20 December 2014

On the Way to Buddha's Tooth


The day-long bone-jangling train ride to Kandy began in the morning with a puja for the opening of a new luxury hotel in Mirissa. The owners (who also ran our more modest tourist lodgings) gave us, the lone foreigners, first crack at the lavish buffet while the locals stood in dubious reverence, and the presiding monk droned on, and coconut palm shards flamed on the floor.

light at the end of the tunnelWhen Osnat and I had gobbled our fill of the world-class local curries, we had to grab the tuktuk driver away from his plate and the start of another puja session, to get us to the Matara station on time. We rode along the coast with its mostly undeveloped stretches of rose-red fine sand and gentle waves, to Colombo to catch the connecting train to Kandy, this one a faster one clacking furiously through the rice fields, and up into the hill country, through tunnels carved by British engineers (with their presumed hordes of slave laborers, Tamils from India) to deposit us almost train sick at the end in Kandy in the dark, at our own Majestic Hotel with its high ceilings, hot water, and meals at twice Mirissa prices for half the portions.

Temple of the ToothThis hotel is practically empty, its owner tells us, because tourists are afraid of violence around the upcoming election. He proceeds to fill us in on Sri Lankan politics. The ruling party is communist, and like a dictator the president has been eliminating opposition journalists with secret police, disappearing them. But the streets are clean, thanks to the 25,000 Rps fine for littering, with citizens encouraged to snitch on offenders.

The war (1983-2009) is over now, but in its midst, in 1998, 400 kg of explosives were detonated at the temple holding Buddha's tooth. The temple was restored, and today we are warned only to beware of the "road boys" (did he mean, "rude boys"?) prowling the temple environs who will perhaps try to rob us, or at least to sell us inflated tickets to the cultural drum and dance event.

The dogs with their barking kept us awake in the night. In the morning the buzz of the weedeater spoiled the sweetness of these ancient hills. We wrangled over the itinerary, legs of train connections, hypothetical busses, room bookings and cancellations, pickup arrangements for a botched computer, airport arrival, tour options for today and next week.

On the way to Buddha's tooth, many tuktuk* drivers called to us offering their services (*tuktuk: chainsaw engine on three wheels). We refused, and let it all go, glorying in the perfect climate, the days ahead to explore. Waltzing down the road to town, Osnat quipped, "This is heaven" - and promptly collapsed with a cry, stumbling over the broken pavement.

At the screening area in front of the temple, we failed the costume police, who wanted legs and arms covered. We reverted to town. Creepy guys stalked us, just as advertised. A trembling beggar sat hunched at Osnat's feet while she ogled a beach bag in a shop window. We milled with the crowds to the train station, bought two tickets we would never ride, like lottery options to possible worlds. In the 1840s hotel we enjoyed the best buffet ever, Sri Lanka riding to the top of the pack, yes better than Indian, Thai, Mexican or (almost) Italian cuisine.

Temple of the ToothPilgrims and tourists piled into the temple, eager to sit beside the elephant tusks [drum video], more imposing than any Buddha's tooth which in any event was secreted out of sight, perhaps no longer even on the grounds, if it ever was. Possessors of the relic held power through its veneration and their guarding of it, just as princes here once trained to capture and control wild elephants, thereby also to fill the populace with awe.

The dancers in the drumming show were similarly arrayed with gems and precious finery, to display the wonder of riches won through centuries of conquest, intrigue, patricide, slaughter. The lake in Kandy was excavated by the last monarch to rule before the British took over. That project was won at the price of a rebellion of local chiefs whose people were exploited to do the work, and put to death on stakes in the new lakebed for their resistance. The monarch had his way: until the British promptly arrived, to complete a conquest which neither the Portuguese nor the Dutch before them could manage. Talk about karma.

buddha in a boxElephant tusks, Buddha teeth, the worship of graven images everywhere, when the teacher himself counseled looking within to simple silence. Cases of books, the most ancient, collecting palm leaves laboriously scripted over centuries with the words and commentary of the master's messages. Could it be that complicated, that arcane? And after all, shielded behind glass - like the boxes Buddha sits in everywhere here, hermetic, zooed, specimened, packaged, his image preserved as he presumably was, once long ago.

