Sri Lanka: Suffering

Offerings at the Dambulla Cave Temples
It was a terrible time.  There were bombs going off everywhere and a lot of innocent people dying.”

Our local guide Rajita said this to us one night as we snaked through dark jungle roads lit dimly by naked bulbs in fruit stands. This was the single comment he offered about Sri Lanka’s horrific 26 year civil war. And really, civil war is too tidy a word for the kind of fractured brutality that took place. Suicide bombings, kidnapping and dismemberment were daily occurrences.   

While Rajita was, for obvious and good reason, brief about the war, he did talk at length with us about Buddhism. Sri Lanka has been an important stronghold for Buddhism since the 3rd century BC and Sri Lankans take credit for initiating the Buddhist monastic movement. 70% of the population is Buddhist. 

To learn about the war and the Buddha at the same made sense to me. The Buddha found the way to enlightenment as he sought to come to terms with suffering. He meditated on inevitable truths that all get old, we get sick,we die. All of the things that we love will be taken at some point in life.  The slow time frame of these natural realties is collapsed, pulverized in war. Suffering 2.0.

Ok, so suffering exits. But what is one to do about it? What responsibilities do we have to each other or, if you are inclined, to God? I have thought about this a lot in different places we’ve lived in the Middle East. What is a morally responsible way to engage with the suffering of others and, by necessity, to manage the suffering of one's self? How ought we to approach and interpret unfair and indiscriminate suffering? Conflict seems to bring these questions to the forefront and the Buddha’s meditations are as important today as they were during his own time.   

In her book “Buddha” the religious historian Karen Armstrong wrote “In his view (the Buddha), the spiritual life cannot begin until people allow themselves to be invaded by the reality of suffering, realize how fully it permeates our whole experience and feel the pain of all other beings, even those we don’t find congenial.”

As we left Sri Lanka to come back to Oman we read about the terrible earthquake in Nepal.  Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries and probably one of the least able to deal with the effects of such a devastating natural disaster. A lot of people will suffer for  a long time. Sri Lanka itself lost more than 35000 people in the horrible 2004 tsunami.     
Train Station in Nurya Elia

It was easy to be naïve in Sri Lanka about the island nation’s painful recent history. It’s beyond beautiful, the people are kind and adventure seems to lurk around every corner. On our trip we read about The Buddha on a train bound for the highest point of the island, Nurya Elia, and shared snippets out loud over the roar of the wind through open windows. We visited the temple of the tooth where ear splitting drummers guarded a relic said to be the Buddha’s tooth. We climbed shin splinting stairs to the cave temples at Dambulla where a distant relative of the Bodhi tree grows.  But suffering was never far from our minds. 
Dambulla Caves
Dambulla Caves
Temple of the Tooth - people waiting to give offerings


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