhist festival at the end of the Rainy Season when, traditionally, cloth and other requisites are offered to the Sangha] "The custom is that the cloth must be taken to the temple before dawn." Presumably, the yelling wards off any inauspicious forces on the way. And the songs? Ajith shook his head: "They play them to try to attract more people to the temple."
Later that morning we went for a walk, armed with soap to ward off unwelcome attention from leeches. A meandering track threaded its way though lush forest, alive with insect-life and monkeys and jewel- coloured birds. The air was refreshingly cool after the humid heat of Colombo. Soon the view opened out to reveal a breathtakingly graceful panorama of hills. It was easy to understand why, in these beautiful surroundings and with its perpetual spring climate, nearby Kandy remains the cultural and spiritual centre of Sri Lanka.
During the next four days we enjoyed several excursions to various historic temples, including the famous Dalada Malingawa, the Temple of the Tooth, which houses Sri Lanka's most sacred Buddhist relic. Upon request, we were granted a brief glimpse of the relic, or rather, the gold casket which contains a series of smaller and smaller caskets and eventually the tooth itself, within a specially built chamber guarded by monks of imposing girth.
One afternoon we visited the Forest Hermitage to pay respects to Venerable Nyanaponika and Bhikkhu Bodhi. I was particularly pleased to have this opportunity as Venerable Nyanaponika's classic book, 'The Heart of Buddhist Meditation' had been an inspiration for me upon discovering Buddhism. Bhikkhu Bodhi's name was familiar in connection with his fine work for the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy.
|The Hermitage was a modest building set in the middle of an extensive government forest reserve. Inside, Venerable Nyanaponika sat in the reception room, dimly lit and half-filled by a large desk and many dusty books - a suitable setting for this renowned German scholar, writer and meditation monk. He is over ninety now, and unable to do much, due to failing sight and hearing, but obviously still strong in body and mind, with a fine sense of humour. With the help of a voice amplifier and occasional interpretation from Bhikkhu Bodhi, we talked of meditation and impermanence. Venerable Nyanaponika suggested that for contemplation of anicca to bear the greatest fruit it should be focused on specific aspects of experience, such as the body or feelings, rather than being too general. As we left, another young Western bhikkhu arrived on foot to pay his respects to this monk whose enthusiasm for the Dhamma has brought so many to the Buddha's teachings. |
We spent a day at Nilambe Meditation Centre, one of several places in the Kandy area where visitors can learn or practise meditation. The centre is spectacularly located high in the hills, amidst a large tea plantation. To our delight, we found several friends from the conference there, including four nuns from Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. We both felt a strong affinity with these students of an impressive American Bhikshuni, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, who is one of the main guiding forces of Sakyadhita. Lekshe Tsomo trained for a number of years alongside monks in Dharamasala, and, with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, set up several nunneries which now offer excellent training for women. At the conference she gave an inspiring slide show about her work. The four nuns we met exuded an air of bright ease, self- confidence and natural composure. I spent the afternoon swapping experiences with Bhikshuni Wangmo from Bhutan, who told me, in flawless English, how she and some friends had recently initiated and taken part in the first four-year meditation retreat for nuns in her country for forty years.
|Sr. Upekkha taught the nuns walking meditation (which is not part of their tradition) while they in turn explained some of their many practices, including tumo, the concentration exercise in which inner bodily heat is generated. (I wish I'd got more details on that one!) All too quickly we had to leave before a monsoon downpour made the steep decent from the hill impassable. Soon after, it was time to return to Colombo. |
Mignon Perera had organised a two-day tour of Anuradhapura and other holy sites. As we set out, I eyed the garland hanging from the mirror of our hired van. It was an offering to the god who protects drivers, and I couldn't help hoping we wouldn't require his services. (Indeed, we didn't - Mr. Dharmadasa turned out to be possibly the best driver in Sri Lanka.)
Anuradhapura was the Buddhist capital of Sri Lanka for over one thousand years. Its ruins cover several square miles and cannot be fully appreciated in one visit. We managed a high-speed tour of five of the eight main pilgrimage sites. These included the frail Sri Maha Bodhi tree, the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. It has been tended by an uninterrupted succession of guardians for over two thousand years since being planted as a sapling brought from Bodhghaya in India (site of the Buddha's Enlightenment) by Sr. Sanghamitta.
We also had time to circumambulate several of the massive chaityas; the largest are seventy-five metres (245ft) high. A British guidebook calculated there were sufficient bricks in one alone to make a three- metre-high wall stretching from London to Edinburgh! Truly an impressive statement of faith.
The night was spent with a dasa sila mata [ten precept nun] we had met at the conference. She lived in very basic accommodation beside her father's house. To our amazement, during the evening she pulled out professional blueprints for a large nuns' training centre, to be built on the surrounding land. "Mr. Premadasa give...free architect," she explained in her limited English. This had been before the President was assassinated last year, but she still hoped to realise her dream.
A final memory stands out: we stopped at a rural roadside cafe, where Mignon decided to offer the dana meal. As we ate, a young mother with several children - obviously very poor - walked up and stood smiling silently at us. She then left, to return shortly afterwards with several more women and children, who stood looking on as we finished. One of the older women shyly came forward and offered us a freshly-picked bunch of bananas. Almost immediately the cafe owner appeared with another bunch, remonstrating in Sinhala with Mignon for not letting him know we were coming beforehand. "He says, next time he will offer you the meal himself."
The assembly sat down for the anumodana blessing chant. A comfortable silence followed, in which East and West came together in the space beyond all cultural differences. Then, hesitantly, I tried my only Sinhala: "Niduk veva; nirogi veva; suvapat veva - may you be free from Dukkha; may you be free from illness; may you be truly happy." They smiled delightedly, and we smiled back, and no more needed to be said.