If it rattles, it's OK! May 12, 2006

As soon as we'd unpacked our suitcases from India, we noticed our new neighbors. They're a pair of tiny hummingbirds, who use their long curved beaks to sip nectar from flowers. Evidently, they visit Kandy at this time of year. Our pair used their delicate beaks to get building material with which they wove a little hanging nest surrounded and shaded by leaves. We watched them whizz around, coming and going so quickly we weren't sure what we were seeing out of the corner of an eye. Then they seemed to disappear for a while. Perhaps they don't need to do anything to incubate their eggs in this heat? Anyway, when they returned, we were delighted and we enjoyed watching them every morning during breakfast. One day, as we were clearing away our dishes (it was Lily's day off) we heard a great commotion. The birds were frantically diving and crying out in alarm. Then we saw the problem. A squirrel was trying to get into the nest. Visakha shouted, and Ken grabbed a broom. The beast retreated a little, but as soon as he thought he could get away with it, he returned. Ken chased him or, at least, used the broom where he thought the little felon was, while Visakha got some bread and threw it onto the roof of the "carport" where we dry clothes when it rains. The creature was lured away by the bread, but how long before he tries again? We know we shouldn't take sides, but these little birds are visitors here! People who think that nature is nice aren't paying enough attention!

Speaking of not nice! A second round of cease-fire talks between the SL government and the LTTE were supposed to take place while we were in India, but that didn't happen. We followed the news, and the violations were quite blatant. The Tigers were setting off claymore mines all over the east and north and killing soldiers, sailors, and civilians right and left. Although President Mahinda was supposed to be a (hawkish) nationalist, he was remarkably patient, despite all the attacks. There was a particularly nasty one in Trincomalee, targeting civilians in the vegetable market. Obviously. the Tigers were trying to stir up the Sinhalese--any race riot they can provoke is good for them. Many have pointed out that the cease-fire has been good for the Tigers, giving them a chance to beef up their forces. They are tremendously well-funded, with expatriates in Canada, Europe, and Southeast Asia providing lots of money. Of course, some donations are voluntary, but others have been extorted by heavy-handed techniques. There are also serious charges of recruitment of child soldier. Kandy has been extremely quiet, but a few days after we returned, there was a suicide bomber in Colombo. A Black Tigress (the "Black" here denotes "martyr." {N.B. these are Hindu fanatics, for those who want to equate Islam and extremism!}), 21 years old, blew herself up in a failed attempt to kill the defense minister. First report was that she had wrapped explosives around herself to look pregnant, but lab reports proved that she really was pregnant. Interesting question--was she recruited because she was expecting, or did she get pregnant in order to carry out this mission? Her severed head was found in a tree. Witnesses had commented on how radiant she had appeared before she died. Eleven others died from the explosion, and the Defense Minister survived only because one of his body-guards had intercepted this woman and blocked her.

Good that Canada and Australia are finally cracking down on the Tigers' taxes/donations. War's a dirty business, and this kind of terrorist war is remarkably nasty. Weapons have been smuggled from Thailand (which is awash in arms from Cambodia, of course). The people who suffer the most from all of this are the Tamils themselves. It seems that there is no education in Tiger territory, but then cannon fodder doesn't need schooling. One of the top Tigers broke away a while back and now wants to displace the Jaffna Tiger leadership and to pursue peace. It's all very complicated, but, because we're living here and want to understand the whys and wherefores, we're trying to follow it all.

We're reading a wide variety of sources, and, as always, it's fascinating to spot the distortions and imbalances in coverage. BBC may be reliable in some parts of the world, but, when it comes to Sri Lanka, it is sometimes laughable. Part of the problem must be that so much media tries to be "balanced." It's the same distortion we've witnessed during all the Bush years--there's the truth, plain and simple, then there's the spin. Equal time for both. Everything is swiftboated; everything deserves to be talked about equally; and nobody will say a lie is a lie. Maybe that's truthiness? ("Thank you, Stephen Colbert!")

Speaking of which, we loved Stephen Colbert at the Washington Press Club Dinner. We watched the video (<crooks and liars>) and read the commentaries. Got some of it by heart. Ah, gosh, the preznut's feelings were hurt? Gee, that's not fair. And 9/11 happened on a Tuesday, so bad of Colbert to use Tuesday in the part where the preznut never changes his mind! How many days of the week are there, anyway? And it wasn't funny? Yeah, sure! It was hilarious, and so telling.

We had to send a check to cover yet another installment of the second charge for sending our stuff here. It's a long, not very funny (to us) story about how we got totally ripped off by shipping agents who never shipped and never intended to ship. You wouldn't believe the number of people who have said, disbelievingly, "You don't mean to say that that happens in the United States?" Yup, it does, or, at least, it did to us. Thanks to some very good and dedicated friends, our stuff may actually be on a ship headed this way. Or not. In any event, more money was needed, so we went to the Central Post Office to mail it the fastest way possible, by EMS. At the same time, we wanted to send Visakha's hearing aids, which have been acting very strangely (not working) and which really improve her teaching, as you can imagine. Ken had put them in their own little case, and had surrounded the case with bubble pack and Styrofoam (Capitalized, because that is a registered name: <http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blpolystyrene.htm> Who knew?) in a sturdy cell phone box. (Actually, the package and the letter cost exactly same to post. Does that mean the hearing aids weigh no more than a check?) We were told they would arrive in four or five days. Right! We're still waiting to hear about that!

