To Tell the Truth, November 13, 2013
We've moved! Our new residence and the Sri Lanka office of Buddhist Relief Mission is a beautiful house with a gracious porch, a massive carved front door, a spacious office, a proper library, a comfortable guest room, and more. Every window is screened to keep out those pesky flying critters! All that is set on a hillside overlooking the Citadel Hotel and the Mahawelli River. There is also a lawn with flowers, a fish pond, and a waterfall. Too good to be true? Why don't you come and see for yourself?
Our new address is
301/31 , Dodanwela Passage, Dodanwela, Kandy 20000, Sri Lanka
How did it happen? Thereby hangs a tale! As you know, we lived for seven years, ever since coming to Sri Lanka, in a comfortable house in Anniwatte. When we first moved in, we asked for a rental agreement, but the landlady just brushed us off. "After all," she insisted, "we are friends." Rule number one, never mix business with friendship.
During the last seven years, we reshaped our lives and reorganized our belongings to fit the peculiarities of that house. The massive altar was custom-built to sit next to the fishpond in the sunken area that had once been a garage. We'd gotten used to stepping down on one side and up on the other between the office and the living room, but we'd always reminded visitors, unused to that idiosyncracy, to watch their step!
Offering dana to many monks and nuns and having English classes in the living-dining room strained the space sometimes, but we'd adjusted and come to love the house and to appreciate the compound, making friends with the succession of neighbors, Muslims, Tamils, and Sinhalese, with whom we'd celebrate every holiday and enjoy each other's food.
We'd never thought of moving. Our landlady had moved to Colombo. When she came back to Kandy, she stayed in the small annex in the back, and we had supposed we would just keep on renting the house indefinitely. In June, we received several e-mail messages in which she repeated how much she appreciated our being in the house and all of our Dhamma work. She avowed her happiness that the house was being used for wholesome activities. She stressed that she would never forget all we had done for her husband before he died.
One of our latest improvements to the house was the addition of a bird feeder. It was a simple wooden platform, suspended on a chain from the jambu tree outside the dining room window. It quickly became popular with magpies, mynas, babblers, a lovely crested couple, and, of course, squirrels. Occasional visitors included parrots and even a woodpecker. Watching this variety of wildlife cheerfully feeding, often together, was a joy. (Happily, the feeder has been transplanted to our new house. Will the birds follow? We shall see.)
In July, just before leaving for India for the BuddhaGaya intensive course, we received a registered letter from a Colombo lawyer with a lease agreement. It included a small increase in the monthly rent, which we expected, but it also stipulated that we would pay a full year's rent in advance as well as make a large refundable deposit. The final clause stated that, if we did not agree to these terms, we were to vacate the premises. We did not have time to worry about it right away, and, since the current "agreement" continued until November, we put it aside.
As soon as we got back to Kandy in August, we discussed lease agreements with friends and wrote one of our own, removing the offending clauses, including one which forbade anyone staying in the house without the owner's approval. No guests?!
About two weeks later, we received, again via registered post, a revised lease agreement. In this new document, our suggestions were rejected. The payment schedule was not only exorbitant, but also full of mistakes in typing and calculations. Intact was the prohibition for guests.
Not long after, the landlady and her son came to the door and asked to speak to us. He explained that the house now officially belonged to him; he was taking over for his mother. The requirement of a lease agreement was simply to straighten out the mess that had been left when his father died. They began by expressing how pleased they were to have us as tenants. Then the son asked what we objected to in the agreement. Obviously, he had not read our comments.
We questioned forbidding guests to stay without his prior permission. Both he and his mother clarified that they did not mean foreigners, but only "locals." They could not accept that, while we were in India, Lily and her sister had both stayed to take care of Mike's mother. Other members of Lily's family had also stayed over a few nights. We explained that we had asked Lily to live in and that sometimes she wanted to have someone else with her, for safety or convenience. "You have to be careful of locals," we were told. "They come in and look around so that, when you are gone, they can come in and rob you!" We pointed out that, if we were robbed, it would be our things and not theirs. Nevertheless, they did not want those people staying in the house.
Surangi's and Soma's Birthdays
Apparently they took exception to our fraternizing with the help, Lily, her family, Ashoka, and his. Sometimes we shared a meal or tea. People who worked for us used the same cups, not special "servants' dishes." Perhaps they also objected to the old men who regularly came to the door for tea and biscuits and a fifty rupee handout. We always served them outside in our plastic chairs. Giving them some comfort was a pleasure to us, but we had heard that it was objectionable to the landlady's family.
