When at the market we discover a tiny spice shop.
The shelves are lined with huge jars of bright orange turmeric, cumin, garam masala, cinnamon and more. After making our selection to take home,
Peta is drawn to a large wooden sculpture of Buddha on one of the top shelves. She can’t stop looking at it. The vendor asks her if she wants it? “Yes”, she says, “I would love to have it, but I have no money.” Are you Buddhist, he asked her? “Yes” she answered him (it was easier to say yes, than to say, Jewish but with a strong affinity towards Buddhism.) At that response, the vendor beams with pleasure, and takes the sculpture down. He hands it to Peta and says “Here, this is for you. You pay me when you can pay me. That is fine.” And so, the Buddha, came home with us that day.
We live in a Buddhist country. Much of yoga’s underpinning philosophy correlates with Buddhist teachings. Peta has a (mostly) vegetarian diet, and will stop at nothing to try to protect an animal from abuse. She feels the energy of trees and she meditates. When flying and we encounter turbulence, she reaches for her Buddhist beads, (which she got from our monk teacher at a silent meditation retreat at a monastery in Northern Thailand.)
Does this make her a Buddhist? That could be a matter of debate, but it is clear that there is some significant convergence and Buddhism has been in our core trajectory for years now.
My (Ben) relationship with Buddhism is different. I was introduced to Theravada Buddhism in my first semester of school at UCLA, where a visiting Monk from Japan led an introduction to Buddhism course. Majoring in Asian studies, both as an under-grad and grad student, while my interest was in political science, Buddhism crept in, naturally.
In Tokyo, where I lived for several years, Buddhism, (Japan style) was all around. The one core tenet of Buddhism ~ namely re-incarnation ~ is one that I resonate with completely.
So with this as personal background, it is worth noting that as lay people, we observe Buddhism “from the periphery”. And the first thing that strikes, after 2+ years in Asia, is the interweaving of similarities and dissonance amongst the various Buddhist countries we have visited and lived in. We are conscious that we are just at the beginning of a life long learning curve.
In Thailand, the plethora of Buddhist temples, both in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai, made for an architecture ~ rich exposure to the magnificence of Buddhist temples. The opportunity to attend a meditation retreat led by a Buddhist monk was the highlight of our stay in Chiang Mai.
In Luang Prabang, Laos, it was the mass of safran~robed monks all around us that formed our exposure to Buddhism. Peta went almost daily to hear the chanting at the Buddhist temple directly over the road from where we lived for a month. Rather than watching from afar, we had many opportunities for chats with our monk neighbors and had the satisfying experience of making friends with some of them.
The Luang Prabang community’s daily support of the monastic population, when hundreds of robed monks walk the early temple lined streets, receiving alms, highlighted the fact that Buddhism is part of every day life, and that the separation between monks and laymen is minimal.
Whereas the West used to have a near universal “military service” for young men, as they approached adulthood, Laos has a practice of universal monk-hood, where almost every boy enters the monastery and experiences life in a Buddhist monastery.
In Indonesia, a mostly Muslim country, the island of Bali where we spent an extended period of time, is Buddhist. The temple rituals and prayers have little to do with what we observed in Thailand or Laos. Perhaps this is because of Bali’s unusual cultural history where both Hinduism and Buddhism converged. The Balinese prevalent belief is in “Agama Tirta” ~ Holy water religion ~ this practice is a Shivaite sect of Hinduism.
In Cambodia, 95% of the population practices Theravada Buddhist (same lineage as Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka). Our exposure here to Buddhism was mostly limited to discovering the magnificence of Angkor Wat. Peta particularly enjoyed the opportunity to interact with elder female monks (known as nuns.)
In Bagan Myanmar, it was about the architectural beauty of a valley dotted with hundreds of stupas and shrines and a rich trove of sculptures of Buddha.
Rather shockingly, in Myanmar, with its difficult colonial and post colonial history, and a decades long military Junta hold on the society, a Buddhist majority population has discarded its peaceful trappings to morph into an aggressive majority that routinely abuses its Muslim minority. Even the much admired Aung San Suu Kyi, former prisoner of the Junta, then Nobel prize winner, and finally de facto leader of the country’s government, cannot shake the blind animosity between the 89% Buddhist country and its Muslim minority. If one equates Buddhism with non-violence, then Myanmar may be the proverbial exception that proves the rule.
In Viet Nam, we encountered a different branch of Buddhism. Whereas Theravada Buddhism (with roots in India) is practiced in Thailand, Laos and Sri Lanka, ethnic Vietnamese practice mainly the Mahayana tradition. Buddhism may have first come to Viet Nam as early as the 3rd or 2nd century BCE from South Asia or from China in the 1st or 2nd century CE. Vietnamese Buddhism has had a symbiotic relationship with certain elements of Taoism, Chinese spirituality, and the Vietnamese folk religion.
So now… back to our neighborhood, in Dalawella in Southern Sri Lanka.
Soon after moving into our new home, we hear that a nearby Buddhist temple (Yatagala Raja Maha Viharaya) holds a “Poya” ~ a full moon celebration. A Poya occurs every full moon and is important to Buddhists all around the world, who have adopted the lunar calendar for their religious observances. Owing to the moon’s fullness of size as well as its effulgence, the full moon day is treated as the most auspicious of the four lunar phases occurring once every lunar month and thus marked by a holiday.
We thus take the first full moon as an opportunity to join in the Buddhist celebration. After all, we have been exposed to and experienced a wide range of “same, same but different” variants of Buddhist practices and we are eager to ‘dip our toes’ into our local Buddhist community.
Because it is night time, there is much we cannot see of the temple surroundings, which look beautiful. So we return a few days later in the daytime. It turns out that our neighborhood temple is one of the oldest temples on the island of Sri Lanka, probably from the same era as the magnificent cave temples from Dambulla Caves.
The interior of the temple has murals on the walls and ceilings.
One of the unique features of Sri Lankan temple art is a style we have never seen anywhere else, namely a concept of three dimensional paintings. Indeed 3D sculptures were built and positioned such that they seem to jump out of the two dimensional paintings on the wall
Stepping outside the temple there is a huge Banyan holy tree (the Buddha famously meditated under a Banyan tree for seven days after reaching enlightenment.) The holy tree points the way toward the most beautiful part of the grounds.
Huge boulders create a cave like space in which there is a stone carved Buddha.
A bit more history, for those so inclined…
As a distinct sect, Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and spread to the rest of Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism is the religion of 70.1% of the population of Sri Lanka. The island has been a center of Buddhist scholarship and learning since the introduction of Buddhism in the third century BCE producing eminent scholars
Monks from Sri Lanka have had an important role in spreading both Theravada and Mahayana throughout South-east Asia. It was in Sri Lanka, in the 1st century AD during the reign of King Vatta Gamini that the Buddhist monks assembled in Aloka-Vihara and wrote down the Tripitaka, the three basket of the Teachings, known as the Pali scriptures for the first time. It was Sri Lankan nuns who introduced the Sangha of nuns into China in 433AD. In the 16th century the Portuguese conquered Sri Lanka and savagely persecuted Buddhism as did the Dutch who followed them.
Throughout most of its history, Sinhalese kings have played a major role in the maintenance and revival of the Buddhist institutions of the island. During the 19th century, a modern Buddhist revival took place on the island which promoted Buddhist education and learning. There are around 6,000 Buddhist monasteries on Sri Lanka with approximately 15,000 monks.
The Yatagala Raja Maha Viharaya (our “neighborhood temple) is a quiet rock temple with a 9m reclining Buddha. The mural-covered walls are painted in the typical style of the Kandyan period.
Monks have been living there for at least 1500 years.