Whatever You Expect . . ., November 3, 2014
Before the beginning of the rains retreat, Ven. Amilasiri gave us the idea of sponsoring the Kathina at Bodhirukarama. Appreciating his confidence in us, we were delighted to accept the responsibility. We've been Buddhists for 34 years, going to Burmese, Lao, Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Sri Lankan temples all over the world. We've always felt at home in any tradition, but we were never close enough to any temple to be offered the Kathina. We're old now, and suddenly Ven. Amilasiri gave us this great gift, signaling that he could rely on us, was our kalyanamitta, and trusted us to do the Kathina, even though we were foreigners in this Sacred Island. Grateful! We accepted, not only for ourselves, but also for those distant friends in the Dhamma, many of whom we have never met, but who have never failed to join us in good work.
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The refectory needed to be cleaned and painted, but we didn't have time. Ven. Amilasiri assured us that, because we'd supplied the paint, the temple committee would find painters to do the work.
As the end of the rains retreat approached, Ven. Amilasiri came to Dodanwela to discuss in detail the plans for the Kathina ceremony. Originally, we had expected to take a busload of monastics and laypeople to Kurunegala. Many of our neighbors had promised to come, but, one by one, they became busy with other commitments. None of our students could join, for that was the last weekend of exams and the deadline for papers. Thus, there would be only about seven--one vanload--going down.
We had supposed that, as usual, Lily and her crew would do all the cooking for the one hundred monks and all the devotees, though we hadn't really worked out how that was going to happen. It is good that we did not lose any sleep over it, because we never would have imagined what actually took place.
"Whatever you expect, things don't work out that way. Such is the nature of the world!"
The meeting began by discussing Sunday breakfast. Ven Amilasiri pointed out that, since all of us would be arriving on Saturday and staying overnight, cooking breakfast for the monks would be difficult, if not impossible. He suggested that it would be reasonable and manageable to have the breakfast catered by a local hotel. This was quickly decided, and we proceeded to talk about lunch.
Lily and Ven. Amilasiri discussed the menu and how it would be prepared: what dishes to include, who would buy the vegetables, how many people would be eating, how the kitchen would be organized, how many cooks would be needed, and who would be in charge. After about half an hour, Mike joined the group. Of course, since everything was in Sinhala, Ken and Visakha listened and waited for explanations. It seemed certain that there would be 100 monks, but no one could be sure how many devotees would come to the temple. Just as it seemed that everything was decided, Ven. Amilasiri suggested that it might be simpler and cheaper to purchase "packets" from outside. We objected that a lunch packet would not be a sufficient meal for a monk, and, since we did not know how many people there would be, it was impossible to know how many to buy. Ven. Amilasiri was persistent, and, finally, we understood that he did not mean individual packets. Rather, the food, including rice, would be delivered in large pots. The caterer (the same as for breakfast, we supposed) would charge for a certain number of servings, but experience had proven that that amount of food would feed many more. Realizing that this would be a great burden off Lily's shoulders, we immediately agreed. We would not have to carry down gas burners and cylinders. (At the temple, they use only wood.) Nor would we have to procure all the ingredients in the appropriate quantities for the curries. What a relief! How much easier to pay someone else to do the work and assume the headaches!
When he asked whether we had any further questions, we replied, "Yes! We would like to know about the schedule. When, for example, is the perahera?"
"It will start at midnight, pass by every house in the village, and finish at the temple at about five o'clock."
Five hours in the dark?! We tried not to appear too shocked.
He assured us that it was not necessary for us to join in the entire procession. The Temple Society would be arranging that. There would be a brief puja (offering and worship) about seven o'clock Saturday evening, and then nothing until the perahera.
Without committing ourselves, we silently arranged our own private schedule. We would arrive in Kurunegala at about five, get everything ready, attend the puja, take a rest in the guest house we had reserved, take part in the beginning of the perahera to get a few photos, return to the guest house to sleep, and return to the temple early in the morning to greet the perahera bringing the robe. It seemed quite straightforward and manageable.