Then we were told that they were planning to build a house with a garage on the hillside. Construction would not start for some time, we were assured, but, when it did, it might be noisy and inconvenient for us, since the only access to the site was in front of our house. Because it would be quite a while before work began, we needn't worry in signing the agreement.
Next, they objected to the roof we had built over the space in the back of the house so that it could be used as a kitchen even during monsoon. That was not new construction; it had been done at least three years earlier. The problem, we were told, was that, if the Municipal authorities saw it, they would raise the taxes, and once raised, they would never be reduced, even if the roof was dismantled. We agreed to remove the roof, but were told. "No, wait until we check the regulations."
The meeting ended with the son promising to discuss everything with the lawyer and to send us a new agreement.
Confused, we asked a trusted friend to meet our landlady and find out what they really wanted.
We were told, "She wants her house back. It's as simple as that." Also, "She wants the kitchen roof torn down. She said, ‘Please make them take down that roof!'" Furthermore, "He's going to start the construction immediately."
We also heard that our landlady wanted us to leave because she could not bear that Ken had once shouted at her. Four years ago, he had reached into a space above a shelf in the library and received a jarring jolt (240 volts) from exposed live electric wires. Ken had demanded she get an electrician immediately to disconnect those and any other live wires before somebody was accidently killed.
Once we started hearing these back-stories, other maleficent rumors came out. We heard that the gardener had been told that he shouldn't work for us because, whenever we employed him, we deducted his wages from the rent! N.B. The only deductions ever made had been for expenses, parts, or labor, which were related to structural problems with the house-- the roof, the walls, the doors, or the plumbing. We had left daily wages for him to work in the vegetable garden while we were in India.
We also heard that a story had been spread that we'd included Nimal as a member of our pilgrimage group so that he could push Visakha's wheelchair. Au contraire, he had himself paid his way the same as every other member. Furthermore, he never touched the wheelchair--Ken, Mike, and Lal took that honor. On the pilgrimage, we were all just pilgrims, although Lily never could bring herself to call us by our names. She still can't. It's always "Sir" and "Madam."
A week after the meeting, we received a registered letter formally stating, in no uncertain terms, that we were to vacate the premises no later than November 30. We had already sent out feelers for friends and three-wheeler drivers to look for suitable houses for rent.
Within a few days, trees and bushes disappeared. Neighboring houses came into view. The lovely shade and the feeling of living surrounded by nature was gone. We heard that the first stage was to build a garage. Finally, it became apparent that there would be no house after all--only a garage above a room for storage.
Serendipitously, we had cancelled most of our classes because of university exams. Thus, we were free to begin house-hunting. We started looking at every suitable place we heard of in Kandy. We met brokers galore and informed all that we needed a largish house (office, library, bedroom, guest room, and three bathrooms) on one floor so that Visakha could avoid stairs. Repeatedly, we set forth our specifications, got a smiling "Yes, yes, yes" in return, and were shown something with four levels and one bathroom, or with four rooms, if you counted a servant's room and a driver's room that would have qualified as slave quarters on a Mississippi plantation. We saw some remarkable places. One lovely relic was a virtual museum of Kandyan history, but the owner wanted to rent only the bedrooms, not the beautifully furnished living and dining rooms. Other buildings were suitable as guest houses, with a lobby and bedrooms (attached baths), but no dining room and no office--in short, not livable.
It never rains, but what it pours. In the middle of the muddle, Lily broke her arm. Not a simple fracture, naturally, but a break requiring surgery and five pins. With her arm in a cast, we all became dependent on Soma, her sister-cousin, who has learned to cook for us without the chilly she loves and to be Lily's "right arm" for everything else.
We were shown several interesting houses with Muslim landlords, but, unfortunately, they were on the other side of Kandy, far from the temples where we teach English every week, far from Lily, far from shopping, and far from Ashoka.
One broker showed us a four-room house which seemed perfect. It was near the river, and the price was remarkably low. We looked at it several times and were ready to take it when ... the wind shifted! Across the river was a garbage dump. The smell was unbearable! Then we learned that the previous occupants, an African missionary couple, had spent two years there without ever opening the windows!
We had another close call. Shortly after we had returned from viewing a nice enough house, nearby and convenient, we were visited by a neighbor who had followed us back to warn us that the landlord was involved in a land case. (Such cases can drag on for twenty years in SL courts.) He might not have the right to rent the house at all, and, worse yet, the sole access road was disputed, so that, if we were to rent it, we might not be able to get there!
