Buddhist Tour in Sri Lanka with Photos
Tour with Shanta Premawardhana assisted by Eardley Mendis, February 2017.
Reflection on Observations or Learnings from our Tour
- Traveling in cities or along the countryside, I noticed quite a few locations for faithful Buddhists in Sri Lanka to publicly worship. A Buddhist would perhaps make a similar judgment about the number of churches in western communities. Temples and stupas (in each is presumed to be a religious relic) varied in size and the number of adherents. One sincere advocate explained that going to a certain structure is not necessary to enhance personal mindfulness, worship or meditation, or to live out sincere compassion.
- Insight into one aspect of experience for monks recurred. On entering a monastery to live as monks they ignore former relationships with wife and children but presume that all people become their parents and children. One monk was quick to deny my saying that I had read of the problem in some circles where so many males were becoming monks that family life was being diminished in that community.
- Reminders surfaced that Buddhists can be very intentional with mindfulness in worship. A coconut seller with mounds of them attached to his bike near the Fort at Galle burned sticks of incense as prayers for a good day of sales. A man chanted while reading an open text and a group of people sat singing together (near the large white stupa in Anradapura) undistracted by my circling past.
- I valued the limited experience and discipline of a monk’s leading our group in meditation. But, being an activist, I cannot imagine that discipline being a major part of my life-long style without considerable practice.
- Insight into religious openness: seeing Hindu god forms on the same location as a dominant Buddha form prompted questions of whether worship might convey ‘careless’ loyalty or being truly broadminded. In the location where Hindu and Muslim worship buildings were on the same grounds, more information about what brought them together could have benefited a tourist, in part when comparing the explanation from the two groups. Might Christians not benefit from worshipping alongside those loyal to other religions?
- In light of personal background or exposure to Hindu diversity, I found myself wishing to explain (excuse? to the tour group) that such a ‘gaudy,’ light-flashing setting as we saw is only one Hindu style. Worshippers at that location reflected interesting diversity. A young couple brought fruit to be blessed by the priest; perhaps they had been unable to birth a child? A woman’s dramatic ritual of vigorously throwing a coconut to the ground, splitting it open, prompted me to long to know her request or vow. Did anyone hear or share her need?
- I went to Sri Lanka hoping to learn more about the interfaith generalization that Buddhists do not have what Christians call a “God-concept.” I wished for more insight from the monk (Mitta?) who I thought explained that Buddhists “may perceive of God but do not have a view of God as Creator.”
- I further went hoping to learn: 1) what sense of Spirit figure exists in Theravada Buddhism, aware of how Mahayana provides the female figures Tara and Kwan Yin, the latter a strong example of active compassion; 2) why Ambedkar chose to lead many Hindus in India to turn to Buddhism rather than to Christianity. With my prior experience in Asia being multiple times in India, I more than once found myself comparing insight from the two countries.
Learnings about myself:
- That I would prefer a tour of Buddhism that includes attention also to Zen or Mahayana views (for comparative purposes) as well as the predominant Theravada’s focus on monks of Sri Lanka. (But that is hardly reasonable for eight days.) The monks, however, were informative; I was sorry for the short question time with the one whom we met at Eardley’s home.
- That my sense of people’s equal worth within religion caused me inwardly to jolt on seeing one of the women who had cooked the meal served at Eardley’s place to fully bow (on hands and knees) before the visiting monk. While I honor respect, I thought “No one needs to so diminish herself before another.” (I admit that my belief in “priesthood of all believers” also counters ordination for leaders within my own denomination. So, a cultural learning re-surfaced! If equality exists among people in the absence of attachment, as one monk stated, how do monks reciprocate other people’s bowing?
- To become aware of the importance of “moon days” within Buddhism was appropriate.
- The visit to a Muslim girls’ school with an articulate spokeswoman and bright students served well to briefly acquaint the tour group with a minority faith located in a Buddhist-dominated land.
- Cultural shows will be cultural shows wherever—loud musical instruments, effective costumes, snappy dancing routines, and a baffoon. But admittedly, what amazed me most about going to that ‘show’ was the fact that husband John, on arriving before our group, had sat on a seat in a large hall directly in the same row across an aisle from where our group’s reserved seats were located. Luck, Divine, or just plain mystery shapes such occurrence depending on how a person credits the experience. . . (By the way, the likely very expensive meal that evening started with the server placing the dinner napkin on my lap! Really now, I’m quite capable of that task and resent his inappropriate behavior. Perhaps avoid that motel in the future?)
- Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth definitely should be visited. But I wonder if conversation with a Buddhist who finds intense meaning in the experience might precede entering that sacred space. Explanation of specific rituals would assist a foreign tourist’s respect. For example, the liquid donation or gifted, flowers; priest roles within different segments; the sense of masses of people moving beside each other; history noted on walls; ancient texts in one small room.
