Healthy Skepticism, July 12, 2012

A failed monsoon: lack of rice, debt-ridden farmers, skimpy vegetables, empty reservoirs, power-cuts, thirsty elephants plundering villages, and general hardship for everyone. That's what Sri Lanka has been looking like. In Assam and Chittagong floods are creating havoc. Fires in the western US are destroying millions of acres. The faux spring in Indiana confused the fruit trees, decimating the crop. The New York Times has reported Dust Bowl conditions across the Midwest. What will it take to convince the powers that be that all of this extreme weather is connected? Where is the tipping point? The Rio Summit didn't offer any hope for pulling our benighted world back from the brink. In our little bailiwick, the biggest problem is that we can't plant our vegetable seeds yet. Some places are entirely without water for drinking, cooking, or bathing, so we have no right to complain.

Click to see all the photos of Bodhirukarama

On June 26, we went to Kurunegala to visit Ven. Amilasiri at Bodhirukarama. We hadn't been there since last October, when we had the ceremony to offer the deed to the land and water supply. There have been a lot of changes at the monastery. The number of elderly monks has increased to 65, which means considerable crowding. There are still only the two wards. In the main ward, some of the partitioned rooms have two beds. The most encouraging news is that there are now three young men employed as caretakers, so that the elderly and infirm monks are being looked after 24/7. The young men attended a one-month training course to prepare them for the work. Ven. Amilasiri noted with a smile that he doesn't want them to get any more training because then they might leave to find better jobs. Their salaries are not large, only about $130/month each, and we hope that Buddhist Relief Mission donors might be willing to make regular contributions to help the monastery cover this cost.

We were accompanied this time by Michael and his teacher, Ven. Sujatha. On the way down, the monk, who has lived in the United States for many years, commented, "I just can't believe that, here in Sri Lanka, there are so many monks who have nowhere else to go. Please tell me how you feel about Ven. Amilasiri." We could certainly understand why a Sri Lankan monk might be skeptical about the situation, so we suggested he ask the monks directly how they ended up there. As for Ven. Amilasiri, we could honestly answer that Bodhirukarama is the temple in Sri Lanka where we feel that our help is most needed. Furthermore, from our experience, every donation is always used immediately for the purpose intended. For example, on our first visit, we noticed that, in the main ward, the tiling on the floor stopped a few feet from the wall. When we asked, we were told that the tiles had run out. We asked how much more was needed and provided that amount on the spot. On our next visit, the work had been done.

The first thing we noticed as we approached the monastery was the excavation taking place on the site of the residence hall for novices, for which our landlord had provided the architectural design, and Anoma, one of his associates, the bill of quantities. A local contractor has donated the use of his equipment, and a group in Colombo had promised to provide the funds needed for the entire foundation. Dare we hope that the building will soon be completed?

After we made the last climb to the monastery and parked the van, we saw changes to the elderly monks' quarters. To alleviate some of the crowding, construction has begun on an annex with six rooms, just beside the main ward. When we were there, only the concrete-block walls had been completed, but, since then, Ven. Sujatha found funding for the roof. Furthermore, Anoma has undertaken the project and managed to find a source for the wood for the roof at half the price originally quoted. Since our visit, the roof has been completed. Our friend, Amal, who has visited Bodhirukarama a number of times, is raising funds for the shower and toilet facilities. Buddhist Relief Mission would very much like to assist with these projects and invites donors to help.

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Several months ago, some government officials interested themselves in the work the monastery was doing. A delegation made an official visit to the monastery and erected a stone plaque announcing their project. They prepared an elaborate color drawing of a beautiful three-story Sangha Hospital and began excavation. The first floor of the hospital would be below the level of the current monastery buildings, so the entire site was dug to that depth, and a retaining wall was erected along one side. At the far end, a trench was dug, possibly for toilets or drainage. Beyond this, nothing has happened. Except that the huge hole collects water when it rains. Can it be that the project has been abandoned?

When we visited the elderly monks' wards, the beds were all made, monks were talking with each other, many gave us friendly smiles, and, the atmosphere was much more cheerful than before. Ven. Sujatha spent quite a bit of time with the patients. He reported that all of those he talked with expressed how happy they were to be there and that many of them were eager to discuss the Dhamma. He was impressed by the orderliness of the wards, in spite of the cramped conditions. It appears that the new caretakers are doing an excellent job.

