Colombo, British Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
Tuesday 8 December, 1925: Bodhi Day.
Prismatic a rainbow colours the sky. Monks sit in damp; and think; and walk barefoot over twigs, while bells sing. The deities are ever present: watchful eyes; multi-tasking hands with candles, scripture and birds. Red lanterns are set at the foot of the sacred Bodhi tree. Under the Bodhi, the Lord Buddha sat for seven days without moving. This tree was grown from one of thirty-two saplings brought by King Asoka’s daughter, the nun Sanghamittra, in the 3rd century B. C. It is said a child treading the ground under this tree will never fail in life. The main building is built around it, the domed temple, the shrine room, and monk’s cells. By ficus religiosa, disciples bless one another with the peace of the Buddha.
The new arrival professed an interest in Theosophy, the esoteric group that teach of the Tibetan Masters. From Colombo he was to journey to Annie Besant’s school in Adyar, Southern India. On the stop-over he learned of this place and the Buddhist philosophy of liberation, suffering and rebirth. From a hotel window months ago he saw low yellow buildings line dusty roads and quiet lanes. There was a serenity, a cleanliness to the air. This was what took him out to the countryside. He walked, soothed and mesmerised by the fields, drawn there to Bellanwila Rajamaha Viharaya. Before the resplendent arches are seen, everywhere the disciples are heard in long chanting, ascending harps and drum beats.
This is one of the smaller monasteries. The central building is orange-gold, two storeys and columns lovingly carved with bas-reliefs. Inside are the library and seminary. Behind the building is the mosque-shaped white prayer house. Magnificent trees sway and bow in these heavy rains of monsoon season. These skies of indigo are expected to pelt another month or two. Rains ricochet on a glass cover over a twelve foot praying gold Buddha. It swamps green shrubs and sweeps grey stone steps.
Language cannot truly manifest the voice of the spirit, which in this modern world is shackled to The Self. However, communication can turn the key. Listen to the universe. The early morning song of the swallow. The strong wind is cut apart by the leaves of the palm trees. These things are the extensions of The Creator. Pali, the language of the original Buddhist writings, is said to be a dead language. How can this be so when it breathes wisdom through the ages?
The newspapers do not teach the fundamental principles of Buddhist thought or practice. They impart no knowledge of Pali, Sanskrit or even modern Sinhalese! The New York World, for example, is the antithesis to the state of quiet study. It is loud and crude and insincere. For five Sundays Summer past it carries the series, ‘Lincoln World War Spy Plotted to Control China!’ It told of his making bridges with Britain: Captain Corlett and Consul Steptoe. Lincoln was advisor to Wu Peifu, ‘In the Centre of a Struggle for the Destiny of The Orient!’
Leo Tandler’s concentration breaks. His feet he sees, crossed where he sits. His palms are upturned on his knees. A cloud colours the sun. There is pain in his thin bones. There is pain everywhere. He thinks of our slavery to modern life with its noisy technology and petty grievances. It may be the selfishness of the soul, ego that must be left behind. Dr. Tandler breathes to centre himself. He is in the carpeted, warm apartment of Joseph Schlesinger. The newspaper is in Joseph’s hand. He reads how Lincoln wishes to pay off his debts and gather his scattered family to retire to some quiet corner of the globe. Flapping the pages back, Joseph reads a line aloud.
“’He claims Britain is the greatest political institution that has ever existed, and desires to be reinstated as a citizen of that nation.’”
The tropical sun returns, cumulo-nimbus coming and going like the waves of the sea. He can feel its faint breeze, its perpetual rise and fall. These are mere waves of existence. Behind the unconscious mind is The Breather, experiencing by act of will, seeking truth. He lets the tension slip away, red to violet, risen from the base of the spine leaving through the top of the head. The breath can take you all the way to Nirvana.
Behind him are 2,243 miles of conical mountain and forest trail: Adam’s Peak; the Jewelled Hill; the Climb to Heaven; Butterfly Mountain. It has as many names as worshippers. From December to May pilgrimages gain momentum. They seek a rock formation at the summit, held as the left footprint of the Buddha. In Pali, it is known as Sri Prada. From the peak the Kelnai River brings its drinking water and fish ninety miles down into Colombo. The Kelnai River’s flow empties into folk poetry, and shrines.
