On Vesak Day, 2017, my husband and I found ourselves on the tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka, home to a population that comprises more than 70% Theravada Buddhists.
For Buddhists, Vesak Day is one of the most important holidays: It symbolizes the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. Due to the nature of the date, we desired to experience Sri Lanka in the most local, natural and (as fitting the true tourist) in the least touristy way.
Prasad, our Sri Lankan guide gave us exactly what we expected and a little more. At nine in the morning, he got us in a tuk-tuk and sent us 20 kilometres south of the small town of Ella, to Rakkhiththakanda temple.
For almost an hour, accompanied by the constant sound of a rattling bike engine, we admired the panorama of Ella. The road we were on stretched along a cliff, and every curve in it brought a new feast to the eye: Hills covered with lush green tea plantations; cloud forests with cushions of mist wrapped around palm trunks.
The last part of the route – a steep gravel path descending into the forest – had to be covered on foot. We were so focused on each step that we barely noticed when we reached a small cottage with whitewashed walls. On its terrace, there were two plastic chairs with a table and a throng locals in festive clothes.
A monk wrapped in a red-brown robe emerged from the pulsing crowd.Those who stood near him instantly doubled over, touching his feet in a sign of utmost respect. The monk tried to prevent this by raising them to their feet, and placing his hands on the heads of the faithful in a gesture of blessing. Noticing us, his sun-kissed face widened into a smile.
“Welcome friends! My name is Lanka Nanda Thero, and I was just waiting for you!” He greeted us in fluent English, as if our visit had long been inscribed in his schedule. Seeing our confused faces, he quickly explained with a smile.
“You see, Rakkhiththakanda is not very popular among tourists. It is a beautiful but tiny temple, hidden in the middle of the forest. Foreign visitors are rare here, but we are still waiting for them with open arms. We dream for the philosophy of Buddhism to be known all over the world, so we talk about it as best as we can to everyone who crosses our thresholds. Also, if someone has such a need, they can stay with us longer and learn how to meditate.”
“Come! You can leave your shoes in front of the terrace. First, we will go to my room to talk, and then we will return for lunch.”
Obediently we followed Lanka through a short stone staircase and a simple wooden door to a half-yard. On one side, the square was surrounded by a stone fence, covered in peeling green paint. The temple itself was carved out of a rock wall on the other side. The massive stone ceiling hung heavily over our heads and the heads of the people who were preparing lunch for the monks and visitors.
“You see friends, Rakkhiththakanda is one of the many temples carved in rocks. You know why they are so popular in Sri Lanka?” We shook our heads in unison. “Our kings were constantly at war and constantly running away. At that time, they hollowed rocks into shelters, where they hid with their retinue. Now, these hollows are the perfect place for us to meditate.”
The half-yard turned into a stone path. Its left side vanished into a thicket of trees, forming the only barrier between us and a cliff.
The right side of the path rose up into a boulder wall. Nestled in the womb of the rock were modest, pastel-painted one-room cottages – monks’ chambers, storages, granaries. The work of human hands and creation of nature existed side by side in a blissful, full of spiritual peace symbiosis.
The path led us to the main temple hall. Low-pitched stairs led to a room gouged under the protective hood of a heavily dangling rock ceiling. The outside wall greeted us with faded frescoes depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life and the significant events from the history of Buddhism.
Above the door – the golden lion of England and the silver unicorn of Scotland supported the four emblems forming the coat of arms of Great Britain, remnants of a time when Sri Lanka was a British colony.
Passing a small whitewashed mini-stupa surrounded by flowers and olive lamps, we entered a room dominated by a few-meter statue of the reclining Buddha. His glass altar was covered with incense, olive lights and flowers, which were occasionally sprinkled with water by two little girls with impressive black braids. Along the opposite wall covered with frescoes much more colourful than the ones outside, a row of the faithful immersed in prayer.
Lanka did not give us much time to admire the interior.
“Friends, we will come back here later. We must finish before noon. It is when lunch is served – the monk’s last meal of the day. Our next meal is breakfast at seven in the morning.”
We followed obediently, not wanting our host to starve. This time, Lanka led us into the cool gloom of the cave tunnel, away from the burning sun.
As our eyes could adjust to the darkness, the monk pointed at the far corner of the rocky passage, where an outline of a sitting silhouette loomed. The statue of the Buddha, sitting cross-legged, was carved from stone the distressing colour of dried blood.
The morbidly thin torso and protruding ribs of the Buddha signaled near-starvation. His eyes were closed over his sunken cheeks, suggesting a state of deep trance.
“Friends, do you know who this is?” Again, we had to shook our heads.
“This is the Indian Prince Siddhartha, just before he reached enlightenment and became Buddha. You see, Siddhartha came from a very wealthy family. His father made every effort to ensure that his son never collided with the miseries of this world. From the surroundings of the palace in which they lived, he removed the old, the sick and the beggars. Despite this, the prince encountered a sick old man who was dying. The meeting stirred him so deeply that he decided to secretly leave the palace and move into the world, in search of a way to cease all human suffering.
For many years, he led the life of an ascetic. He meditated and almost starved. However, while meditation brought him some comfort, the starvation brought an opposite effect. It was then when he realised that the solution to the end of human suffering was to follow the Middle Path (Noble Eightfold Path), which is free from all extremes.
“But now let’s go on – I’ll explain more in my room.”
Lanka’s room turned out to be another hollowed-rock chamber. The green walls surrounded a very modest interior, with a plastic chair and a simple wooden bed as the only equipment. The door and tiny window opened to a small, murmuring waterfall and a river. Everything was surrounded by the green walls of a dense forest, and a skylight of the cloudless sky.