- To hear peacemaker Ariyaratne’s story and vision as founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement was a special privilege. His living out for 70 years of “no place within Buddhist teaching for discrimination” seemed authentic. His comments that “Monks are not necessary but that a person must work on his/her own to realize nirvana” caught my attention. (A main regret for me was to decline—due to travel flight luggage weight limits—taking the books offered to each of us. The gracious vegetarian lunch served at Vishva Niketan that followed seeing the room of awards for Ariyaratne deserved more time to hear about the philosophy of their Peace Centre.
- The suggestions about food to eat sent in advance of travel helped me avoid jet lag; thanks.
- While I read it in one sitting before leaving, I should have re-read Eardley’s “Day to Day Program” to start each day to reinforce place names and useful information.
- Might there be 3-star motels at locations, instead of the very expensive 5-star ones utilized? No doubt you wished to avoid ill health for participants during such a short tour, but I felt uncomfortable with such extravagance.
- I am grateful for Indula’s comments both on the bus and in personal exchange. He seemed grateful to be invited to express his Buddhist loyalty, as with stating his hope for being “less attached” in his next reincarnation. The driver was excellent; despite curvy roads, at times heavy traffic and limited time to reach a destination. He demonstrated safe principles. His ‘assistant’ was also pleasant.
- A few comments about our group of individualists: Shanta’s leadership was effective, along with Eardley’s support, as with conversations when riding. I would have been ready for more group discussion time in evenings or less personal time needed near the end. . . . I am quite grateful to have roomed with Afri; compared to the extent that we talked with each other in private, I would have felt ‘cheated’ by her minimal engagement in group conversation. . . . The diversity of the group proved to be most interesting. I only would suggest that an early time to tell each other as a group a few details about our past activities would have been helpful. . . . The safari experience was enjoyable; personable traits came to the fore from David, Tyler, Marty, Suzanne and Afri with me even if the distinct animals were not so plentiful! . . . I obviously responded to what I experienced as sexist comments about women on one occasion! . . .Tyler would surely have added insight to our group “reflection” session; too bad for his early leave. To have been alerted the night before to the “SCUPE pattern for debriefing” might have enriched the reflection session.
- Compared to the tea plantation where I have visited near Ooty in southern India, the operation seen by this group was much older/dirtier, and the tour leader had her limits. Aware that tea is a quite notable product of Sri Lanka, I would have valued some info that tied to its cultural or even religious significance, as for worker needs or hospitality or the sacred earth. Or did I miss such?
- The outside restaurant and tour of spices growing was a fine diversion (though likely ‘planted’ for tourists to spend money buying spice combinations. Sorry, but due to limited baggage space, I didn’t succumb.) I quite enjoyed the meal and its setting, and our leader spice guide was most informed.
- While the extravagance of food options at the Aliya (meaning elephant) hotel (and notably white complexion of those eating) prompted embarrassment for me, I was amazed by the piece of art on the wall of Arfi/my room: eight human forms in an array of poses composed into the shape of an elephant.
- Grateful indeed am I for Wesley Ariarajah’s joining the group for brief discussion. Having heard him several years ago and having read books and articles by him, I was glad to know that he was expected to join Shanta for a meeting with Sri Lankan church leaders the Monday after our tour ended. (Grateful also was I for Shanta’s ready response to my suggestion during tour group discussion that, to acknowledge women’s being vital to the church, women theologians might be invited to join that meeting of church leaders. Women too deserve to hear Shanta and Wesley discuss a needed shift from “received” theology over the decades to authentic Sri Lankan ownership/expression.) I have now read Ariarajah’s book Your God, My God, Our God and will continue to use it as a fine resource for thinking/writing about interfaith cooperation and Wisdom for God’s world.
- Aware that Buddhist nuns have had varied links to the broader history of Buddhism, I am grateful that Shanta tried to engage a nun whom he had known; hopefully, a future tour will provide such connection.
- Several of us expressed a wish for the tour to have engaged more lay Buddhists. While Shanta and Eardly surely know possible lay people, I will be bold enough to suggest the parents of a student who I’ve known at Goshen College (IN). John and I spent the Saturday evening after our tour with Mr./Mrs. Hemachandra. Mrs. (Indra) had just returned energized from spending a four-day silent retreat with others into a nearby mountain with a non-monk, Buddhist leader. Rising at 4 a.m. meditative silence periods surrounded several hours of planned exchange with the leader. Very informed about Buddhist thought and practice in addition to history, the couple is distinctly enabled to share compassion; he goes more regularly to the temple than she. She is sensitively articulate in conversation whether about basic teachings or the simple ritual of giving flowers during worship. The latter mainly symbolizes that as those flowers die before long, so this life for people is impermanent, I learned.
- Overall, I am grateful to have been part of this immersion tour of Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka. I sincerely thank Shanta and Eardley for their efforts and insight. Personal reflections will occur during the weeks ahead through photos of varied sites and memories of conversations.
At assistant Eardley Mendis’ home with guest monk and Leader Shanta Premawardhana (SCUPE director; now director of OMNIA, Chicago)