One morning in Kandy, we woke up very early – so early, the city’s many stray dogs were still sleeping, and the roads were not yet crowded with tuk tuks. We climbed into the van, and held on carefully to the containers of well-wrapped dishes we’d been handed. This was precious cargo; we were taking breakfast to the monks.
Though its religious diversity is astounding, Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist society. The day before, Asanga had told me the monks at temples are fed by locals, who organize a rotating schedule amongst themselves. When it’s your day, you rise at daybreak, and transport a homemade breakfast – typically milk rice, fish curry, sambal, and some fresh fruit – to the temple.
The temple we visited was small, extremely modest in comparison to those that serve as pilgrimage sites. It sat up on a hill, consisting of a series of living quarters, the small temple itself, a shrine, a bright white stupa, and a large outdoor area for classes. When we arrived, we removed our shoes at the door, and were led into the back kitchen area where we unwrapped the food. To the sounds of monkeys scrambling overhead on the tin roof, we prepared a special plate as an offering to the Buddha. When it was ready, I carried it up the stairs to the temple, and placed it on the shrine.
From the kind monk who’d followed me in, I was instructed to unroll a mat, sit down, and place my hands in a prayer position. He sat next to me on a small stool, and began chanting.
I knelt, with the light of early morning filtering in, thread-like trails of incense rising up, and the words of a monk filling the colourful, sacred space. It was a privilege beyond comparison. My mind began its own chant, reminding me that “Four days ago I was in East Vancouver, and now I am in Sri Lanka, in a Buddhist temple, sitting next to a monk.” Sometimes, though absolute proof surrounds me, I find it difficult to believe things.
After the meal was offered, I was shown a part of the temple I hadn’t expected: the monk pulled back a blue satin curtain to reveal the Hindu God Vishnu.
While the religious intricacies are far greater than I comprehend or could explain, the simple explanation is this: there has been a certain amount of crossover between Buddhism and Hinduism in Sri Lanka, a blend which reflects both the religions’ tolerance for other beliefs, as well as the social overlap of the two cultures as they co-exist on the island. It kind of felt like seeing a Koran in a church; it's a somewhat strange sight, but ultimately a reassuring one, as it implies a sense of understanding.
Afterwards, I spoke with Sri Amunugana, another one of the monks at the temple. Before we left, he tied a white string around my wrist, a sign of peace and protection. Also, as you can see here, I was pretty much a giant in Sri Lanka.
Then, in an act that was amusingly reflective of modern times, he gave me his email address and username for the Asian version of Whatsapp. Monks may live simply, but they definitely move with the times.
Close to the end of our visit, crowds of children began arriving for classes that could be considered the Buddhist version of Sunday School. They were impeccably groomed; the boys wore long tunics, while the girls were dressed in bright white saris, their hair in thick, shiny braids finished with ribbons.
It felt refreshing and surreal to have had this experience by 8am in the morning, with the whole day stretching out before us.
Later that afternoon, the chef at the hotel taught me how to make ‘kiribath,’ the milk rice we’d taken to the monks.
It’s made with white rice, water, fresh coconut milk and salt, and the finished result is a sticky, coconuty pan of pressed rice that’s cut into squares. It’s simple, and so, so GOOD. While we stirred the rice, the chef told me stories of his time as a cook at an American army base in Fallujah.
“Just four days ago I was in East Vancouver, and now I’m in Sri Lanka, learning to make rice milk from a chef who learned how to make lasagna in Iraq.” I had to repeat that one a few times.
*(A note – I chose not to take pictures during the temple visit; the combination of video + photography just seemed too much, and I wanted to enjoy the experience ‘untethered,’ if you will. Seth, however, as he was hired to do, filmed the whole experience, and kindly shared some beautiful stills from his footage. All the images in this post from the temple are his. Thank you, Seth!)