When he first arrived he existed on one meal a day. He did not realised how little his body required. The teachers became fearful and encouraged the Austrian to change his diet. Each morning he rose at six to clean his cell and meditate. Then he consumes a simple breakfast of fruit, a rice cake, and tea. No sugar or milk. After three more hours of meditation the monks have a small bowl of rice and vegetables. He will teach some of them English before six o’clock prayers.
He only vaguely recognises the man in New York.
‘I am sick of life,’ he had written to her. ‘I have experienced too great adversities. But what is the use of lamenting? I am engulfed in impenetrable darkness.’
Under the Bodhi tree outside the chapel he knows this is the suffering of all existence. Those words are the past. They are also a moment of clarity among commerce’s poison illusion. When he looks at the work-book of one of his novices he sees his own hand, his true hand. The moment of a great revelation came to him in a room at Astor House in Tientsin; rooted to that spot, for who can say how long? The weight lifted from his back, of Jupiter and Zeus; a burden greater than he’d known, it shot through the tall ceiling and he fell to his knees weeping, weeping with happiness in the gaze of beauty. He made the great renunciation then. He made the great decision to quit the world, force the doors of the lunatic asylum open, and walk out. The novice’s hand-writing has his curls and dips. He returns the work-book with a gentle nod.
Each monk has his own cell with a pink roof and grey walls. Inside are a bed, table, chair, water jug, wash-basin and mug. Their clothing: black robes, skull-caps and slippers. Offerings are made but sometimes the monks must walk the six miles to Colombo, which is another world away. They beg at Kayman’s Gate, entrance to Pettah market. Tourists gather by Indian traders with stalls of gold and jewellery, and mull around the candy-striped Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque. There are five hundred Muslims resident there, and another hundred monks from the central Gangaramaya Temple, a kitschier tourist trap. Tram car tracks line the roads and doorsteps of businesses are fronted by granite flooring brought by their British town planners. He does not like the shops; the newspapers; the government buildings. Too easily they trigger him. He is reminded of the British diplomat in Tientsin who billed him for a wire to the Home Secretary in London. It evokes a feeling in his spleen like bile.
This monk will preach at the temple instead. All who meet him speak highly of his enthusiasm and sincerity. The Most Venerable Master will ask him again to address the Buddhist Working Men’s Club. Tandler will forgive the British, remembering the official in Manilla who granted him a visa for India months before. Yet he does not need it. Theosophy, with its schools at odds, is not something he pretends to comprehend. He gradually practices and develops mindfulness of the in-and-out breath as taught by the Enlightened One. He is in search of illuminating the entire world like the moon when it’s freed from clouds.
In the shrine room are great tapestries of worshippers and students gathered by ascending ones: hands at chins; hands on heart; a painting of the Bodhi tree. Under patterned ceilings are significant images from the Buddha’s life. Glistening sculptures of celestial hosts lurk in alcoves with bejewelled foreheads or blue skin. They dance and share, their feet on wisps of clouds. The sage Gautama Buddha levitates cross legged beyond orange fire.
Stars in violet night skies draw in after January’s Moon-Day, after the revellers have gone. He strolls through town near Kayman’s Gate, the Khan Tower Clock and water fountain. A young Sinhalese newsboy is in front of him, then behind him, and keeping close. The boy calls out: buy paper, buy paper. The monk gestures ‘no money’, but the boy keeps following. Eventually the tabloid is pushed into the man’s hands, taken when all other means have not sent the boy away.
In his cell the next morning the monk reads the words ‘Trebitsch Lincoln… facing charges in London.’ Will the English not leave him in peace? Old upsets in his appendix flare and clog his solar plexus, yet he reads on. The story is not about Trebitsch Lincoln, but his eldest son. The monk’s eyes quickly fill like pools and he is anything but centred. He stands, and looks around him, feels the space in his fingers. His instinct is to grab the chair and smash it, smash it over and over until the walls fall down.
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