Having that meeting in Dodanwela and clarifying everything was necessary and very important, but let us repeat:
"Whatever you expect, things don't work out that way. Such is the nature of the world!"
Jinxing arrived, as scheduled, on Thursday. On Friday, he went around Kandy, shopping and making arrangements to offer breakfast at Lady Blake Nunnery, which he had visited on his previous visit. Saturday morning, he sat on the porch and labeled in Sinhala each of the jars of balm that he had brought as part of the offering from Triple Sangha Dana, his group in Singapore. It was great to have him here, but we missed his wife, Jeaner, who was busy with her own Buddhist activities. They gave us with an impressive calligraphy--a blessing to protect the house. We are trying to get it suitably framed.
Friday morning, Lily got a call from our driver, Tissa, explaining that, due to a death in the family, he would be unable to take us, but that he had arranged another driver and van. When we spoke with that driver, we learned that his van could accommodate only six passengers--out of the question since we were seven. Lily spent several hours calling around, and, finally, that evening, she found a substitute. The price was reasonable, and he agreed to come at two o'clock Saturday. It just wouldn't be the same without Tissa. He has taken us to Kurunegala many times, and we have come to depend on him so often. Actually, he reminds us of Khun Thong, our excellent driver in Thailand for fifteen years.
We were ready almost on schedule. We made sure that both Nezumi and new kitty, Omega, were in the house and had enough food and water and TWO sandboxes. (This would be the first time for them to be alone together overnight. We wondered what we would come home to!)
All of Jinxing's dana, the fruit and cakes Nimal had gotten in Katsugastota, the dry rations Lily had prepared, and the double chocolate bars we had made, as well as all the robes and slippers donated by the Burmese monks and nuns, were all loaded into the van, and we left at two-twenty. Remarkable!
The ride to Bodhirukarama has become routine. It's downhill almost all the way, but, as everywhere, other drivers, particularly of buses, are insane, with a mania for overtaking, leading often to head-ons. Our new driver turned out to be cautious, competent, and even droll at times. The fun began just before we got to Kurunegala.
When you see two adult elephants in the middle of the road, of course, you stop. These elephants were not, however, returning quietly from a hard day's work. They were angry. Their mahouts were trying to control them, but what can an seventy-kilo man do with a two-ton animal who does not want to be controlled? The two elephants were fanning their ears, flailing about with their trunks, and looking for something to smash or someone to stomp. A motorcycle and a three-wheeler, also too close for comfort, quickly turned around and fled. In the backseat, Lily was reciting gathas, and, in the front seat, Visakha, only a few feet from one of the beasts and looking eye to eye, was extending metta
Our driver promptly did a neat U-turn and drove back the way we'd come. At first, we thought he intended to find another route, but, once out of danger, he stopped and stepped into the middle of the road to warn oncoming drivers not to go further, lest the elephants be even further upset. After about twenty minutes, the traffic started moving again, so we turned around and resumed our journey. As we passed the scene of the ruckus, we saw both pachyderms firmly lashed to sturdy trees, with a lot of trampled brush and bamboo nearby, as well as a fruit stall which had been thoroughly destroyed.
When we got to Kurunegala, still in good time, despite the elephantine display, we stopped at Sathosa, the government food outlet, for Jinxing to purchase some staples for both Bodhirukarama and another temple to which one of the students at Buddhist College of Singapore (where Jinxing works) belongs. With one hundred kilos of rice piled beside the seats, we continued south toward Polgahawela.
Before going to the temple, we thought it would be a good idea to locate the guest house while it was still light. We'd reserved two rooms, one for us and one for Jinxing. When we made the reservation by phone, we learned that it was near Polgahawela train station and only five kilometers from Bodhirukarama. Perfect!
As we were approaching the turn-off to the temple, we called the guest house to ask for directions. Since Lily had made the reservation for us, we let her talk first. Then she handed the phone to the driver, who carried on the conversation without stopping the van. He indicated that he understood the directions and handed the phone back to us.
