July             2008                             2551                      Number     84
The Forest Sangha is a worldwide Buddhist monastic
community in the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

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A Sri Lankan Pilgrimage

Ajahn Karuniko

From left to right: Ven. Dhammagavesi, Ajahn Karuniko and Ven. Ariyagavesi

Ajahn Karuniko

Last January for the first time I had the privilege of visiting some of the ancient Buddhist sites of Sri Lanka.This was at the kind invitation of Venerable Seelagavesi and his devotees in England.

I arrived in Colombo in the late afternoon and in the early evening was driven to Kandy, the famous city in the mountainous centre of the island. It was a joy for me to see the many shrines by the roadside along the way, with their serene Buddha statues. Ever since my first visit to Asia, to Thailand, Burma and India as a layman in 1980, I have appreciated the benefit of composing the mind and bowing as a gesture of respect to the Triple Gem at sacred shrines. I was inspired then to purchase a Buddha image and set up a small shrine in my room on my return to England, which had provided a supportive focus for my developing meditation practice. On the road this time to Kandy I felt happy once again to be in a country where people have faith in the Triple Gem and the saffron robe is appreciated, and to see images that can remind us of our potential as human beings to be peaceful and awake and go beyond suffering.

The following morning I was taken to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, one of Sri Lanka’s most revered sacred places which enshrines a tooth of the Lord Buddha. Even with so many people who had come to make offerings the atmosphere of devotion was pleasant and composed. Someone gave me a lotus, which I joyfully offered at the shrine – and the joy continued as other people came forward with lotuses for me to offer. These beautiful lotuses that rise above the ‘impurities’ of the muddy pond, symbolizing the potential we have to rise above the impurities of the mind. We then had an opportunity to view the ornate golden stupa at the centre of the temple that contains the Relic of the Tooth. As I bowed my head with hands in anjali to the Tooth Relic it felt like a particularly potent time to bring forth noble aspirations, for example to always be born where the Triple Gem exists and the Dhamma is practised, and to realize what the Lord Buddha realized.

As the pilgrimage continued I had the opportunity to visit, pay homage, meditate and chant parittas at many wonderful sacred sites, with Bodhi trees, large, beautifully serene Buddha images modern and old, towering stupas and large ancient monastic complexes which housed up to 5,000 members of the Sangha. These monuments testify to the great faith kings, queens and laypeople have had in the Triple Gem.

At Mihintale it was inspiring to read the story of the King’s meeting with Venerable Mahinda, son of King Ashoka and the first emissary of Buddhism to Sri Lanka over 2,000 years ago. The King met Ven. Mahinda while out hunting and the first teaching he received was about ahimsa: not harming life. The King took it to heart and banned hunting. The Sri Lankan people’s respect for animal life has continued to this day and their tolerance towards the mischievous monkeys and many other animals you see all over the country are testaments to this.

The ancient capital city of Anuradhapura is where one of Sri Lanka’s most revered holy sites, that of the sacred Bodhi Tree, or Sri Maha Bodhi, is found. It is considered to be the oldest historically documented tree in the world, over 2,200 years old, and the original cutting came from the same Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya under which the Buddha realized enlightenment. It was taken to Sri Lanka by Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta, sister of Ven. Mahinda and daughter of King Ashoka, who was invited there to start a Bhikkhuni Sangha. Despite multitudes of people around, a peaceful atmosphere prevailed as we took the opportunity to chant and meditate.


Anuradhapura is also the home of some colossal stupas, or dagabas as they are called in Sinhalese. The largest is the Jetavana Dagaba which when completed was 120 metres high, the third largest monument in the world at its time, the two largest being the Egyptian Pyramids. I was told the bricks that made up this dagaba could have built a town of around 8,000 houses. One of the other large dagabas was being renovated, and what made this particularly memorable to me was the presence of about 200 teenage students who had come to help with the restoration. The girls, not exactly dressed for the work site in their all-white uniforms, had formed a line to convey bricks and mortar to the boys (slightly advantaged with black trousers) who were up on the scaffolding passing these on to the workers who were laying the bricks. I couldn’t help smiling seeing the students helping in this way, and later I wondered what kind of expression would have appeared on the face of one of our Western health and safety officers!

At Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa there are many wonderful ancient monuments to the Buddha, too numerous to write about. However, I have to mention those magnificent Buddha statues at the Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa so exquisitely carved and well preserved in their different postures in the rock face. The day I visited Pollonaruwa had been hot and humid so in the early evening I was quite tired. I had decided to write postcards that evening to stay awake as sitting meditation would not have been conducive to ‘wakefulness’. Ven. Dhammagavesi then came to invite me to go and meditate by these wonderful statues of the Buddha. By this time all the tourists had gone and, maybe as a privilege offered to samanas, the guards allowed us to sit in meditation right next to the statues. It was so awe-inspiring sitting in the company of those great Buddha images that my sleepiness disappeared, and peace and joy ensued.

I so admire the courage and faith of the early Chinese Buddhist pilgrims of the first millennium CE who underwent great hardships to visit the Buddhist holy places, some even losing their lives. Remembering them makes me willing to undergo some hardship myself, and I appreciate how such undertakings can be a source of strength for one’s heart and mind. So when I was asked if I would like to make the three to four hour overnight climb to the top of Sri Pada I was enthusiastic. Sri Pada, a mountain also known as Adam’s Peak, is a place of pilgrimage for Christians, Hindus and Muslims as well as Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Sometimes the pilgrims chant something from their tradition as they make the climb. But for Buddhists the name Sri Pada refers to a footprint in the rock, attributed to the Buddha on a visit to Sri Lanka.

We set off at around midnight, walking up the thousands of steps which lead to the mountain’s peak. With a few stops for rest, we arrived at the summit around 3.30 a.m. Though the climb was tiring and I had a slight headache, just staying mindful of walking, repeating the mantra ‘Buddho’ with each step and staying conscious of the effort as an act of devotion to the Buddha brought peace and well-being to my mind. Once at the top we were shivering a bit while sitting in meditation by the Buddha’s footprint, with a cold wind blowing strong. But it was all gladly bearable in the spirit of pilgrimage. It was a beautiful clear dawn, and the famous pointed shadow of the mountain’s triangular peak first appeared faintly in the sky, seemingly like magic, and then moved slowly downwards casting it’s distinct shape

Ajahn Karuniko and buddha

on the land. On the way down I noticed in the light of day several elderly people who had made the climb. We had a brief exchange with one lady who was 73 years old and climbs Sri Pada every year. I imagine she will continue to do so as long as her legs are willing.

Finally I must comment on the kindness and consideration I received from my hosts at Springhill Forest Monastery in Kandy and the other monks and lay-people I met on my travels. The soldiers at the numerous checkpoints we passed usually had a friendly smile for the sudu sadhu (white monk), as I was sometimes called especially by the children. Ven. Dhammagavesi worked tirelessly to ensure my comfort and well being. My hosts were very attentive, noticing the things I liked to eat and drink and arranging for such things to manifest frequently. There were also a few occasions too when I found myself feeling a bit hot in a room which prompted me to look and see if there was a ceiling fan. Without a word said this was noticed and the fan turned on. While staying in Springhill Monastery the monks and laymen would escort me to and from my kuti and thoroughly check my feet for leeches before I entered (I only had one leech bite throughout). It was pleasing to see this beautiful quality of respect, or in the Pali language of the Buddha, garavo (respect; reverence), an attitude that is encouraged when relating to religious mendicants, teachers and parents. It’s a quality I feel is in decline in Western society where our conditioning tends to lean towards self-centredness. But for those who wish to go beyond ‘me and mine’ and the suffering that ensues, garavo is a beautiful quality to cultivate. As the Buddha reflected after his enlightenment, Dukkham ko agaravo viharati, ‘One who is without reverence dwells unhappily.’ As the line from the Mangala Sutta says:

Garavo ca nivato ca santutthi ca kataññuta kalena dhammasavanam etam mangalamuttamam

‘Reverence, humility, contentment and gratitude, hearing the Dhamma at the right time, these are of the greatest blessings.’

pilgrimage and meditation




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