Thursday, December 22, 2011

Up, up, up...

Unfortunately, in my short life I have seen places in which I felt that Buddhism has become like an empty shell. Places in which the cultures and traditions that serve as vehicles for the message of Siddhartha have become so heavy with habit and obligation that they obscure rather than support the pursuit of freedom. Where prayer is a kind of begging for the granting of wishes. Where there is more of an emphasis on what we can get in this life, than what we can give. 

In these places, I ask myself, "What can we do?" Or, should we do anything at all. 
Often, I am seduced by the bells and incense, the fervent chanting, the pomp and circumstance of rituals that seem ancient, mysterious and sublime. In the face of such pageantry, why question anything? 
Photo by Manjusri Balangoda

But it seems to me that Buddhism is, in essence, a path of questioning. And when we stop asking honest questions, then the sincerity that lights the path of dharma goes out. 

It was in this spirit of asking questions that I climbed to the apex of Sri Pada last week with three good friends. Also known as Adam's Peak, this mountain is a site of holy pilgrimage for thousands in Sri Lanka each year. It is believed that Shakyamuni Buddha came there at one point, leaving an impression of his foot on a rock at the top. Christians believe it is where Adam first came to Earth. Hindus come for many different reasons, including a veneration of the Buddha as an emanation of Shiva. And everyone, including a smattering of foreign visitors, comes to see the view.

Amanda and Steve prep for the climb in our hotel room.

Like many, we left our guest house in Nallathanniya at around 1:30am in order to make it to the top for sunrise. Thankfully, the climbing season has been slow to kick into full throttle, and we came on a week day which meant avoiding huge crowds and the blaring speakers making announcements all the way up. Instead, we found ourselves serenely hiking up dimly lit stone and cement stairways, and passing just a few sleepy tea shops on the way. Sri Lankan grandmothers were already climbing down in their flip-flops, which was quite amazing and somewhat reassuring.  

After hiking for half an hour, we came to a stream where Ven. Manjusri Thero showed us the rituals that first-timers do to assure a safe and successful ascent.

He gave each of us coins and a lime. We climbed down to the river in the dark to wash the coins with the water and lime.

The coins are then wrapped in a white cloth and tied to our wrists with mantra.

We stopped for tea once and I snapped a shot of this little dog, who managed to follow us up most of the way. (He was far more awake than we.) We gave him a few cookies, and he turned back before the steepest ascent to the peak.  

We found this perfect little frog nestled in the corner of a stone step on the way up.

At some points, the climb was so steep I felt I was going to fall backwards! We clung to the rails for support. Its hard to imagine climbing this back before they had steps and rails. But apparently many explorers of centuries past climbed it using iron chains anchored into the granite rock.

The view from the summit just before dawn was breathtaking. 

My compatriots, Amanda Keissel, Manjusri Thero, and Steve Francone.
It was cold up there!

Dawn breaks, revealing a magical landscape.

At the top we took off the bands and tied them unto a rod at the base of the shrine. No photos are allowed of the shrine protecting the Buddha's print on the rock. So most of these images are of the view from the rock and the pathways around the main shrine.

Manjusri Thero with new friends. I loved this monk's pink jacket!!! We first met him in Kandy at the Temple of the Tooth, and he followed the same pilgrimage circuit up Adam Peak the next day.

After a blissful stay and hot breakfast at the top, we began our descent down the many, many steps. Only this time, we could see them.

Always good to fuel up on bananas, provided by our beloved monk.

The tradition of unwinding string during the climb causes many layers of gauzy cotton thread to accumulate up the sides of the trail, like a massive spider web to the top. 

Demonstrating the Spiderman mudra with the sacred thread. (Photos by MT)

Here you can just barely see the little town where we began our hike, to the lower left of the lake. That's how far we came.

Construction materials are carried up for seasonal buildings. (Photo by MT)

These trinket shops amazed me. This one reminded me of an old children's book about a man selling an enormous stack of hats.
Back at the beginning.

Giant hornet nests hang from a tree with Sri Pada in the distance.
Photo by Manjusri Balangoda

Friday, December 09, 2011

My Little Housekeepers

As much as we're trained to think of ants as pests, they are in fact incredibly diligent housekeepers.