On the way to Buddha's tooth, we faced all manner of device malfunctions. Osnat's tablet, bought just before leaving Victoria, suffered from trackpad and swipe malfunctions and more seriously, a failing capacity to charge. Her phone, also bought at a bargain price from eBay, was proving a lemon in every conceivable way. Her camera, its malfunctioning lens fixed only last spring in Dharamsala, now suffered a cracked screen and again malfunctioning lens, thanks to being dropped on the dock when departing our resort in Thailand. Everywhere we wrestled with faulty Internet connections, intermittent even with the router extender we'd brought along; and funky power adapters and cords, often too unwieldy to stay plugged in, with holes too tight or too loose.

For my part, my trusty laptop, once already having survived a brush with impermanence, a near-fatal fall to a tile floor in India, now suffered a critical system crash our last day in Thailand. Trying to complete a rush of editing jobs, I madly attempted to back up the data prior to a clean restore, holding the machine open for as long as power would permit in restaurant, taxi, dentist office and airport. At the final step in our dumpy hotel in Colombo, I botched the restore, my backup CDs failing to read, so resorted to a trip to Osnat's tablet service center for help. Amid abortive attempts to resolve her issues, they restored my system in a few hours.

While waiting, we found a shop to handle her camera repairs, and another shop to fix her phone. Never mind the virus that got transferred via the phone's memory chip to her backup files on my computer; or the fact that her data and phone service still didn't work. At least we had one working computer, camera and phone between us. In Kandy we would finally get my own camera repaired, with its own lens problem, and someone to figure out that her phone just needed, go figure, her passport number.

Patience, grasshopper.

violent filmsI divert my attention from ancient artifacts to current events, now that digital access has been restored. In the face of abiding compassion for all sentient beings, the next world war looms: another proxy deception, all of Congress hoodwinked in the bargain with the devil, clearly the military-industrial-financial matrix. We live in a mafia world ruled by Pigmen (not to be confused with pigment). No corner of global commerce untouched, this glutton of mass control holds sway over the mainstream trunk of human society, and like the mighty elephant the natural human species goes down in chains.

Here in the heart of the old kingdom of Kandy, where the imperial British before came to run their operations, I sit after a long sleep, reflecting in turn on the dominant paradigm of this private life, in its current mode, the domestic and rather bourgeois life of the traveling couple. Spending untold hours researching accommodations, deciphering train and bus schedules, packing and unpacking, sitting in restaurants waiting for meals...

The literary self, finding itself in a personal cold war, lobbies for independence and freedom, wants to conquer all to its domain, reform the corrupt world to truth and reconciliation, and to do so, slash and burn the warm company of a lover, set the clock to rise from the connubial bed, get to work. To close the heart and focus the eyes on its demented array of symbols... like the monks of old hunched over their bloody parchments, exorcising their demons in the form of another mass deception, religion - a created universe of meaning, morals, menacing gods, frightful acts of vengeance and judgment; enforcing hierarchy, demanding discipline, giving all to God... Is such also the mammon of literature, the dream of success, the artful constructions of the otherwise mortal human ego?

Ego and empire alike seek no compromise, in whatever realm - from bedroom to bookroom to boardroom - but utter dominion.

What is truth? In the making, an enterprise of scribbling, digits tapping on plastic squares, light emanating from a screen of silicon. To such truth are all the masses now mesmerized across the world, fixated on apps and entertainment, the chitter and chatter of social buzz to keep distracted from the life around, to forget the pollution and poverty and corruption, to dance in the aisles of frivolity, to render useless and impotent the politics of the street. By occupying nothing, one survives, for a while, pushed to the margins of the wage slavery society, content to play the pyramid racket of crumbs from the table of the elite.