During our search, which took in more than 50 houses, we wondered what to do with our fish. When we'd first moved in, there had been a few fish gulping for oxygen in dirty water in the pond in the center of the house. Most of those had soon died. We replaced them with small, colorful carp. We had installed filters, which Ashoka cleaned regularly, added rocks and driftwood, decorated it with shells, and surrounded it with pots of ferns and leafy plants. In the clear water, those little fish had thrived, becoming hefty fellows who crowded around at feeding time and occasionally splashed in their exuberance. When one of Ashoka's regular customers moved, we'd also gotten a pair of shiny blue-black fish of unknown variety. They had grown into giants. We were worried about what to do with all these dependents.
One very large house had a small fish pond and a gazebo in the garden and looked eminently possible, and we were ready to sign, but the understanding reached with the broker was not at all reflected in the rental agreement, which boded ill. We were beginning to feel desperate! Time was running out. What if we couldn't find anything?
The landlady's son had boasted about how he had evicted a tenant in Colombo. A senior reporter for a major newspaper in Sri Lanka had rented a house from him and was maintaining several pigeon coops. The son claimed that he had found the house in a deplorable and dirty condition and demanded that the tenant vacate immediately, but agreeing to give him a litlle time. At the end of the period, the tenant was still there, so the landlord had entered the house with workmen who carried all the belongings to the curb and dumped them. Might we suffer the same fate if we went off to Thailand and Singapore in November, as scheduled?
Then, a phone call. Another house to look at. Not far away. Would Ken go? Absolutely. He phoned his impressions back to Visakha at the computer. The house was, indeed, big. All except the guest room was on one floor. There was an outdoor fishpond, a porch, and a beautiful garden! The only problems were that you reached the house via a short flight of stairs--but the brokers assured Ken that the owner would install a ramp--and the price was too high. The brokers offered to take Ken to meet the owner. The man he met, however, was the owner's father-in-law. The owner himself had just arrived from Australia and was sleeping off jetlag. Ken explained the need for a ramp and set a limit for the rent. The father-in-law promised to present the proposal and to respond as soon as possible. Two days later, we got another call. The owner wanted to meet us at the house. He had accepted our offer and promised to build the ramp. We immediately settled the deal, and he began cleaning and repairing the house. Two days later, we signed the agreement and paid the deposit.
As soon as we decided that we would be moving, we realized that we had no need of the air-conditioner we had bought for the library. It gave us great pleasure to donate it to the new veterinary hospital, where Mike volunteers once a week. Dr. Indira was delighted and gave us a warm letter of acknowledgment. It would be of great benefit in the pre-surgery prep room.
Knowing that we had a secured a new home, we could go, with light hearts, to the ceremony to enshrine relics in the new stupa. Ven. Amilasiri had brought the senior monk building the stupa to our house to receive the relics, which he placed in an ancient, ornate reliquary stupa. At that time, we had promised to attend if possible, but stressed that we couldn't be sure. The ceremony was scheduled for October 31, at the auspicious time of 9:49 AM, and we received a formal invitation. We were delighted that we were, indeed, free to go!
Ven. Amilasiri arrived in Kandy before 5 AM to lead us to the place, a small rural temple, by way of a shortcut. Packed in Tissa's van, we followed his very fast driver, who sometimes had to wait for us to catch up. We took the road to Mahiyangana, with its famous 15 hairpin curves. Sri Lanka looked so green and fresh, we all felt our spirits lift. The site was quite a bit beyond Mahiyangana and not too far from Polonnaruva.
We arrived early and were served tea and cakes. We had plenty of time to relax, watch villagers arrive, and talk with some of the monks, including one who shared his dream of making a proper home for the mentally handicapped. Then, at exactly 9:40, a bell was rung, and we were escorted to seats under an awning out of the sun. The program was unlike any other we'd attended in Sri Lanka. There were no dignitaries strutting up to a lectern. There were no long-winded speeches. In fact, there were only a few very brief talks, including one in English especially for us. These were followed by devotional music and chanting. Seated with us were other devotees in white or light colors. Lots of happy little kids were running around remarkably quietly. Several monks and nuns were standing here and there and talking with people. A small table had been set up where devotees were making donations and receiving, in return, copper plates to be placed in the relic chamber. People of all ages, even toddlers, were respectfully carrying lovely Buddha images, also to be placed in the chamber. No one made anything of us, but all returned our smiles with warm smiles of their own. It was the first time in Sri Lanka that we felt that special Buddhist fellowship that we had always felt in Burma.
At the appointed time, Ken joined the throng of worshipers to climb up the scaffolding and place our offerings in the chamber--a string of Burmese jade beads and clay Buddhas from Savatthi. The relics which we had entrusted to the chief monk were already inside. There were many joyful faces, as, one by one, people climbed up, made their offerings, paid their respects, and descended.