Living in the jungle means co-existing with an incredible number of insects, both inside and outside. Being Buddhist, I try to practice catch and release whenever I find an inconveniently large or active bug in my bedroom or bath. (I'm not much for crushing large critters.) Last night, I trapped a cricket in the bath room. I have a particular loathing for crickets that hop in unpredictable ways, especially when I'm trying to do my business.

Feeling  sleepy, I decided to keep him in the little tupperware trap until morning. Unfortunately, in the morning there were ants around the base of the trap, which told me the little guy had passed away in the night. Sure enough, when I lifted the box there was already a flotilla of little worker ants lifting up the cricket's body the way hoards of pilgrims might hold aloft a statue of the Virgin Mary on the streets of Mexican towns during Catholic holidays.

As soon as I released their fence, they proceeded with their funeral march, right out the door. When I returned half an hour later, not a trace of the cricket remained.  A few ants stayed behind to scout out the premises, just to make sure. But otherwise, the place was clean.

I consider these guys my automatic vacuum cleaners.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Gadget Monk + The Original Tree

The Train Station
Last month I posted numerous pictures of the sacred Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India. That tree, planted at the spot where the Buddha woke up, is actually a descendent of a tree in Sri Lanka called Sri Maha Bodhi. This tree happens to be about an hour away from Islander, in Anuradhapura.

Sri Maha Bodhi
The left-most trunk--the one supported by the golden poles-- is the oldest and only remaining branch of the original Bodhi Tree brought to Sri Lanka in 288 BC. It is the tree with the oldest recorded history in the world. (The other branches are new off-shoots or grown from cuttings.)

It is so holy, that three tiers protect it from pilgrims. (As you can see, I'm on the lowest wrung.) I was accompanied by the Venerable ManjuSri Thera, who was able to go to the top because he happened to be friends with a monk who was sweeping at the time. (In the picture below, he is the orange spot meditating in the right hand corner.)

And here he is in the flesh, the last in a row of men representing the Buddhas of our age.

We stopped for lunch in Mihintale, at a gorgeous grove filled with ruins called Kaludiya Pokuna or "Black Water Pool". 
I immediately loved this place! Huge granite boulders still bear the marks of walls built to house the many monks who practiced here. You could imagine them bathing in the lake amidst stupas and the countless turtles that still live there. 

A bit of a techie, ManjuSri Thera keeps his SLR lens cap in his shoes during our picnic. 

With Anil, our gracious driver.

Exploring nearby caves. To the right of the entrance, you can see the ditch that collected rainwater for this hilltop hermitage.

ManjuSri deduced that this was the site of a reclining Buddha once upon a time. You can still see the remnants of his legs and the shrine form on the wall. Sadly, this site has been pillaged by thieves searching for treasure.

(All photos with me in them were taken by MajuSri Thera.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Elie Crossings: A hike through Ganapativanum

I love this street sign. 
A warning to those new to Sri Lankan country driving: NEVER honk at an elephant crossing the road, thinking that will make it cross faster. They are not cows. And they could get upset and turn your car over.
I heard that this actually happened to one unfortunate Sewalanka driver who was new and hadn't been much out of Colombo.   

Lawrence and Shani of Hansa Coffee--my favorite Sri Lanka coffee company--came up for a visit to Islander last week. We took a hike around the land in the area known as an elephant corridor, called Ganapativanum.
Fittingly, one of the first things you come across is a Ganesh shrine by side of the dirt road there.

A native of Seattle, Lawrence has an amazing knowledge of the island's flora and fauna. While on this hike, I enjoyed the many tidbits of trivia he'd pull out about one nondescript plant after another..."This is for snakebite." "This is an aphrodisiac." He's an experienced herbalist, and someone I wish I had in my back pocket to pull out now and then.

A delicate Sri Lankan Passionflower and bud.

Amanda points out weaver birds' nests. We found one that had fallen off the tree, and I brought it back to my work space.
 (It now functions as a convenient duster, unfortunately).

An idyllic elephant look-out amidst rice paddy fields. This place looks like a heaven for poets.
As you might imagine, elephants can wreak havoc on crops.

Lawrence's foot vs. Elephant foot

Mushrooms growing in cow dung.

Here's another elephant look-out. 

Here's Steve, attempting to get into that treehouse. 

This hand-carved stone belongs to the time of the Anuradhapura kings. It was used in the dam system to irrigate the paddy fields year-round, although we don't know exactly what it did.

The Islander lake at dawn.

The view from the entrance at sunset.