Saturday, 3 September 2022

A Visit to Sri Lanka

 I haven't written much recently because I was finalising the By No Means Equal book, then I went on holiday and then had other matters to deal with. But most of all because I haven't felt particularly inspired though I use the word inspired in the loosest possible sense. Normally ideas occur to me either by popping into my head or else in response to something I have read or observed but recently the well has run dry. I could write (again) about the disastrous spiritual state of the world in which people are being ushered into thought prisons which become more constricted every day or I could write about the ongoing destruction of pretty much everything, but plenty of other people do that very well and at the moment I just don't feel like it. It's not that I have no hope but I have none that the world will right itself. It's much too far gone for that. It's hit the iceberg and is going down. My hope resides in God and that is where everyone's hope should be. It's not wrong to seek to make a better world and to cry out against the falsehoods and lies. Indeed, we must do this. But this world is a bridge not a destination and that's how we should ultimately regard it.

With all that in mind, I thought I might write about a trip I made in 2001 to Sri Lanka, a country I have visited several times. I was staying in an old colonial bungalow in a district just outside Colombo called Mount Lavinia, supposedly named after a dancing girl a 19th century British Governor of Ceylon fell in love with. I have great fondness for these old bungalows, having lived in one in South India. They may not be exactly beautiful but they are very aesthetically pleasing with their orange tiled roofs and pale yellow outer walls and high ceilings that keep you cool but also give the inner structure a sense of space and even grandeur. And you can't beat a good long verandah where you can sit and have a cold beer in the evening. Although there was now mains water at this bungalow there was also a well on the property and you could drop down a bucket and have a very refreshing wash in the morning if you so chose which I occasionally did.

My hosts had arranged a couple of expeditions and the first was to visit the ancient Buddhist capital of Polonnaruwa. To be honest, modern Buddhism in Sri Lanka is not particularly interesting to the average Westerner but Polonnaruwa, which I believe dates back in its origins to the 10th century, contains what are, in my opinion, among the finest works of Buddhist art.

These are all at the Gal Vihara which is a rock temple created in the 12th century that comprises four statues of the Buddha which have been carved out of the face of an outcrop of granite. The statues go in a line and are of a large seated Buddha, a smaller Buddha sitting inside a cave, a standing Buddha and a reclining Buddha, the last of which extends to 46 feet in length and is one of the largest statues in South Asia. It shows the Buddha in parinirvana which is final nirvana entered into after death. He is lying on his right side and resting his head on a cushion supported by his hand. The beauty of this statue and the peace it exudes are profound. You feel that the craftsmen who created it must themselves have been far advanced on the path to liberation. The delicate folds of the Buddha's gown and the grace of his posture are superbly represented in a material which, in its obdurate resistance, is almost the opposite of those soft and gentle qualities. Look at the flow of his left arm as it rests on his reclining body. Observe the serenity of his face even if it does seem slightly too well-fed!

When I visited the temple it was early morning and there was no one else about. The periods just after sunrise and just before sunset are, especially in the tropics, ones in which the world seems to be holding its breath and inwardly focused, attentive to the slightest whisper from the divine. The air is still and the mind finds it relatively easy to enter into the spacious calm that is the essence of Buddhism. I sat in front of the statue and let myself be absorbed by that calm. I am not a Buddhist but I have the greatest respect for the Buddha and his path. We say that Jesus was the only person born without the stain of sin but there is an innate goodness and purity to the Buddha which inspires reverence.

The standing statue is 23 feet tall. There is some debate about whether this is the Buddha or Ananda, his favourite disciple, due to the crossed arm pose which may signify a devotional attitude. I feel that the former is more likely and that the three main statues show the Buddha in various attitudes of enlightenment, sitting, standing, lying down. Ananda is usually shown shaven headed and does not have the characteristic long ear lobes of the Buddha which this statue does have. Also, why include Ananda when all the other statues are of the Buddha? No, this is surely the Buddha too though for me it is the least spiritually impressive of the three large statues but that is only because the other two are so extraordinary.

The one I was most moved by is the first going from left to right which is the way one approaches them. Here they all are in a row carved into a 170 foot length of rock which rises to about 30 feet high in the middle.

This is the Buddha sitting in classic meditation pose. He is about 15 feet high and sits in an alcove on a throne decorated with lions and thunderbolts. These are obscured in the first picture by the brickwork but they can be clearly seen in the second picture at the bottom. The presence of the thunderbolts or Vajras is interesting because it suggests a Tantric flavour. Sri Lankan Buddhism is Theravada which is early Buddhism before the development of the Mahayana but perhaps there was some influence from the reforming schools, some of which imported non-Buddhist themes and iconography into traditional Buddhism.

I sat for a while in front of the statue like the fellow in the picture above. There was a powerful sense of the wisdom and enlightenment of the Buddha, more than I have felt with any other Buddha figure and I have seen a few. The impassive serenity of the posture and facial features carved out of the pale grey rock streaked with darker colours across the body gave a sense of eternity and the feeling that this would remain even when the universe had crumbled into dust. Maybe not literally but as a state of consciousness it represents the underlying bedrock of being that existed before the awakening of the worlds and that will endure even when all forms of life are called back to their source.

That is the Buddhist view anyway and it is one to which I am deeply sympathetic while actually believing that creation is really an ongoing process and that, though outer forms may be destroyed, it is only so that new forms may be created that better express the higher states of consciousness into which life forms, aka human and other beings, evolve. Maybe the universe does experience what in Hinduism are called Days and Nights of Brahma, periods of manifestation and non-manifestation, but the seeds of the past are always retained during the Nights so that they may grow anew and to greater heights in the next cycle of creation. Nirvana is the Night of Brahma and it is the most profound state of being. But life is not just night. It is day too and Jesus, always depicted with his eyes open as opposed to the Buddha who has his eyes closed, calls us to active life in the glorious sunshine days of Creation.


jj said...

The arms crossed statue looks to me like he's trying to keep warm in the cold.

William Wildblood said...

It does a bit but it's rarely cold in that part of the world!

Francis Berger said...

Lovely photos. I've never been to Asia. The farthest east I have been thus far is Turkey, which isn't very east at all, so it always great to hear of others describe their journeys and travels to places I haven't been.

William Wildblood said...

I will take that as encouragement to pursue this theme in my next post!

William Wildblood said...

By the way, most of the photos of the Buddha statues come from

Unknown said...

I have always thought that a truly religious person, a truly large hearted and large minded man, must be able to sympathetically appreciate other traditions, perhaps even be a bit of a syncretist, if that's not going too far.

I deeply admire the attitude of the great David Bentley Hart in this - he himself is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but he admits he finds inspiration in all the traditions of the world, and is an admitting reader of Santideva's the Way of the Bodhisattva, from whom he says he has learned to be better Christian, reads classic Hindu devotional poems to God, and says the Vedanta and Plato have helped him better understand aspects of Christian theology, all the while while his main religious inspiration are the Gospels, and figures like St Maximus the Confessor, St Isaac of Nineveh, Origen, etc.

Surely, all religions have gotten hold of at least "some" truth - and much is also a matter of temperaments, which surely differ.

The small minded insistence on one's own tradition and refusal to see value in others seems deeply un-Christian to me, to lack the generosity of heart and openness to Truth wherever it is found.

William Wildblood said...

I agree. If you have any kind of religious sensibility or, as you say, openness to Truth, you must surely perceive the spiritual qualities in all the great religions though for me the Eastern ones have the greatest profundity after Christianity. Indeed, in certain areas they show more insight.