Give Us Oursins, July 5, 2006


As we sat drinking coffee with Savithri at our dining room table, we saw something on the trunk of the big mango tree outside. There in all his glory was a huge red, black, and white, crested woodpecker, looking for something to eat. By the time Ken got the camera ready, the woodpecker had gone around to the other side of the tree, and, shortly thereafter, it left, but lucky us to see such a magnificent bird at all.


The other night Visakha looked out the window to the wall in front of the house and saw a most peculiar green light. It was steady, so it was definitely not an off-and-on firefly. It looked like the power light on a laptop, but it was very bright, and there was nothing electrical there. Both of us investigated, but we couldn't find the light source. Later, when we asked Charles, he immediately said that we'd seen a glowworm, just doing his glowworm thing. Well, come to find out, glowworms are girls, more particularly, the larvae of fireflies or lightning bugs (family Lampyridae). Who knew?! Of course, we know fireflies from the Philippines and the States, but we'd never seen the glowworms before. We also remember the song, "Shine little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer," which Mother used to sing. Nocturnal, luminous beetles, adults give off sexy flashes of light to attract mates (rather like some discos, but built in). Firefly larvae use their bioluminescence to warn predators, since they are either yukky tasting or toxic. With more than two thousand species of fireflies in the world there is room for variations. Chinese and Japanese used to put lightning bugs in paper lanterns for cool light, but many Americans may remember themselves as kids, catching them and putting them in jars for fun (for the firefly?) During Peace Corps years, several lifetimes ago, Visakha recalls seeing a whole row of trees in Zamboanga full of fireflies all flashing their little lights in time. That sort of synchronized flashing is said to be common in tropical fireflies, but it also happens, very rarely, in the US. Perhaps Asians got more rhythm? According to Wikipedia: "One of the most famous sightings of fireflies blinking in unison occur near Elkmont, Tennessee, in the Great Smoky Mountains during the second week of June." If you find yourself in the neighborhood, do check it out and let us know. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefly>

Now that we're back in some sort of regular routine, our classes are coming along very nicely. We enjoy teaching at both bhikkhu training centers once a week--each class has a distinctive feel, so both are good in different ways.

Last week, when we went back to Vajiraramaya, we found Ken's good ballpoint pen on the teacher's table, exactly where he'd forgotten it the week before. That doesn't happen very often in this world!

After class several novices lingered to inform us that four of our students would be absent for the following two weeks because they were going to Colombo for higher ordination. Congratulations! In Sri Lanka novices must pass a tough exam in order to be accepted for upasampada. Those who become monks usually stay in robes for life; temporary ordination, so popular in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma, is not a tradition here. When our students return to Kandy as monks, there will be a perahera in their honor, which we don't want to miss.

Click either image to view more photos of the perahera.


At Subodharama, we were doing a lesson on present tense verbs with their daily schedule. We ended the class with "Again and Again." The Sri Lankan teacher, who oversees the novices' education, came over and offered to translate into Sinhala, but we asked him to wait. We wanted to give them a chance to try to understand on their own in English. It wasn't long before light bulbs were going off over their heads. By the time we had finished, he affirmed that they understood the whole passage without a bit of Sinhalese explanation and they enjoyed it too!

Again and Again

Again and again they sow the seed;
Again and again the sky-king rains.
Again and again the farmers plough the fields;
Again and again the land produces grain.
Again and again the beggars come and beg;
Again and again the generous donors give.
Again and again when many gifts are given,
Again and again the donors reach the heavens.
Again and again the dairymen milk the herds;
Again and again the calf goes to its mother.
Again and again we tire and we toil;
Again and again the heedless come to birth.
Again and again comes birth, and dying follows;
Again and again are we carried to the grave.
Only by gaining the Path for non-returning,
Is a person of wisdom not again and again reborn.

--Samyutta Nikaya VII


John dropped us an e-mail inviting us to go along on the "Explore Kandy" excursion, which takes place the last Sunday of every month. The group is primarily expatriates, and the organizers find new places to visit each month and end up in a different restaurant for lunch (and for many, beer). They meet at the Peradeniya Rest House and car pool from there. It was interesting to meet so many Europeans who have settled here, some for decades. We went to an old temple which had a small museum of items from the last Kandyan king, whose palace was directly across the river. From there to a remarkable meditation center cum resort, and finally to an out-of-the-way, but well-known, hotel with a very reasonable buffet. The organizers had ordered extra dishes for the herbivores among us which was much appreciated.

Click the image above to see more photos of the monastery in Kundasale. Click the image above to see more photos of the Samadhi Centre.