It wasn't long before shops became more numerous, so we assumed we were approaching Polgahawela Junction. Sure enough, we were soon stopped at the railway crossing by two trains traveling in opposite directions. While we were waiting, the driver said only, "It's near here." We crossed the tracks, continuing along the single road, and watched the shops become sparser again. After about five minutes, we realized the driver had no idea where the guest house was. We redialed, handed the phone to Lily, and asked the driver to stop the van. Lily handed the phone to the driver again. He listened, nodded, expressed agreement and understanding, handed the phone back to us, and turned the vehicle around. Fortunately, there were no more trains, so we crossed the tracks without delay. Unfortunately, the driver did not slow down as we headed back toward the temple. We'd obviously gone too far, so we requested that the driver stop again. We dialed the guest house (What did people do before cell phones?!) and handed the phone to the driver yet again. Again he nodded, indicated understanding, and turned the van around. The problem seems to be endemic -- people here, of all races, creeds, and faiths, are directionally challenged. They nod at anything and just go! Just before the station, the driver hesitated and turned to the right. (He could hardly keep going straight again.) There, at the end of the lane, was a big gate with a sign "Guest House." Pure luck? We entered the yard and considered unloading our suitcases. We realized, however, that opening the back of the van would mean that all the robes would fall out. Not a good idea! Why not just check out the rooms?
It was a hundred-year-old wooden building with what might prove to be a lot of character had we the time to appreciate it. A young man greeted us, we asked to see the rooms, and he took us upstairs, where we were shown two unlocked rooms. One of them had one double bed and three singles. The bathroom was located at the other end of a balcony. The other room had only one double bed, and the bathroom was adjacent to the room. We knew there was no hot water, but we did not see the mosquito nets we had been promised. The attendant simply stated that they were unnecessary. Dubious, but we didn't take the time to argue. We stated the price we had been given on the phone, and the attendant agreed. He asked whether we wanted meals, and we told him we didn't, neither dinner nor breakfast. Announcing that we would be back later, we left.
As soon as we were back on the road, Ven. Amilasiri called to find out where we were. Lily assured him that we would be there soon. We found the turn-off and headed through the rice fields toward the temple. About halfway along the winding path, we suddenly stopped. In front of us was a thirty-foot stretch of very thick mud. The driver wondered whether his van was up to the challenge. A three-wheeler overtook us and whizzed through the mud, slipping only slightly. Then another three-wheeler approached from the other side. Without even slowing down, this vehicle, too, crossed over with no problem. He stopped beside our van, and spoke with our driver. All we could understand was the wobble of his head.
Seemingly reassured, our driver started his engine. We wondered, "Is he going to take it slow or try to get through it with a running start?" We lurched forward, and after a few seconds, the wheels started spinning. He tried backing up, no dice. Going forward, impossible. He spun a few more times and gave up. The mud was too deep even to consider pushing. A few local villagers came up to investigate, but there was nothing to do. Lily called Ven. Amilasiri, and he replied that he would send someone to help. While we waited, darkness descended. Two or three motorcycles slid passed us, but we were thoroughly stuck, with eight passengers, one hundred kilos of rice, and fifty kilos of other foodstuff.
While we were waiting, another van stopped behind us. It was from the other temple that Jinxing was going to visit. How fortuitous! Jinxing transferred the supplies he had brought for that temple and went off, agreeing to call us later to see what was happening and where and when we should meet.
After a half-hour, a small truck arrived from Bodhirukarama and came across the mud. Unfortunately, the crew discovered that they had forgotten a rope, so they had to send a motorcycle back to get it. As soon as it arrived, it was attached, and we were pulled across. That took no more than two minutes! We proceeded to Bodhirukarama and discovered that the temple was decorated with hanging lights like Tavatimsa! The music filling the air was uplifting and gentle, unlike the amplified noise blaring from other temple loudspeakers we have endured.