Nested comfortably on the bed, with full attention, we began to listen to the lecture of Lanka.
“First, you must understand that Buddhism is not a religion. Buddha never claimed to be a god. He had always insisted that he was only a man who had achieved enlightenment – found the path to liberation from suffering. Each of us has the potential to achieve the same, if only we would follow the teachings of Buddha.”
“The Buddha’s teachings are not based on a doctrine. No, the Buddha wants us to come to the path of enlightenment through our own experience. But bear in mind – our emotions and biases cannot contaminate these experiences. They must be pure and unbiased. That is why it is so important for us to create self-awareness – the ability to observe our emotions, feelings and circumstances of their arising.”
“According to the teachings of the Buddha, human suffering arises from unfulfilled desires. Self-awareness helps us to realise that all desires are fleeting and transient. Once we realise this, we do not try to fulfil them at all costs. We are no longer their slaves. Our inner eyes see how they arise, how they fleet, linger, and pass. Because this is the nature of things – everything passes, nothing lasts in the same form. That is why in reality nothing truly exists. Even we do not exist.”
The lecture had been quite straightforward, up until that point. The last sentence, however, was an unfathomable mental barrier before our mind. What did “we don’t exist” mean? Who, then, is sitting in the room and listening to Lanka’s lecture?
Our confused expressions apparently betrayed our thoughts, for Lanka was quick to explain further.
“You see friends, “I” is a purely conceptual statement, created only for an untrained mind to grasp it. But now look, someone “is”. This person’s name is Tom. Tom dies. Is it? No. Tom’s body is dying. A body that is not a body, but a collection of bones, tendons, muscles. These are, in turn, a bunch of cells, and so on. You see now? Tom, as a “person”, never existed. There was only the concept of Tom.”
The confusion painted on our faces did not wholly disappear, but apparently became less distinct, because the monk continued.
“All human suffering comes from the fact that we cannot be free of the” I “or” my “concept. An attachment to this concept makes us imprisoned in Samsara – the constant cycle of birth and death. By realising our non-existence, we enter the path leading away from all suffering. This path is the Middle Path – the Noble Eightfold Path – which Buddha taught.”
“Its eight components are closely related. Each of them is just as important and should be practised at the same time. It is hard work requiring years of self-discipline. The Buddha, however, suggests that every man should observe at least one part of it – ethical conduct. Its core principles include abstaining from: killing living creatures, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.”
“Observing these principles frees our mind from guilt, shame, and all negative emotions. It makes it easier for the mind to focus on open, impartial observation of itself and achieve awareness it needs to experience the world impartially. Pure direct experience leads to the realisation of enlightenment.”
It was already noon, so the lecture was interrupted. And it worked out quite well because our brains began to overheat with an overload of information. The rush of thoughts also affected the body, which supposedly did not exist, but still demanded food.
Lanka, together with two other monks, invited us for lunch. With our fingers, we ate rice with curry, mixed with meat, fish and vegetables. There was also boiled corn, which we shared with Black Mama – a very vocal stray cat taken in by the monks. For the dessert – fresh fruits and yoghurt chilled in buckets of ice.
The meal ended by the monks was a sign for others to begin. In the first room, wooden benches with plastic buckets were set up, from which volunteers served rich portions of rice, curry and boiled vegetables.
“You see friends”, Lanka explained, “all these people here are volunteers. Every day, from a nearby village they bring us breakfast and lunch. They help us to renovate the temple and in all daily duties. Without them, we would have nothing. Helping us and others, they create karma – a deed resulting in consequence. Karma is created by a fully intentional body and mind action or speech. If the principles of ethical conduct are adhered to, the intended actions will be good, as their fruits will be. You see, Buddhism comes down to one principle: do not hurt others and yourself. Simple, right?”
The monk handed us a sheaf of papers. “Here you will find everything I said. Read it in peace, and a lot of things will fall into places. Share what you’ve learned here of Buddhism with others.”
Parting with Rakkhiththakanda and its inhabitants was difficult. The temple of nature surrounding the temple in the rock calls one to leave everything behind and linger to continue studying Buddhism. The lecture, even in its brevity, made us look at the world in a different way – more optimistic, friendly and with much more attention.
On our way to Sri Lanka’s next travel destination, we stumbled upon the personification of what Lanka was talking about – people working to create good karma. Young boys with large flags signalled cars to makeshift stops, where tables were set up with offerings for others. Smiling faces approached car windows handing out gifts. Each stop had something different in store: drink of boiled barley, snacks, fruits, flowers.
It is hard to believe that the traditions of Buddhism have been preserved in Sri Lanka so strongly. For centuries, the country was plagued by wars between local rulers as well as with foreign invaders. The 11th century found Sri Lankan Buddhism almost completely devastated.
The situation had declined so precipitously that the then-ruler –Vijayabahu I – had to seek help from Burma in restoring Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Colonization of the country by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British came strongly after, leading to a strong pressure for conversion into Christianity, and the oppression of Sri Lankan Buddhists. Despite this, Buddhism persisted in Sri Lanka, and from the confrontation came out stronger than ever, making her the country with the longest continuous history of Buddhism.
The route between stops passed in silence. We were deep in our thoughts about the philosophy that had just been presented to us. Do not hurt others or yourself – so easy and yet so challenging.
In the sanctuary of the temple, everything seemed simple and feasible. But how would this function in the collision with everyday reality? With a job that does not bring satisfaction? With conflicts among family and friends?
How is one to keep a calm and steady mind? How does one not give in to negative emotions?
Would memories of a temple carved into stone by a crystalline waterfall and a monk’s smiling face suffice?