Out of India [South – The Doctrine of the Elders]

27 Oct

Gangaramaya Temple – Colombo, Sri Lanka (2010)

In May 2009, the 30-year-old civil war that had been waged in Sri Lanka effectively ended with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran – the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamils are a largely Hindu minority in Sri Lanka who live in the north and northeast of the country, and in the early 1980s, a militant, separatist group led by Prabhakaran. The LTTE or Tamil Tigers employed various terrorist-like tactics (including the use of vest-wearing female suicide bombers) in an effort to gain independence from the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. I visited the country in June/July 2010 and was intrigued by how such a bloody armed conflict could have gone on as long as it had within a predominantly Buddhist nation. It seemed like the last vestige of the Dharma must have been cast out because otherwise how could any devout Buddhist sanction the killing of another person? I grappled with this question from the moment I landed in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. I had taken an overnight flight to Colombo from Dubai and the contrast between the dry, desert landscape and sultry, tropical blanket that covered me when I first stepped outside could not have been more extreme.  I flagged down a taxi and began the long drive to Colombo. There was no highway or expressway at that time which linked Colombo to Bandaranaike Airport, and instead, we were just on a sinewy, congested 2-lane road.  But, this drive gave me my first insight into the omnipresent nature of the Buddhist faith in Sri Lanka.  I saw may small shrines, temples, and monuments along the way. At one point, my cab driver stopped at a light that was near a road-side Buddhist shrine and did a quick, respectful prayer before the light turned green and we drove away. There were only small windows into the tangible pulse of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heart.

Buddha statues – Gangaramaya Temple

Sri Lanka is an island that hangs like a teardrop in close proximity to India’s southernmost point. Yet, despite this proximity, the visual and cultural impact of Sri Lanka more closely brings to mind the look and feel of Southeast Asia and not the Indian subcontinent. Part of the reason for this is that the dominant Buddhist school that took hold in most of Southeast Asia was the Theravada tradition — the “Doctrine of the Elders”.  Sri Lanka was the petri dish in which Theravada was cultivated, groomed, and then exported abroad. In Bodh Gaya (India), I had learned the story of Princess Sanghamitta who had saved a cutting of the sacred Bodhi Tree which she then brought to her brother, Mahindu, who was a Buddhist monk already spreading the Dharma in Sri Lanka. I thought I would be seeing old sites tied to a Buddhist tradition that was likely no longer relevant or integrated into the everyday life of Sri Lankans. I thought the sangha or community of monks and laity had been weakened or marginalized by years of strife, war, and thirst for material possessions, the internet, and etc.  I could not be more wrong. What I found instead was an incredibly vibrant, active brand of Buddhism that provided a social infrastructure for lay people, monks, families, and other individuals of all walks of life to have a role in sustaining the Dharma — whether through giving alms, performing rituals, conducting parades and ceremonies, or undertaking pilgrimages to holy sites on the island.

Relief on outside wall of Gangaramaya showing Mara tempting the Buddha

The great surprise of Sri Lanka is that in the midst of its core Buddhist culture and tradition are various colorful odds and ends– remnants of Portuguese colonization such as striking Catholic churches and surnames, tea estates formerly owned by the British who supplanted the Portuguese with their own Anglican Tudor-designed churches and the Tamils they brought to Sri Lanka to work the tea plantations, and sprinkled here and there are mosques and calls to prayer in Arabic. The island took me on an immensely satisfying journey — both physically and spiritually — where I worked my way down to the south and then circled back up through the Hill Country, on to Sri Lanka’s cultural center, and finally up to its northern plains and ancient past. There is such radical contrast in the terrain and atmosphere in this small country. In the southern point of the island lays the colonial town of Galle and there stands an old Portuguese fortress with large sea-walls which held back the waves of the 2004 tsunami — although many people died around Galle and in the other low-lying areas of the southern Sri Lankan coast. But, things began for me first in Colombo where I had come to see the Gangaramaya Temple and the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara Dagoba (“Dagoba” being the Sinhalese word for Stupa) which marks the spot where the Buddha spoke during a visit he had made to the island. Both sites were remarkably active with streams of people and pilgrims pouring in and out, praying, sitting in contemplation, and performing rites. On the outside of the Gangaramaya Temple, there are very detailed reliefs which vividly depict stories from the life of the Buddha. These reliefs are all found on one large exterior wall of Gangaramaya and this wall itself looks like 2 large, gilded doors which reminded me of Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” (the Renaissance-era doors created on the eastern side of the Baptistry of St. John in Florence). Ghiberti’s doors contain reliefs showing the story of Adam and Eve and other stories from the Old Testament, and that same kind of snapshot storytelling was impeccably conveyed in the reliefs found on Gangaramaya’s outside wall. From Colombo, I set off for the Hill Country. I hopped a train at Colombo Fort railway station and soon rose from the coast to the hills where I was surrounded by rolling greenery and tea bushes. When the sunlight hit these bushes and a wind rustled them slightly, they would flicker like gold. It was the monsoon season and I was headed to a sacred mountain. A mountain that I was intending to scale despite being told that no one — not even the most devout pilgrims — climbed the mountain during the time of the monsoon. I was unmoved. I would do the climb — not because it was there — but because I had to. It was a calling.

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