We quickly unloaded all the dana we had brought and put it in a small storeroom. We were delighted to see that the walls of the refectory had indeed been freshly painted and that, for the first time, the hall was well-lighted, by the CFL bulbs we had donated. Also, the sink which Lily had donated on her birthday had been installed in the back. The center of the dining hall, was empty. Obviously, something was about to happen there.
After a few minutes, Ven. Amilasiri called Ken to carry a tray covered with a gold cloth to the vihara, accompanied by two women carrying trays of flowers. After they came back, several monks and many novices entered the dining hall. The novices sat at the tables along one side, and the monks sat on the dais in front. Ken and Visakha paid their respects to the monks and all of us were asked to sit in front of the dais. Suddenly, we heard the sound of drumming, and a troop of musicians entered. With their headdresses, they looked almost like devas from Tavatimsa. They arranged themselves in the center of the hall, and, for the next hour, performed non-stop, with drums, horns, and vigorous dancing.
As soon as they had finished, a different troop, wearing turbans, entered, greeted the monks, and began another thrilling performance, very different from the first. Although we'd often seen brief performances, we'd never had the opportunity to watch two hours of dazzling music and dance. Each artiste (all male) was given a chance to highlight his skill either in a solo or in a pas de deux. We later learned that the first troop was from the south--indeed, from Ven. Amilasiri's hometown--while the second was from the Kandy area. Both performances were spectacular!
As we were all leaving the hall at about 10:30, a big yellow backhoe drove through the temple compound. "That's interesting!" we thought. Ven. Amilasiri announced that the perahera would not begin until about three o'clock in the morning, so we had time to rest. He suggested that we all proceed to the house where the cloth for the Kathina robe was being kept. We climbed into our now much lighter van and headed down the path by which we had come to the temple. When we reached the spot where we had been stuck in the mud, we saw that it had been scraped to the roadbed, with huge piles of mud on both sides. "Of course," we realized, "the backhoe!"
Before the main road, there was an ornate gate decorated with Buddhist-flag banners. Just then Jinxing called to inform us that he would be staying at the other temple. We gave him the latest update and suggested keeping in touch. After a toot of our horn, the gate opened to reveal an enormous garden and a mansion, surrounded by a spacious porch. Just inside the front door, in a parlor, was a table covered with white cloth, upon which the Kathina cloth and other Sangha paraphenalia were carefully arranged. After paying our respects, we were shown into a side room, separated from the parlor by a lace curtain, where there was a double bed. The owner, who, we learned, had lived and worked in Italy and now operated a hotel in Kurunegala, laid out sheets for us, and invited us to sleep there. We debated for a few minutes. The bathroom was around the house and through the well-appointed kitchen, where breakfast was being prepared. Showers would be out of the question. Lily and others were preparing to sleep on the other side of the lace curtain. She had informed us that, in any case, Jinxing had told her that he'd be staying at the other temple and would meet us at Bodhirukarama after breakfast. We, too, had pretty much given up on taking part in the perahera. Should we stay there, or go to the guest house? We decided that we'd already committed ourselves to stay at the guest house. We asked the driver to take us there. Everyone understood, but asked us to come back to the house about four o'clock. Now it seemed that the perahera would start at five o'clock. No need to question: "Whatever you expect . . ."
The driver knew, of course, where the guest house was, so we went straight there, only to find everything pitch-black with a locked gate. We banged on the gate, rang the bell, shouted, and called the manager on the phone--all many times--but with no effect whatsoever. It was only 11 PM. So much for making reservations. Nothing to do but to return to the house. The driver found a shortcut, and we were there in no time. No one was surprised to see us. We went into the side room, and soon all were sound asleep.
