Us and Them


I am at the entrance of the pagoda of Gangaramaya in Colombo.  As in the the pagoda compound everybody is walking barefoot, I take off my shoes and walk towards an old man sitting a table. Old style, black framed glasses. He sits at a table and issues tickets to foreign tourists. ‘100 Rupies, sir’ he says and opens the receipts book to issue mine. I put my shoes in a plastic basket and pay. I walk towards the main temple. The bajaj driver who brought me here offers to be my guide.   He shows me into the main temple touching the big wooden doors and saying how nice the carvings are. In the main hall we stand in front of a huge Buddha, maybe five meters high. Legs folded in the  lotus position,  The left hand resting on one knee, the palm of the right hand facing the world world. The Buddha wears a very strong orange robe. His skin is really pink and the lips are very red. He looks as peaceful always. Just in front of the the statue a table covered with jasmine flowers, a bowl with water, few glasses with tea. Offer to the Buddha. My guide touches the table and then bring his palms to his forehead as a salute. The face of Buddha is rounder that in in statues I saw in Cambodia, Laos, or Thailand. Though all countries share the same Theravada Buddhism.

I look around me. There are smaller Buddha statues all around the room on tables, in corners, on the floor. All colorful. All with the same peaceful expression. Some oil lamps burn slowly their greasy liquid. They see to want to take their time in burning out.

The wooden ceiling has a huge mandala. On the walls images of Buddha’s life. They remind me of the same images I saw in Cambodian pagodas. More dilapidated or simple than here, but nevertheless depicting Buddha as a pilgrim, Buddha under the body tree, the Buddha protected from the rain by the naga.

We leave the main hall and walk around the temple. At the right corner there is a large body tree that emerges from though the ceiling of one of a side building. We walk up to the terrace where the trunk of the body tree is surrounded by a metal fence. Two young women wit on tiny chairs holding small book, chanting softly in a whisper in the direction of the tree. A man walks around the tree. He holds a metal bowl with water. He chants in an hypnotic rhythm, and throws drops of water on the tree trunk. A woman has just empties a similar bowl of water and rises it to her forehead while standing in front of the body tree, her eyes are closed.

How peaceful is this place.

We enter a small museum which holds a collection of hundreds of Buddha images. They all seem gift by visitors and pilgrims. Outside, in a corner of the yard,  an instructor is teaching to a  young elephant is how to stop, walk, turn right and left at his orders. The elephant is young and has large white eyes that give him a worried expression. But he seems more curious than worried and moves around to sniff furniture and the people who observe.

We are leaving. I turn to look once more the huge body tree. I remember the man walking around it in endless circles, his chanting. My mind goes to to two weeks ago when I was in Phnom Penh. One late afternoon I went  playing with my daughters in the compound of Wat Lanka, near the  Independent monument. A similar atmosphere than here besides the elephant. The same young monks in their orange ropes. The same softened noise of the city around the temple.

Few days after Phnom Penh, were stayed for one day in Manila and went to visit Intramuros, the old citadel. There we visited St. Augustin, the oldest church in the Philippines, built for the first time in 1607. We entered the church though the heavy and dark wooden door.  Inside the light coloured columns, a lot of golden decorations, the statues of various saints glancing up to the sky, with wounds in their hands or on their bodies. Suffering. More suffering in the museum in the cloister. Heavy and dark wooden furniture. Large paintings of battles, killing of saints and heavily armoured Spanish soldiers landing on the beaches of the Philippines meeting half naked natives.

As I pass the gate of the pagoda of Gangaramaya here in Colombo, I think about the influence that the images of all those of suffering saints who were once human beings, Jesus on the cross, his mother assisting to the crucifixion of her own son, those soldiers, have had across centuries on our Western society. How much suffering, killing, occupation have they justified as well. All that suffering and violence.

What a contrast with the images of the life of Buddha in this pagoda. The Body Tree, its green pointed leaves. The people chanting around to it. The statue of Buddha, one finger pointing to the Earth. While the bajaj starts to bring me back to the hotel, I think that all this maybe explains why Buddhism never had missionaries.

Colombo, March 2010