We were a little pressed for time, so, after arranging the lunch dana offerings--succulent vegetarian curries, yellow rice, and green salad--we said our polite goodbyes, drove back to the main road, and turned toward Mahiyangana.
It was a little past noon when we got to the ancient Mahiyangana Raja Maha Vihara, which, according to legend, was the first place in Sri Lanka that Buddha visited, and the magnificent white stupa was in full sun. Visakha, being a tenderfoot, limped her way slowly over the burning flagstones and ended up with blisters. Mike, in contrast, circumambulated double-quick and completed the Ratana Sutta in record time. The crystal at the very top of the pagoda sparkled brightly, and Lily, Soma, and Shehan were blessed by an elderly nun with a sweet face and a gentle voice. The entire day was glorious, and we were grateful for the respite from the hassle and worry of house-hunting and packing.
We had intended to start moving on November first, but the landlord informed us that he had "carpeted" the driveway with concrete, and it would not be ready for trucks until Sunday. We panicked briefly, then realized that two more days of packing were reasonable. That allowed Mike to visit his friend in the military on Saturday without fretting about missing the excitement.
Early Sunday morning, following local custom, we took a Buddha image, salt, tumeric, and an oil lamp to the new house. After we had taken refuge, Nimal chanted several paritta. Then we received the keys from the landlord and returned quickly to Anniwatte to await the trucks and moving crew.
For two weeks, we had collected all the boxes we could find from every supermarket in Kandy. They had been filled with books, knick-knacks, and other contents of the house. All the Buddhas were wrapped in sheets, towels, and napkins, and carefully packed. We purchased several large plastic bins and filled them with the dishes and glasses, safely wrapped in paper. The pictures (all 105) had been removed from the walls and wrapped in newspaper. At the last minute, Ken printed copies of the houseplan with each room marked with a colored X. Most of the boxes were similarly coded to indicate where they were to be deposited. Fortunately, the new house has a spacious garage where items not immediately needed can be stored.
Just as planned, the loading began, and everything went smoothly. We had enough extra cardboard and bags of clothes for cushioning furniture to prevent scratching. It took many trips along the river road (much longer than over the mountain, which is only a 10-minute ride, but much safer for a loaded truck!), but in two days everything, including fifty potted plants and fish in special plastic bags, was moved. Near the end of the second day, Ashoka, Lily, and Soma carried Nezumi in a plastic basket, and she was locked in the office bathroom with a litter box, food, water, and a comfy cushion. It would take her some time to adjust.
Because the new house already had many beds, we did not need our double guest bed. That was donated to Sanatha Suwaya, and Mike sent us another glowing letter of appreciation. The first phase of construction will be finished in March, and we are sure that the bed will be put to good use.
Two days after the move, Visakha returned to the old house with Appachi (Ven. Sujata's father) and an electrician to retrieve the chandeliers. She confirmed that the little guppies which had been left behind would find a home next door and handed over the keys to the landlady. It was the end of an era!
While Visakkha was there, she heard an interesting story. Almost every evening, for the past five years, Charles had joined us for meditation at 5:30. He would arrive a few minutes early with a sackful of lovely white waxy flowers from his garden. Then he would arrange the flowers on a tray on our altar and light the candles, oil lamps, and incense. Even when we were gone, he would do this and meditate by himself.
Unfortunately, while we were hustling to find a new house, those evening meditation sessions were suspended. The day after we moved, Charles, Manel, and their daughter noticed that the tree from which Charles had plucked the flowers was dead. It hadn't gradually withered; it had just died. Why?
Having made the move, we have to be extremely grateful to our landlady. She was quite right that we wouldn't have liked the changes she and her son are making in the compound. Certainly the rumors and suspicion had grown oppressive, and the old harmony we'd felt was gone. Valued neighbors on both sides will also be moving by the end of the year, so everything soon will be different.
The new house has ample room for classes and greater hospitality. It offers us a marvelous space to work in. Lily is very happy with the outdoor kitchen. (Luckily, we mentioned to the landlord that we wanted to use that building, for he was on the point of tearing it down! Instead, he replaced the asbestos roofing with metal. There's even room for a biogas unit.) That kitchen will be given a real workout during the Kandy Intensive Buddhst English Course in January. We look forward to designing and building a new altar. As soon as possible in December we will schedule a house blessing ceremony to dedicate our new abode to the Dhamma. The first framed work to be put up will be the poem which Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote for our beloved brick house in Flint in 2002.