We awoke to the muted sounds of incipient activity about three AM. Very quickly, everyone was dressed, and everything stowed away. On the counters in the kitchen, trays had been filled with sandwiches, rice cakes, and a myriad of other delicacies. At three-thirty the drummers and dancers began gathering in the garden. They were invited in to pay respects to the offerings. Then they began drumming with horn accompaniment, which, though stirring, reverberated painfully in the enclosed space. Then, everyone was invited to the porch in the rear for breakfast, and all the food that had been in the kitchen, along with lots of tea, was brought out.
The musicians reassembled in the garden, and Ken was asked to step into the parlor. As the drumming started again, one end of the pole, around which the Kathina cloth was wrapped, was placed on his shoulder. A ceremonial saffron umbrella was raised above the cloth, the gate opened, and the procession began. Knowing that the musicians were all barefoot, Ken decided to ignore his shoes, as well, and trust that they would follow him to the temple. The night was dark, but the path was brightly illuminated by flaming torches carried by boys and young men, who marched joyously with the cloth bearers, the musicians, and devotees, many of whom were carrying the other offerings for the temple--umbrellas, fans, and more robes. Periodically, another devotee stepped up, gently lifted the pole, and placed on his or her own shoulder in order to gain merit by carrying it for a short distance. What never stopped was the drumming and the blowing of the horns. The music from both troops was wonderful (though a bit hard to endure for anyone walking between two drums!).
The mud oozed between the toes of those of us with no shoes, and the water splashed onto the legs of our white trousers, but no one missed a step or a beat. The perahera proceeded smoothly, directly to Bodhirukarama, mostly through ricefields, but we did pass a few houses, and, in front of every one, devotees stood respectfully to watch the cloth pass by. We marched for about one hour, perhaps two kilometers. Visakha followed at a distance in the van (with Ken's shoes) and savored the beauty of the clear black sky, the delicate crescent moon, and the frog song from the ricefields. By the time the procession reached the temple, dawn had begun to break. The cloth was carried into the dining hall, where several monks sat on the dais. There was a short puja welcoming the cloth to the temple. Then it was handed to the tailor, who immediately began measuring and cutting it on tables which had been placed in the center of the hall. The monks and novices moved to the other side of the courtyard where tables had been set up. There we quietly served a nutritious breakfast of rice, bread, string hoppers, potato kirihode, dahl, kiribath, and bananas. After they had finished, we were invited to partake of this second breakfast.
The morning was busy with arranging all the dana to be offered on the dais of the refectory. At one side was a wicker chair, a hardwood bed with a mattress, pillows, cushions, and covers. On the bed lay a fan, an umbrella, and a cane. All of this would be offered to the monk designated as recipient of the Kathina robe. At the foot of the bed, at the edge of the dais, a billowy branch, the Kapparukka (wish-fulfilling tree), had been placed. All morning, devotees tied bags of offering onto the small branches of this tree. The large table in the center of the dais held some hundred plus robes we were donating and the medicine which Jinxing had brought from Singapore.
All the while, the tailor continued working. After the cloth had been measured and cut into the proper pieces, he and his assistant crossed to the other side of the courtyard where a sewing machine had been set up. There they worked steadily, even through lunch, up to the last minute.
At about nine-thirty, the musicians assembled in the courtyard and began another performance, just as dramatic as on the previous evening, and perhaps more impressive in the full sunlight, though shorter for each troop. As they were finishing, a small bus approached the temple and stopped about three hundred meters away. The musicians and several devotees marched down to greet the bus. The musicians arranged themselves in two rows, the devotees raised ceremonial umbrellas, and many monks descended from the bus. The musicians began playing and led the procession to the temple. Shortly thereafter, a small truck arrived, and several workers carried the huge vats of rice and curry into the dining hall. When everything was ready, the musicians lined up on both sides of a red carpet that had been spread across the courtyard. As they began playing, the monks walked between their ranks and entered the dining hall. Most of the novices sat on the other side, where we had served breakfast earlier.
(The morning had been so busy that we had not gone down to see the elderly monks. [The first time in all of our visits to Bodhirukarama.] We did notice, however, that, before the monks entered the dining hall, heaping containers of food were carried out to be served in the elderly ward.)
