Jonathan and I took a weekend trip to Kandy last week, a Valentine's day present to ourselves. Kandy is a beautiful city – the town pools around a lake in a valley ringed with green cloud-fringed hills. Strolling around the lake dotted with lovers (discretely hidden behind umbrellas) felt romantic indeed. Still, the prevalence of the Temples and their weight on the psyche of the town made it a funny choice for a romantic getaway. The temples themselves featured signs depicting a man and woman canoodling with strict lines going through it. Clearly fighting back against young Sri Lankan's tendency to use temples as a date site.
Jonathan and I... on a date at a temple
The 80 foot White Buddha who overlooks Kandy
All the Temple visiting finally pushed me to write something I've been stewing over for a long time: faith in Sri Lanka. This is really just a collection of observations, not a well thought out or researched piece. But faith here is impossible not to observe. It is not separate from daily life as it is in the West but a part of it – from the Gods smiling down from behind restaurant counters, to the dashboard Buddhas on tuktuks, to how people on the bus stand (or at least raise their butts of the seat a few inches) when driving past a temple. Daily life is infused with faith. And faith, too, is infused with life. Today at the temple a rooster hopped and pecked across the shine, while dogs dozed in the shade of the Bo tree. To be sacred here does not mean to be closed – it means openess. That all life, nature too, has something holy about it.
Kandyan rooster investigates the Bo tree temple
From the surface Sri Lanka might seem a place of astonishing religious tolerance and diversity. If I didn't know how the war tore the country apart on Hindu and Buddhist lines I would never guess it from Colombo. A block from my apartment a tiny Buddhist temple shares a wall with a one room Hindu temple, all acrros the street from the local Mosque. I was surprised to find Parvati and Vishnu (Hindu Gods) adorning the same bus decals as Buddha, until a friend explained to me that these 'Hindu' Gods exist in Buddhist cosmology too, as powerful beings that have not attained enlightenment. Someone else told me that for the Sri Lankans, the Buddha is your spiritual teacher and adviser but it is the Gods you pray to for intercession. Want to pass your A level exams? You pray to the Gods, who are more involved in such worldly things than Buddha.
So I was surprised to find such overlap between faiths which have been at loggerheads for decades here. For reference, on Independence Day last week the national anthem was sung in both Tamil and Sinhala (the Hindu minority and the Buddhist majority languages) for the first time ever. Even this small gesture of reconciliation had some radical Buddhist politicians threatening to commit suicide, though unfortunately they seem to have not carried out their threats. Sri Lanka is home to what might seem an oxymoron: fanatic Buddhism. As the country limps towards reconciliation and equitable development under the new regime, to the careful observer, there is backlash. In the last few weeks there has been a sudden change in the Tuktuk decals I usually love, which often have stickers of the driver's favorite movie or words of wisdom such as 'Save your money'. Recently though, a sticker in Sinhala reading 'Sinha-le', meaning Sinhalese blood, has appeared on Tuktuks, and now even buses and tshirts. This is a reference to Sinhalese Buddhist identity, which might not quite be a threat in itself, but has some parallels to wearing a 'white pride' shirt in the US. Even more concerning, the slogan has been spray painted on some Muslim family's homes. Meanwhile, the leaders of one of the main Buddhist sects is in jail for calling for the death of a war widow. In Sri Lanka you can see the depth of corruption that any religion is capable one – when a Buddhist whose first tenet is to harm none, encourages his followers to kill an innocent woman.
But of course, like any 'religious conflict' this one is about more than faith. It is about ethnicity, language, distribution of resources, jobs, and history all play a role in a conflict under which religion is sometimes the banner. Indeed, if Sri Lanka moves away from Sinhala language use in the official sector, the most likely direction would be towards English, a move which will most benefit the English speaking elite regardless of their religion.
An observer for three months now, I see a lot of reason for hope. I see development and resources slowly leaking into the bombed out Tamil North, and military occupation slowly draining out of it. I see constant reason for optimism in the intelligence and enthusiasm of the young people I work with, at CEPA and in my class. I see the kleptocratic previous dynasty being dismantled, and protections created to protect the country from it happening again. I see a country full of people who feed stray dogs and buy rice packets for birds, who invest heavily in the education and happiness of their children. When I go to temples and see young couples holding hands or parents holding their children up see the Buddha, I want to say faith is a reason for hope here too. But I don't really know.
One of my favorite temples in Colombo. It seems to me a focal point of the coexistence of the ancient and the modern in Sri Lanka.