Not wanting to impose on the monastery for our meal, we carried a tiffin carrier with our lunch. A little before noon, we saw the young men carrying tubs of food to the wards. Ven. Amilasiri suggested that we should offer lunch to Ven. Sujatha in the dining hall, and we assumed that the resident monks would be eating in another part of the monastery. At noon, we noticed that Ven. Amilasiri was still sitting in the reception area. He quietly informed Charles that someone had promised to bring lunch for the monks and novices but had not done so. Somehow, food had been found or prepared for the novices, but he and two other monks would skip their meal that day. Had we known, we could have given them the food we had, but, by that time, it was too late. We'd inadvertently missed an opportunity to offer him dana. We certainly respected his scrupulousness.

Before we left for Kandy we donated the sacks of rice, cooking oil, tea, sugar, milk powder, juice for afternoon refreshment, cookies and chocolate for the novices, soap, and laundry powder we'd brought with us, and Amal donated fresh vegetables, coconuts, and other staples from his plantation.

We will be visiting Bodhirukarama again in the not too distant future to check on the building projects and will report on what we find.

Above, we mentioned our landlord, Manel Chandraratne. It is with sadness that we announce that he passed away in May. He had been suffering for several years from liver disease. We had managed, several times, to get from India prescribed medicine which is not available in Sri Lanka. We were unable to attend the funeral in Colombo, but, as soon as we could, we had a special dana for him at home with three monks. There were some touching tributes to his zest for life, his quiet generosity, and his great good humor. Remembering how much he always enjoyed Lily's and our cooking, we served the monks some of his favorite dishes.

Click to see all the photos of the memorials.
On June 30, his family came to Kandy to inter his ashes in the cemetery, so Savithri invited a monk from Vajirarama to offer a Dhamma lesson that evening. The next day, we hosted another dana, the biggest luncheon our little house could manage, so that friends in Kandy could also pay their respects. We offered lunch to five monks from Vajirarama and entertained more than thirty of Manel's friends and family. The monks, all of whom were our students, chanted paritta, and Manel's family poured water to share merit. One monk gave a teaching about the divine messengers, most particularly the dead person, which conveys an important message for us to pay heed to, namely death's inevitability and unpredictability.

Almost the first experience we had upon moving to Kandy was celebrating Manel's sixtieth birthday. There was a great party a with live band, terrific food, and lots of his friends. Looking back, we realize it was the only fun party we've ever attended in Sri Lanka. Manel was a talented, creative architect. He'd remodeled our house, tearing out a gloomy storeroom, opening up the roof, and creating a fishpond with space for a lovely jungle. He'd decorated the house with wonderful colors. This is one of the most pleasant places we've ever lived, and we are grateful. He loved good food and was always lavish in his praise of our cooking. He'd worked some years in Brunei where he designed many government buildings, and Sri Lanka boasts of many of his banks, police stations, and private homes. He loved a good story, he loved to laugh, and he loved to help people. For our book launch at the Queen's Hotel, he saw to it that many of his friends came, and we owe the success of that occasion to his efforts. Manel was drawn to meditation and often joined us in our evening sessions. When he built his house down the hill from us, he included a special meditation nook. Unfortunately, about two years ago, he had to return to Colombo. He couldn't bear the cold weather in Kandy, and he needed to be near his doctor. We didn't see him much after that, but we talked on the phone and on SKYPE. We also visited him last year and even discussed the pilgrimage, which he very much wanted to join. May he soon achieve Nibbana!

Click to see all the photos of the ordination

Luis Felipe, had been our English student almost from the beginning of our classes at Vajirarama on Primrose. At that time, he was in white clothes. Later, we went to Colombo for his novice ordination, when he became Ven. Nyanasiri from Mexico. Years passed, and he had sought out and practiced under many teachers. In June, he had higher ordination and became Ven. Ariyasiha. We took a van down to Ambalangoda through Colombo with two monks from Vajirarama.

