Under The Bo Tree

The night breeze moved through the bo tree in gentle sweeps. The full moon made the spiky leaves gleam with an oily sheen. She had come with her parents; they didn't like the crowded and almost commercial atmosphere of Gatembe, which was why they had come here. It was a modest temple, somehow more authentic than the gaudy buildings and bright lights of Gatembe. It was called Amararamaya, the temple of immortality.
She worshipped with the simple piety of a Sinhalese Buddhist girl; with neither the cynical questioning of a more intellectual mind, nor awareness of the innocent hypocrisy of the gatha,the chanted Pali verses, she said every day. She had placed flowers before the small Buddha statue inside the shrine house, finished saying her Pan Sil, the five basic precepts and other gatha, and lit some of the small oil lamps that had gone out on the metal lamp rack.
Her father was speaking to one of the younger monks and her mother was with them. She wandered around, squeezing the smooth sand with her bare toes, enjoying the silence, darkness, isolation and the peace that the gatha had brought to her soul.
It didn't surprise her to see him standing beneath the bo tree, almost like a statue, speckled shadows and moonlight dancing across his face. She walked up slowly, smoothing her white dress and stood next to him. She noticed he was in a 'national' suit. It made him look very young and heroic.
"I should have guessed that you were very religious," she said. Somehow, in these white clothes that symbolised chastity, and on the temple grounds, there was nothing wrong in a boy and a girl talking unsolicited like this.
"I'm not."
He sighed, staring up through the black silhouettes of the tree, where the triangular Buddhist flags waved like ghostly wraiths. His eyes were on the stars, not on the full moon.
"Buddhism is not a religion. Look at all these nikung minnissu, common people, who come here. They come to worship. They don't even know the meaning of the gatha they're saying. For them, it is a transaction.  Do good and you get ping, spiritual credits; do bad and you get pau, sins. If there was no benefit, none of these people would be here. Even now they are more interested in dhanas, almsgiving, and pujas, religious offerings; they go home, kill cockroaches and are nasty to their neighbours. They've lost sight of the real doctrine of Buddhism. 'Offer some flowers, say your gatha, and all your sins are erased'. And yet they laugh at the Indians for thinking they can wash away their sins in that river."
She looked down, hurt. He didn't seem to notice tonight, though.
"So why are you here?"
"My parents made me come... and I like the quietness."
"I like your 'national', it makes you look very handsome," she said after a while.
"It's not a national," he looked at her. His tone was firm, but still there was no anger in his eyes. "This is the dress of the Tamils. The Sinhalese are fools, like JR[1] said. They don't even know their own identity and they don't care. The real National dress of this country is something like what we wear at Kandyan weddings."
"Wow," she said slowly. "But that makes you look like a king."
He smiled and nodded.
"It's supposed to."
"...Do you hate the Tamils?" The way he had referred to them had seemed contemptuous, and she had not expected that from him.
"...No," He thought about it. "No, I don't," he repeated quietly. He seemed surprised by the realisation.
They said nothing for a while.
"Do you believe that we will be rewarded in the next life for the ping we do now?" he asked.
"Yes." It had never occurred to her to question that.
He smiled. "In a way though, Buddhism has spread a great deal of peace where it is practiced. It's the only 'religion' that hasn't propagated violence in the world. Did you know that when the British came here, people didn't eat meat? They didn't drink; there were no murders; no thefts. The Suddhas, British, couldn't understand it."
She looked at him in awe; a good feeling that she couldn't name filled her like a glow.
"If you don't believe in ping, then why do you care for animals so much?"
"It's a funny thing," he said contemplatively. "I don't care because of Buddhism. I don't expect any 'ping’, I don't want any. But if I hadn't been brought up in a Buddhist household, I would never have been like this." He smiled to himself.
He bent down and picked up a handful of the silky sand. The little mound in his palm began to trickle through his fingers, like in an hourglass, little specks of iron ore glinting in the moonlight.
"You believe in re-incarnation don't you?" he asked not looking at her.
"Yes. Don't you?" Her tone was almost anxious.
He looked at her and gently shook his head.

 - From "just another bomb blast" (1999)
Copyright © Sandaruwan Madduma Bandara

[1] J.R. Jayawardena, first executive President of Sri Lanka
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About Unknown

Sandaruwan Madduma Bandara is the CEO of 3CS (www.3cs.lk), Sri Lanka's Premier web design company. He has a range of interests including creative writing, photography, art and travel. He is also a voracious reader.
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