On the way, John asked Henk, who was driving, about a British couple who were not there that day, and we heard a remarkable story. This retired couple had wanted to build the perfect house. They had the money, the plan, and the location. On the top of a mountain, with glorious views on all sides and the river below, they wanted a house open to nature. That's what they had the architect design and the contractors build. When it was finished, it was perfect, except for two things--thieves and wind. There are good reasons for walls and for doors which can be locked. Now they can't leave the house for fear of being robbed. The strong wind at the top of the mountain blows right through the house and carries away everything that is not nailed down. It seems they will be held prisoners in the house until they finish building a strong wall all around the property, at which point they will feel like prisoners while they are there. They are also suing the architect and contractor, but perhaps the fault lies elsewhere? Weren't the builders just following instructions? Hmmmm. No wonder the couple wasn't at the outing. Their situation gives "house arrest" a whole new meaning, doesn't it? (Not to make light of Daw Suu's continuing house arrest, which is for a noble purpose. She has been incarcerated for 10 years and 251 days [as of July 4th]).

The other night, we accidently selected English subtitles before starting the DVD, "An Unfinished Life," with Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman. The subtitles were so off the wall, it was difficult to take the movie seriously. We wondered how well someone who didn't understand spoken English but who could read fairly well would have fared? You be the judge.

"The Fish and Game Department" became "official game department."

When the heroine said, "I think camping would be great," the subtitle read, "In caffeine would be great."

The hero and his granddaughter were plotting to liberate a huge grizzly (Bart the Bear) from a wretched amusement park. He said "When we get that bear in the cage, I'm going to give him a shot." The subtitle read, "When we get that bear on the cave, I gonna get a shock." Later, in the hospital, "You had a hell of a fall." became "You made the hell fall."

When Morgan's character asked his boss to bury him near his son's grave, his boss asked, "Don't you think you ought to die first?" The subtitle: "I'm stay out of die first."

"I think they forgive us our sins." became "I think they will give us oursins." Certainly, we all need oursins, don't we?! What was that movie about, anyway?

Lily saw the photo Ken had snapped of Visakha washing dishes on a Tuesday when she is off and said, "Oh, madam is playing!" Evidently she doesn't believe that we know how to do anything for ourselves.

"In My Country" was a gripping flic about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa by the director who also did "Beyond Rangoon." It was especially moving to us because we've been involved with Cambodia and Burma for so long, and now, here we are in Sri Lanka, with its unhappy history and volatile present. In actual fact, these hearings were chaired in real life by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the process was simple and non-judicial. Victims were able to confront their oppressors, torturers, or those who murdered their family members. The perpetrators wanted amnesty, which would be granted if they could establish that they were only following orders from their superiors in South Africa's apartheid regime. Some of the people who testified before the commisson in the film were actually reenacting the testimony they had given to the real commission. An emotional scene involved a young boy who had watched his parents murdered and not spoken a word since then. Before the commission, the policeman who had killed his parents admitted that he had done it, but declared that since that day he had not been able to sleep; nor could he get the boy's face out of his mind. He knelt in front of the boy and begged forgiveness. It was indeed a moving reconciliation when the mute child stepped forward and embraced the sobbing policeman.

Isn't it obvious that a cycle of revenge, revenge, revenge cannot be the answer? Just look at Israel, which is ready once again to destroy whole segments of Palestinian society for one of their soldiers. When will people ever learn?

Actually the situation in the Gaza reminds us of the terrible standoff when Thai authorities, to force the Mon to leave Halockhani camp and to cross back into Burma, surrounded the refugee camp and cut off all food, water, medical supplies, and information. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and to cut off water, electricity, food, and medicine has to be a crime against humanity. In the end, the Mon refugees had to relocate, but the people of Gaza have nowhere to go. Who dies when hospitals can't sterilize equipment, provide oxygen, or run incubators and dialysis machines,? It is the weakest, the youngest, the oldest, the most vulnerable, and the innocent. Collective punishment is wrong. Isn't it obvious that in the Middle East, as well as in Burma and Sri Lanka, the situation is crying out for Peace and Reconciliation the South African way?

When Americans complain about gas prices, think of Sri Lanka. Every third world country without its own oilfields must be the same. The price of gas here has gone sky high; it's about $3.70 a gallon. The petroleum authority is struggling to pay its bills, and there are great long lines to get petrol. Our friendly tuk-tuk drivers are spending three to six hours in queue, hours when they can't earn a cent, just to get gas. They have to live day to day on their earnings.

We can't tell if the war here in Sri Lanka is coming or going. The newspapers are full of stories of claymore mines, and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), child soldiers, retaliatory strikes, and the like. There was a stately, somber funeral for the general who was just killed by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle. We've also read lots of stories about Balasingham's admission that the Tigers had indeed assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi fifteen years ago and would now like India to be magnanimous and to forgive and forget. Something like that just doesn't get forgotten, though, does it? What about the little matter of a trial, verdict, and sentencing? Can tigers shed crocodile tears? So far, here in Anniwatte, everything seems remarkably normal. We'll certainly report any changes in that, but let's hope we don't have to.