The driver was the same one who had taken us south with Ross last year, so finding our friends' house in Ambalangoda this time was easy. Finding the monastery, however, was another matter. Many people in Sri Lanka seem to be directionally challenged; "Go four kilometers," "Turn at the big Buddha image," "Look for a blue restaurant." All wrong! In spite of the faulty directions, we got there and dropped off the venerables, though we could not meet the ordainee. We returned to our friends' house, but, unfortunately, they were away, and we did not see them until just as we were leaving the next morning. We hope they can visit us here in Kandy soon.

Bhante had instructed us to be at the monastery at seven AM, but at five he called and said that we should be there at five-thirty. That was impossible, so he said seven was probably OK. We were on time, but, as we'd feared, he had already gone ahead. Fortunately, we found the two Vajirarama monks and, learning the route from some bystanders, set off on a winding local road. We wended our way through several villages, asking directions often. After about five kilometers, we found ourselves directly behind the vans with the monks and novices. We were not late, after all. We joined the procession and went about twenty minutes further. From the monastery gate, we walked along a sandy path to the river, where we could see the sima (ordination hall) floating offshore. At last, we were able to greet Ven. Ariyasiha, just before he boarded the rubber dinghy to take him to the sima. He looked very happy. The ordination ceremony took about two and a half hours. During that time, we waited on the riverbank with many monks and friends and family members of ordainees. We were happy to talk with a monk from the Czech Republic whom we had met many months before at Amal's house in Kandy. Fortunately, there was ample shade and no mosquitoes. After the ceremony, all the monks returned from the sima, and all the sangha gathered in the main hall for lunch. Devotees had been cooking all morning. By that time, there must have been about five hundred laypeople swarming around. It seems that the ordinations would be going on all day, and about 45 monks were to be ordained. As soon as the monks had finished eating, we presented our gifts to Ven. Ariyasiha. In addition to the book, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, which we were presenting, we had carried down a set of the eight requisites and a packet of Sinhalese books from the monks at Vajirarama. Then we headed back to Kandy. It is about a six-hour drive, so we could not stay longer. It was dark by the time we dropped the venerables off at Vajirarama. Nezumi complained, unjustifiably, of having been neglected for two whole days, but she seemed happy to see us. Ken had taken advantage of his time in the back of the van by compiling Buddhist crossword puzzles. During the ride, he completed six. Now all that remains in to write the clues. It won't be long before we have enough for a book!

Click to read a read a report on the situation in Arakan State by our friend Chris Lewa, coordinator of The Arakan Project.
After being ignored for years, Burma continues to make the headlines almost every day. We certainly felt the thrill of seeing Daw Suu getting her Nobel, meeting Bono, being made an honorary citizen of Paris, and all the rest. She's a wonderful, calm, and principled advocate for democracy, without a trace of bitterness or negativity. We had to laugh, however, at the official translation of her call for "healthy skepticism" over reforms in the country. It became "talking about health in negative terms." As usual, one could not be sure whether that was deliberate or due to ignorance. The generals are also demanding that she call the country Myanmar rather than Burma. If she does, maybe we will, too. The violence that erupted in Arakan was terrible, and the timing was certainly suspicious. It happened just as Daw Suu was talking about democracy, minority rights, and reconciliation. We remembered what our old friend U Ko Ko had pointed out in the eighties: whenever the military felt threatened, they would whip up anti-Muslim riots, forcibly restore order, and remind the populace how necessary their iron rule was. Divide and conquer has always been the tyrant's strategy. We were troubled at the irony of so many people suddenly quoting the junta in claiming that Rohingyas are illegal migrants who have no claim on Burma. Our inbox and Facebook had many messages declaring that the Rohingyas are not citizens and, in some cases, that they are hardly even human beings. Some of those diatribes came from activists who had heretofore denounced the junta for violating human rights. Fortunately, there were others who spoke calmly and with compassion, not allowing themselves to be divided and ruled by the usual prejudices. It doesn't matter whether it is in Arakan, Chittagong, Bosnia, or Rwanda. Ethnic cleansing anywhere is wrong.