As soon as the monks had finished their chanting, the devotees swung into action, picking up the containers of rice and curry and serving. Usually, this begins at one end and proceeds along the line of tables to the other. With a hundred monks to serve, however, this was not feasible. The distribution began at both ends and in the middle. Very quickly all the plates were filled. The rice and hearty curries were complemented by grapes, oranges, bananas, and four kinds of sweets. Everyone agreed that it was delicious and more than ample. (We could not help but notice that Ven. Amilasiri never sat down to eat lunch. He was constantly moving around and making sure that everyone was comfortable and that everything was going smoothly. He limited himself to breakfast that day.)
As soon as the dishes had been cleared away, and the monks had both chanted and offered a Dhamma talk (with a special teaching for us in English), we distributed the robes and medicine to each monk. Then Ven. Amilasiri led Ken across the courtyard to meet the tailor, who had just finished the robe. It was folded, placed on a tray, and covered with a golden cloth. Ken respectfully carried it to the dining hall. After everyone had shared in the offering, it was placed before the most senior monk.
As we made the offering, we repeated in Pali: "May we, Venerable Sirs, present these robes together with the other requisites to the Sangha. Please accept, Venerable Sirs, these robes and the other requisites from us, for our long-lasting welfare and happiness."
In acknowledging the gift, the monks recited, also in Pali: "Those who are wise, generous, and free from selfishness give at the appropriate times. What is thus given to those who are worthy and morally sound is an offering of great purity and substance. Those who likewise show appreciation or perform acts of service make no lesser offering, and they, too, share in this merit. In giving thus, the heart is unbounded; what is given is of great fruit, and those meritorious deeds bring about good fortune in the life to come."
The robe was offered, not to an individual monk, nor only to those present, but to the entire Sangha everywhere, who had observed the rules of Vassa (the three-month rainy-season retreat). Later in the morning, there would be a formal ceremony in which one monk from among them would be chosen to receive the Kathina robe and other offerings.
As for the benefits of offering the Kathina robe, there are five:
The donors will always travel safely and without worry.
They will never suffer from shortage of food nor from food-poisoning.
They will not suffer loss by robbery or theft.
They will not suffer loss by natural disasters.
They will be able to accomplish whatever they set out to do.
Of course, throughout the ceremony, we remembered that by "the donors," the monks were referring not only to us, but to all those around the world who contributed to this event and made it possible.
All 200 photos can be viewed in a slideshow and for downloading.
The return trip was uneventful. It was still daylight when we arrived home. The two cats were fine, but a little tired of each other's company. Nezumi seemed somewhat irritated by Omega's playfulness. She snarled at him whenever he tried to eat from her dish, and she was reluctant, for the first time ever, to sit on our laps while we watched TV. Omega, on the other hand, was demanding attention, following Ken and Lily by scurrying between their feet as they walked around the house.
The next day, when Julia came, delivering arugula from the new farm she had discovered, we asked whether she was looking for a kitten to grace the house she was moving into. In fact, she was! We lent her Nezumi's Cadillac carrying case, and Omega, now Ferdinand, has a new home not too far away. He is happily ensconced, and Julia is delighted. Nezumi, for her part, responded immediately by returning uninvited to Visakha's lap and sleeping there most contentedly.
Writing this report and editing all the photos allowed us time to reflect on all that we had taken part in. Many things were certainly not what we had expected, but it could not have been better. So many, from both overseas and from the the local community had donated and provided so much! It was, indeed, joyous from beginning to end, and we are pleased that we could take part in and share this wonderful, once-in-a lifetime experience.
Sadhu! Sadhu!! Sadhu!!!
We were recently saddened to learn of the death in Japan of Jack Yohay, a friend of many years and with whom we taught at Seifu Gakuen. We share this merit with him and with Tove Neville, both his friend and ours. Our thoughts are also with Jack's long-time partner, Shuichi.