The Tri-annual Pilgrimage
A gathering of the elders of our tradition in UK was the primary reason for Ajahn Kusalo to head off travelling quite soon after our Vesak celebration. This event at Amaravati was wonderfully synchronistic with his being invited to join the United Nations Vesak conference in Sri Lanka in that we were organising a granite moonstone for the stupa renovation project and being able to directly finalise the order at the factory was far more reliable than just "taking our chances via email and telephone."
Arrive in Sri Lanka
I arrived in Colombo on the night of TUESDAY 9TH at 10:55; hardly and ideal time but, amazingly enough, there were UN representatives on hand to welcome me. Immigration was easily cleared and it was not long before I was seated in a side lounge with a cup of tea. The Sri Lankan leg of my trip had already been well considered as a result of Chandra, a long-standing supporter of the monastery, having asked her daughter in Colombo, Roshinini, to help. So, tea finished, I exited the lounge and met up with Roshini and Mr. Attanayika who delivered me to 'Aruna' a wonderfully appointed residence for Monk's that had been generously set up by Mr. Prabhath Nanayakkara. A white cloth was laid on the ground from the front entrance all the way to the elevator and then from the 2nd floor elevator to my room. Quite humbling.
Despite not getting to bed until about 2pm I was awake at 5. Breakfast was compassionately delayed until 8:30. After dana Mr Attanayika took me for a walk around the town for a couple of hours. There was a gentle breeze but the air was languidly disinterested and remained humid and hot. My robes were damp and clinging and returning to Aruna and air conditioning was a welcome relief. One of the various connections Roshini had set up for me was with Bhante Subodhi, a senior monk in the Mahamevanama group of temples. In the late afternoon we drove to his monastery. Everywhere one went in Columbo there was no doubt that it was Vesak. There were flags hung from a vast array of points and as the evening drew in almost every surface was lost under a blanket of light. The whole fronts of buildings were a curtain of multicolored threaded design and wires stretched above the road supported a canopy of intertwined LED's. Bhante's temple was no less adorned. The pathways, the stupa, the various shrines, the bodhi tree were all aglow. Above and below, around and everywhere - the lights were lit. The tour was extensive and it was after midnight by the time we got back to Aruna.
Breakfast was at 6:30 and we headed out soon after to Roshini's for dana. It was especially nice as I got to meet with Gita, Bandu and Chinthaka who I had not seen for probably over a decade from when they were living in New Zealand. I also got to meet Roshini's husband and two children. It was a very happy gathering with plenty of memories and dhamma so it was late afternoon by the time we got back to Aruna. There were plans for a walk in the relative cool of the evening but friends of Mr. Nanayakkara came to visit and we spent the evening discussing dhamma. I was glad to have a relatively early night.
It was an early breakfast and out the door by 6:30 to beat the traffic and get to the hotel where I would stay for a couple of nights to join with the UN conference delegates. My room was on the 16th floor with a grand view of the harbour, although I didn't get to see it until late that evening as it was straight out of the car and into the bus to wing our international group to Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) for the first day of the Vesak gathering. Security was very visible - from the police motorcycle escorts that accompanied most delegates vehicular moves, to rifles and machine guns intermittently lining the streets, to airport type scanners at various entrances of the hall. The day went well enough with some inspiring speeches and friendly tea breaks. In the evening the group (several bus loads) was taken to a large field with a wonderful display of Vesak lights. It seemed like the entire city was awash with light; office buildings and shop fronts drapped with lights and flags. A dhamma Disneyland. I was back in the hotel by 10 and straight into bed and the ?silence. Hmmm. Even on the 16th floor street vendors music and traffic's honking horns leaked in through the window. A lullaby.
The 2nd day of the conference with some speeches and small group discussions. Yesterday's lunch was a bit of a cram as there was not a lot of consideration for finishing by midday. I left the panel discussion early to be sure of getting things nicely offered and being finished in time. There were waiters and they were most happy to help. The food was well prepared but quite spicy for me. The afternoon Q&A dragged on a little so I phoned Mr Dilum, an army engineer who may have been appointed but was generally available as my 'minder.' Within no time a van arrived to whisk me away and I was back in the hotel by late afternoon. There was an evening meal with a cultural show afterward but a combination of unsuitability, tiredness and disinterest saw me getting a relatively early night.