We had first thought of E-readers as just another gimmick, but we are certainly enjoying our Kindles. Many thanks, Deena! No more do we have to be satisfied with what we can find in a bookstore in Colombo or arrange to have books sent from the US. One click downloads almost any book. What fun! We introduced the Kindle to our students, and many of them jumped at the chance. They love not only the portability, but the built-in dictionary and the text-to-speech function, as well. Although few of them can purchase books from Amazon, they are finding many freely available online, particularly through the Gutenberg Project. They have also transferred many PDF files into the devices for easy reading. Don't forget: all three volumes of Jataka Tales of the Buddha: An Anthology are available at Amazon for the Kindle and at Lulu, Barnes & Noble, and Istore for EPub readers, for $7.99 each. The books are not yet best sellers, but sales are steady. There have been two glowing reviews on Amazon. We hope that others will submit comments. Reviews help sell books. The more they sell, the more we know that the books are being read, and that makes us happy.

The American Embassy in Colombo scheduled a Town Hall Meeting for May 19. We thought it would be our last chance to see the Ambassador, Patricia Butenis, whose term ends this summer, so we decided to attend. Using our Hilton Honor points and just a bit of cash, we reserved a room at the Colombo Hilton. Again, we were graciously upgraded and watched the government's Victory Parade from the window of our Executive seafront room. Later, that afternoon, we learned at the meeting that the Ambassador had sat in the reviewing stands in Colombo heat for five hours with a loudspeaker at her back. She was suffering from an excruciating migraine. She made her presentation, but excused herself and left before the close of the meeting. After the speeches, we mentioned to one of the staff how sad we were not to have spoken with the Ambassador, and she told us that Ms Butenis would be visiting Kandy in June. We half jokingly said that she could have dinner at our house. "If you ask her, she might," we were told.

Click to enlarge.
We did invite her, and she accepted. We had a lovely dinner party when the Ambassador come to our house. Just a few other American friends joined us for some really good, if we dare say so ourselves, vegetarian dining--the Ambassador doesn't eat meat either. She arrived right on time, but neighbors and three-wheeler drivers were all wondering why the police had gone to our house with flashing lights. Of course, it was only her escort across town to control traffic. The dinner conversation was relaxed. She described some of the projects she had been involved with here in Sri Lanka and in her previous postings, which include Bangladesh, India, and South America. She is divesting herself of books rather than send them back to the States, so she offered us some detective novels set in Bombay. A few days later, the box arrived. Delightful! The Ambassador has been very supportive: she'd come to Kandy for our book launch and for the launch of the Burns Unit for Peradeniya Hospital in Ven. Sumedho's honor. We appreciate her professionalism, her openness, and her friendliness. She will be missed.

During the evening, Ken suddenly shouted for Visakha to join him and Lily outside the back door. Guests heard, "Come see the baby cobras!" and were alarmed. What he really shouted was, "Come see the baby polecats!" A baby polecat had come down the jambu tree, and the mother was on the roof trying to figure out how to rescue him. It was the first time we'd ever seen them although we hear them every night. The little ones are adorable! Nezumi would love one as a pet. Lily told us that she actually held the baby and petted it for a few minutes. We wish we could have!

Work continues on A Pilgrim's Companion. We are truly enjoying rereading all the suttas and searching for the best selections. We explained our concept to Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and received a most encouraging reply, so we are working full speed ahead. We hope to have the book completed in time for the pilgrim season which begins in October.

Click to see all the photos of the donation
July 9 was the birthday of Ven. Dhammawasa, abbot of Subodharama. To celebrate the occasion, Mike and Ven. Sujatha (Ven. Dhammawasa's first student) held a small ceremony at Peradeniya Hospital, presenting an incubator, which had been donated by the members of Blue Lotus Temple in Illinois. Each patient in the maternity ward also received some delicious snacks prepared by Lily and Manel, and the cutest hand-knitted baby hats. It was a joyous occasion.

Perhaps some of you remember that, twenty years ago in Japan, Buddhist Relief Mission printed and sold some notecards using two of our photos from Burma. We still have a few left and use them for special occasions. The latest was Amal's birthday, and he was very pleased, indeed. In fact, he talked with his cousin about how nice the card was and how hard it is to find suitable Buddhist greeting cards in Sri Lanka. He suggested printing new cards for fund-raising. We would like to print a set to raise money to support Ven. Amilasiri's care for elderly monks at Bodhirukarama. When they are ready, we will display the five photos chosen and accept orders. Coming soon!

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