Talk about the best of several worlds--we get delicious apples both tart and sweet, juicy pears, pomegranates, pomelos, and avocados, as well as wonderful tropical fruit, including papayas, mangosteens, mangos, and golden, sweet sticky jak fruit, and ten varieties of bananas.

Aren't we looking spiffy! The old front door was being consumed by insects (It was an inside job!), and the bottom panels were looking like a lace doily with light showing through. After six months of waiting for a new door, it was tempting to kick it just to see what would happen, but we restrained ourselves. Finally, an always very busy Manel sent his carpenter over with a beautiful new door. The wood was from an old jak tree which Savithri had cut just before we came. It has been perfectly seasoned and finely finished. The crew spent half a day hanging it properly, so we are now looking both good and secure.

Ken loves to shop, so he did a lot of comparing before we settled on new curtains. Since both of us like handloom material and want to support the local industries, we were happy to find some handwoven cotton--beige and brown stripes, compatible with the hanging above the computers--for the study. For the dining and living rooms we figured we needed more light. There we chose lace, (or "sheers," as Mother used to say), but at a very good price, from the same "Curtain House" downtown. There was minimal (read NO) English, with the friendly and cheerful clerks, so we needed to be very clear about the number of curtains and measurements for each one, but the end results are very nice, and they were quite a bargain at roughly ten dollars a room!

The Fourth of July was a red letter weekend!

That wonderful Woodlawn Park house, which sold a few months back, has been thoroughly remodeled, and, over the weekend, it became a group home. We couldn't be happier about that. Thanks, Suzi!

Mother"s house on Missouri is also no longer ours. That house has been a real trial of patience and the source of seemingly unending chicanery and cheating from tenants. Take it from us that being a landlord is not beer and skittles. Your ears would ring and your socks would rot at the stories of first Maggie and George, and then of that rotter Jason. At last, all that is past! Hurray! Again, all credit to Suzi!

We had also expected to have our shipment (only seven months late) delivered on the Fourth, but it will be a few more days? Yes, it seems to be in Colombo, and possibly at least part of it has passed through customs. Details, if any of these rumors are true, in the next report.

(UPDATE! We just got a call form the agent in Colombo, who has been dangling us on a string since the shipment arrived June 20. This morning [July 5] customs refused to release the crate. The Packing List submitted for insurance purposes was originally typed in a table showing the value of each item. The cells, including the headings, have gotten lost, so it reads :

Laptop 500
Buddha image, large 100
Buddha image, small 30

Customs wanted to know why we were importing 500 laptops and 130 Buddha images! The agent has a meeting tomorrow morning when, we hope, that will get straightened out.)

Ken spotted a flier at our local supermarket and couldn't believe how cheap the flights were from Colombo to Bangkok, including all taxes/ transport to and from the airport and a couple of nights in a moderate hotel. He checked and double checked, and it was true. So, why not go? Why not, indeed? We certainly have been missing Bangkok and good friends there. We dropped a line to Eisel, and he responded almost immediately with a suggestion: "While you're at it, why not throw in Luang Prabang?" Why not indeed?!

As we chatted with Charles, he happened to mention another travel destination. What about a trip to Adams Peak aka Sri Pada? Off season is much nicer than in season he informed us. Visakha could be carried up ... so her arthritic hip needn't keep her from the experience of seeing the sunrise from the peak and of worshiping Buddha's footprint. To be considered . . .

Work on the great wall at the side of the house continues. When it's finished, it is going to be the most substantial driveway and carport in the country. The wall at the back will be about 11 feet high, 3 feet of which will be buried, necessary in these hills because of the heavy rains and the potential for landslips. The contractor is paid by the job, but the three or four guys he has hired, who are doing the manual labor, only get paid when they work. Monday, it rained all day, and none of them came. Tuesday, the rain was heavy, but intermittent, and one young may, who said he really needs the money came and dug most of the day. It must have been miserable in the rain a cold wind blowing. Ken supplied some hot tea and potato chips from Lily's son-in-law's factory, and we hope that helped, a little, anyway..

The other day, in the middle of the afternoon, we suddenly got a SKYPE call from Josh, who is now on an unpronounceable island off the Swedish coast. He's taking a year in Sweden as part of his Scandanevian studies program at U of M. We're waiting back to hear whether or not the medieval Christian monastery where he"s staying has any ghosts. For all of you with high-speed connections, we recommend SKYPE. It's free, and it's clear. <www.skype.com>

Give us a shout! SKYPE us! Our user name is <brelief>


Back to Table of Contents



Buddhist Relief Mission