It up early for breakfast and get ready to get on the bus to the train station to leave *sharp* at 7am. Well, time has varied meaning for some people and it was well after 8 by the time we left the hotel. The station was in fact just around the corner and walking may well have been a better option than sitting stuck in traffic. Eventually we were all aboard and off to Kandy. Trains are a delightful way to tour and the towns and countryside along the way were bright and picturesque. On arrival it was another logistics muddle getting everyone on buses and off to a hotle for a banquet-like 3 course lunch. Back on the bus and off to temple of the tooth. Logistics? Some were at time apparent but not in the temple. The holy-of-holies was an insane crush with children screaming and ladies fainting. There were moments when I contemplated death by asphyxiation. The energy was awful so I started chanting: "Itipi so Bhaghava..." Several monks joined in and it seemed to bring a little calm. By the time I got to the inner sanctum all I wanted to do was get out - so I did. The surrounding area was quite calm. I met with Bhante Olande Ananda, a very senior Dutch monk and we ended up taking tea at the Queen's Hotel. The evening saw a perahera especially put on for the UN delegates. A seemingly endless procession of drummers, dancers, elephants and flame bearers, all in elegant costumes, was a cultural delight. Once over bus logistics led to a late train back to Colombo arriving about 1:30am. I was very happy to see Mr. Attanayika there to meet me and guide our return back to Aruna.
After a faily leisurely b'fast it was off to Star Granite to finalise the details for the stone work. We met Roshini close by the airport and headed to the show room which was busy with customers and, of course, filled with rocks. It was then on to the factory where no end of creative delights were on offer. We had a very good meeting with the manager and made all needs clear. Time was quite tight and it was a quick dash to the monastery for lunch. The monks were all very kind and helpful; quite a delight to be with after the busyness of Colombo. We then headed north to Anuradhapura and a stay at Dhammachethiya Monastery, Anuradhapura. I was impressed with the standard of the monastery and the vinaya of the monks. Sadhu. In the evening we went to Sri MahaBodhi and spent a very peaceful hour or so just being quiet; circumambulating, meditating and chanting. It was not far to walk to Mahathupa where the energy of prayer and devotion was very palpable. The physical mass of the stupa as a symmetrical, man-made construction absorbs all before it - more humbling than intimidating. The next morning monks took me for a walk out back of the monastery and at one point we could see Mahathupa, Jetavana and Abhayagiri stupas. After Lunch I met with Gita, Bandu and his sister-in-law Manel, Chinthaka and his wife Kumari. We were old friends from early days at Bodhinyanarama in the '90s and it was a delight to be with them in their homeland. We spent the day visiting some of the sacred sites. As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world the spread of archaeological ruins is enormous - about 40sq km! Impossible to see them all in one day. We visited Isurumuniya (300BC, built for 500 newly ordained samanas), Thuparamaya (enshrines a collar bone of the Buddha), Lankarama (100BC), Jetavanaramaya (300BC, ~100 million bricks) Abhayagiri (200BC, [was] home to ~5000 monks), Samadhi Buddha, Kuttam Pokuna (twin bathing tanks) and a few other places.
We spent a very comfortable hotel night and after a leisurely breakfast headed east to Mahintale. Mahinda was the son of the Indian emperor Ashoka and came to Sri Lanka (300BC?) and met King Devanampiyatissa and the people of Mahintale and taught the Buddha's doctrine. Thus began Buddhism in Sri Lanka. There are several stupas, ponds, the remains of a hospital and many monastic buildings. A very tranquil and serene place. Having climbed up (~300m) and toured it was back down - to the air conditioned van! - and off south to Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress. King Kasyapa built a palace there (~450CE) on top of the rock. There are much earlier signs (200BC) of monastic habitation and it became a monastery again, after the king died persisting until the 14th century. The extent of construction is awesome. It was another climb (~200m) with stunning views and a joyful return to air-con. Just west of Sigiriya were the Dambulla cave temples with 80 documented caves in the area. Only 160m to climb this time :) The main attraction is the 5-cave complex with over 150 Buddha images and 2,000sqM of murals. There has been quite a bit of renovation in the last century and the site is quite pristine and artistically superb. It was then back to Colombo and friends at Aruna for my last night in Sri Lanka.
Wednesday 17th - the end
The whole trip was only 7 full days - 9 if you count arrival and departure days - but it was so rich and rewarding. Needless to say I was pretty tired and had no trouble sleeping on the plane to UK.
Details of that leg of the journey will come later...