At the post office, out-going packages are subject to customs inspection. Ken had learned this the day before. He had gone at four o'clock to mail the package and was told he had to come back after 10 AM. "This is after 10AM!" he observed. "No, between 10 and 3; that's when the customs inspector is in." So we were at the P.O.. at 11. Ken did the paperwork while Visakha looked around. The package was very neatly wrapped in scrap typing paper, but Ken expected that it would be opened and would have to be repacked. The official looked at it and asked what was inside. Ken answered, "Hearing aids, for repair," and showed him the form. The official looked at the form and conferred with another man. Both of them shook the box, but it didn't rattle. They looked puzzled. They showed the form and the box to another man, who looked very official, sitting at a desk in the back. Now they all three looked puzzled. They shook the box again and shook their heads. At last, the big shot signed the form, which the first man returned to Ken along with the box. They were both deposited at the first desk, whence came the forms. We were given a neatly typed receipt, and the box was on its way. Hmmm. If it rattles, it's OK? Interesting system.

We hadn't been back from India long when Ken noticed cobwebs hanging from the ceiling right next to the Buddha on our altar. He pointed them out to Lily, and she immediately stepped outside, pulled up a tall weed, and used it to dust the ceiling. Because the weed was new and clean, it was a respectful way to dust the Buddha image. Amazing country!

Ken has spent a lot of time talking with the pet store manger, and we finally have installed two filters in the fish pond. Perhaps, we mentioned before that the water had been getting very green and slimy and had had to be changed about every three weeks. Since we have to let the chlorine water stand for 12 to 24 hours before putting the fish in it, this was very traumatic for them. Several had not survived the ordeal. Lily changed the water several times while we were in India, and even more had bitten the dust. (Do fish bite the dust?) The regime now is that, every few days, we clean the filters, drain a few inches of water--with nets carefully in place so we don't lose anybody--and replace it with fresh water. Since we are not replacing all the water, the fish can stay in the pond the whole time. The filters also aerate the water, a little (very little!) like a fountain. We love the sound, and we now have much happier, peppier fish. Perhaps, all this is well-known to you who have fish tanks, but we are new to this game.

Recently we took the plunge. We have a TV, but no antenna and no interest in watching Sinhalese soap operas or comedy shows. News we get from our computers and a local paper. What we were missing was a chance to see good movies. Our Tuesday evening get-together were some of our happiest times in Flint (The good company, food, and serious, must-see movies were very important. Thanks, Joe!) There are two local theaters in Kandy, but they are rather unpromising and only showing Sinhalese or Tamil films, with an occasional something from India or Hong Kong. Not the sort of fare we were thinking of. One of our regular tuk-tuk drivers introduced us to a DVD rental shop nearby. For a five-dollar life membership (only one life, as we always remark), we can rent real (not pirated) DVDs for 75 cents for a week. So far, we have seen "Bend It Like Beckham," "Brokeback Mountain," "Gangs of New York," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "Hotel Rwanda," and "Corpse Bride." We just saw "Crash," which, we thought, did not deserve the Best Picture Oscar, but maybe we missed something? Naturally, there is a lot of junk, but we're amazed at the number of good movies they have. Now, if only our good friends were here to eat pasta and watch with us while munching on cashew nuts (a Sri Lankan delicacy)!

The Buddhist world is gearing up to celebrate the annual Vesak full-moon day, which is when Buddha was born, enlightened 35 years later, and passed away at the age of eighty, all under the same month's full moon. This year's anniversary is even more noteworthy than usual, since it is Buddha Jayanti, marking the 2550th year since Buddha's Maha Parinibbana. The display, called a pandal, across from the presidential palace in Colombo is being painted by a noted artist and will show the ten duties of the king or government towards the people. Good thought!

All over Sri Lanka, people put up lovely lanterns (usually made by the children), and neighborhoods erect pandals depicting an event or story from Buddha's life or a particular teaching. Many of these are lighted and quite elaborate. Since this will be our first Vesak in Sri Lanka, we have arranged with a Buddhist tuk-tuk driver, (We have several, but this happens to be the same as mentioned above.) to see as many pandals and lanterns in Kandy as five to seven hours (beginning at 7 PM) will allow.