Our hotel owner has given us a glimpse of his ambitious president, not alone corrupted in the political world by his very own power, and like all suffering souls driven, unhappy, addicted; conflicted even at the top of the heap by the base human desires taken to excess and glut, at the expense of others. Once on that wheel of self-perpetuating power, never satisfied to return to the common humanity the owner himself now settles for, with "enough money, enough to eat, and simple life" with his wife.

Thus does this observer of buddha-nature sit in judgment in a rented room on a hill in the old kingdom, ranting and ruminating, stewing over his own choices and the fate of the world.

reclining Buddha

On the way to the botanical garden, we were accosted by a tuktuk driver just outside our hotel. Our plan was to walk to the park, then hire a driver for 500 Rps to take us to the gardens. This driver offered us a package deal of 1500 Rps for botanical garden, elephant orphanage, herb and spice gardens, and tea factory, 3-4 hours, 35 km. Finally rested and refreshed with a long sleep, we were vulnerable, said sure, let's do it. Smelly exhaust, shabby roadside shops, traffic on the narrow roads, we stopped at a fruit stand and stocked up with pomelo, watermelon, papaya, avocado, bananas, three bags full.

marketOn to the tea factory for a tour there, and a cup of orange pekoe with jaggery; but then the elephant orphanage was not the one we were looking for, the main one, rather a smaller one where you could ride and wash the elephants paying 2000 Rps each. Forget it, we said. The larger one was much farther, cost 2500 each. On to the herb and spice farm, just down the road. Again a disappointment, the same tour we had already in Unawatuna, with the pricey dispensary at the end and a hard sell. I skipped out early, back to wait by the tuktuk and read on Kindle till Osnat was done. More fumes and chuggery ride back toward Kandy, we stopped for lunch, at a fancy hotel with a grand view and a deluxe buffet for 850 Rps each. In this spot all the sins of the road and the day were forgiven, the price to pay for unexpected grace and grounding. Back to the road-grind, however, it was two o'clock by the time we passed the botanical garden and, finding again that the price of admission was 1100 Rps each, and already in the heat of the day, burnt out from the ride and from the aimless adventure, we passed on this last, and our first objective of the day.

"Just flowers and trees," the driver said.

He dropped us off at the hotel, disgruntled that we refused his offer to tuk us to Dambulla the next day, a two-hour drive each way, for 4000 Rps. And drove away with our three bags of fruit still sitting behind the passenger seat, in a box, atop his three bottles of vodka.

We ride to Dambulla in relative comfort, in an air-conditioned minibus, plying the same crowded roads through towns for half the route, dodging oncoming traffic, nearly ramming into startled pedestrians. Along the way, strange graffiti of signs:

Red Sea Restaurant

Y2K Gypsum Board

Who flies not high, falls not low

Bob Marley: Don't forget your past

On the bus, Osnat converses with a local psychiatrist. Jung, he says, a Swiss Jew, became a Buddhist and mystic after a near-death experience. A Jungian scholar I know has informed me that for Jung the Temple of the Tooth was "his temple."

For myself, I'm becoming brain-dead riding these tacky thoroughfares, finding no inspiration on the side of the road. Not content to dissolve my ego desires for the sake of the pilgrimage, I mourn the loss of five hours of travel for a half hour of sightseeing atop a long flight of stone steps, to take snapshots of the ancient relics of a bygone age.

Golden Temple

Finally we arrive at the kitschy Japanese Golden Temple and fake cave. The theme park version of Dambulla fronts the foot of the real thing, which may have been kitsch enough in its own day, centuries before. And yes, it still impresses: lavish art in five caves, reclining gold Buddhas, dozens of carved statues sitting along the cave walls, ceilings covered with innumerable more saints and boddhisattvas, amid assorted stupas and a few kings.

Maybe it was all worth it, just to gawk. And breathe, relax, accept. There is no ivory tower, no sacred cave for literature, or even saintly meditation; those old caves have been filled with gilded buddhas now, to be captured endlessly by streams of tourists from around the globe, flickering in and out like fireflies.