There is another story involving this same driver. He has taken us most of the time to Subodharama to teach the monks and novices. He himself often goes to Vajirarama, a monastery near our house, which is also a bhikkhu training center (the monastery, not our house!). While we were in India, he happened to mention to the abbot there that we were teaching English at Subodharama. The abbot asked him to ask whether we could teach the novices there as well. How could we refuse? He took us to Vajirarama , which happens to be a branch of the temple in Colombo where Ven. Konan Bodhi, brother of Ven. Dhammananda, the Bangladeshi monk in Detroit, stayed for several years. It is a lovely monastery sitting atop the hill we live on. We are excited about teaching there. We will begin right after Vesak. Anyway, in talking with one of the monks there, we learned that Vajirarama was where Ven. Mudita, abbot of the Great Lakes Buddhist Vihara near Detroit, trained before going to the US. Small world! Then, on top of that . . . no that story will come up later.

Krishantha, the tuk-tuk driver

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is here from the US, via Taiwan. He is to be given an award by the Sri Lankan government, but we've seen no mention of it in the newspaper. Perhaps they are being cautious because of the danger of human bombs? We were happy to attend the offering of lunch at BPS, but even happier when he and four other foreign monks (five monks from four countries!) came to the house for lunch the next day. We all out-did ourselves on the menu: mulligatawny soup, tandoori paneer, (cheese we brought back from Colombo, cooked in our own oven), baked potatoes with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, stuffed pasta with pesto sauce, beet curry, okra a la Mid-east, Sri Lankan cashew curry, curry leaf and coconut salad, dahl, yellow rice, red rice, four chutneys, fruit salad, pastries from Topaz Hotel, banana splits with chocolate and maraschino cherries, ice coffee, and green tea. One of the monks commented that in the hundreds of meals he had received during his monkhood, he had never had fare like that. We were pleased (but not proud!)

Dana at our house

Bottom left, 5 monks, l to r:
Ven. Sumedho, Switzerland,
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, USA
Ven. Nyanaramita, Germany,
Ven. Gutasila, New Zealand,
Ven. Nyanatusita, Holland

Bottom center, with Manel and Savithri

Bottom right, with Savithri, the two sisters, and Visakha

Our landlady, Savithri, was delighted to have Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi come for lunch. She had worked with him for seventeen years at BPS, as his typesetter and proofreader. She taught herself Pali in order to do the job and left BPS only after he returned the US. Bhikkhu Bodhi knew her whole family, of course, and it was especially good that he could come on a Sunday so that her husband also had a chance to meet him again. That also meant that Manel could pick up two of the monks with his car. Bhkkhu Bodhi had stayed the night in the cave-hermitage with Ven. Sumedho, a Swiss monk who also has had a long association with BPS.

Top row, Dana for Bhikkhu Bodhi in the BPS Meditation Hall; Ven. Sumedho praising Bhikkhu Bodhi.
Bottom row, One of his lectures at BPS on the Uraga Sutta

After lunch, Manel took Bhikkhu Bodhi to town, three monks returned to the Forest Hermitage by tuk-tuk., and Ven. Sumedho stayed a bit with us, waiting for Manel to return. Ken connected Ven. Sumedho's iPod to the TV so that we could view some of his remarkable paintings. He had been a celebrated and extremely successful painter before becoming a monk. Now, he frequently visits the ICU at the Teaching Hospital in Peradeniya, going from bed to bed to comfort the patients. His iPod is filled with music and soothing sounds, which he plays for the patients. It seems that he records the sounds on mini discs so it is supplied to the bedside and the patient can get the sound infusion by ear-phones. In any case, he attends to the sick and injured of all persuasions, being virtually his own interfaith council! He has Christian, Hindu, and Muslim devotional music, as well as Buddhist chants and songs. He asked us to help find some natural sounds (birds, water, insects, etc.), and, with the help of a few friends, we suddenly discovered many sources which we hope will be useful. We look forward to accompanying him on his rounds after the full moon day.

A few months ago, at the "rebirth" lecture, Savithri introduced us to two elderly sisters, who are ardent meditators and who also do proof-reading for BPS. (That generation speaks nearly perfect English. We were delighted to invite them to lunch with Bhikkhu Bodhi, whom they, of course, know well. After everyone else had left, we continued talking with them. Conversation drifted to our upcoming pilgrimage (about which we are getting very excited!) and how fortunate we were last time (and will be again this time) to be accompanied by two monks. We commented that Susan will be 50, Ken will be 60, and Beverly will be 70. The elder sister piped up. "Well, we went on pilgrimage last year, and I was much older than that! And we had the honor of going with a very learned monk!" Well, it so happens that that monk was none other than Ven. Mudita. These two ladies are regular visitors to Vajirarama Monastery, and one of the reasons is that when Ven. Mudita first arrived there, he and another young monk went on almsround (a rather rare occurrence here in SL) and arrived in front of their house. They have been his devotees ever since. When they heard that he was going on pilgrimage after finishing meditation in BuddhaGaya, they decided to accompany him. Amazingly, the elder sister was able to get her passport in one day and the Indian visa on the next and to leave on the third. Unheard of in these parts!

Happy Vesak to all!

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