By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
There is a small city high in the central mountains of Sri Lanka, a place that is arguably (mostly by Sri Lankans) the spiritual center of Buddhism.
It’s called Kandy, pronounced “candy.” Since the Sinhalese language does not use stressed syllables, one could put on airs, I suppose, and call it Kan-DEE. In its enormous main temple constructed of white marble, a sarcophagus made of solid silver contains an ornate box in which resides the most sacred artifact in Buddhism: the Buddha’s molar. The place is called the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.
I would not have visited Kandy the first time I went, but it was made mandatory because it was my birthday, and a bevy of young British, French, and Irish women forced me to celebrate it. I was turning 51, and shared a bungalow that summer with nine young women from all over Europe. It was horrible. They were messy and loud, and many of them smoked. Thankfully, they all headed to the beach every weekend except for me and Isabelle, who was a veterinary assist and was “on call” every other weekend. We’d met on intimate terms a few weeks before when I was called upon to pull bee stingers out of her scalp with the tweezers on my Swiss Army knife (I forgot to tell you that we were working for the Millennium Elephant Foundation. There were elephants all over the damn place).
This was the crew that dragged me up to Kandy for my birthday and tried to get me drunk on Danish beer at some wanky old second-floor pub where all the white people drank.
There was also a European meal in the deal—spaghetti. The company was enchanting. No one is more unintentionally funny than naive British women. One of them told me, with all sincerity, that the mynah birds in England were smarter than Sri Lankan mynahs, “Because they speak English, you know.”
We stayed at a “guest” a block off the main action, and the room we took had three beds, which meant two women per bed, and me on a foldaway. It was like a sleepover. I was an old man by their standards and got a “pass” on sleeping in the same room with them, and do not for a second believe that I was ever tempted in any way by my bungalow-mates that summer. I was senior to many of their fathers. Besides, I’m fat and ugly and married.
I discovered the next morning that I’d provided a tasty meal for the bedbugs that inhabited the foldaway.
That was my first trip to Kandy. The second trip was more of a cultural excursion to see the Temple on Poson Poya, the holiday of the full moon. Again I had a young female entourage, just not as many as the first time. We sought the Temple of the Tooth Poya experience, which consists of walking through the labyrinthine Temple with an absolute crush of people to offer a lotus blossom to the enormous golden Buddha inside the structure.
In the Marine Corps we had a vulgar saying to denote people packed closely together: asshole to bellybutton. I really gained an appreciation for the terminology after the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.
The place is cathedral-gigantic, with a number of different rooms. After passing through security (terrorists tried to blow the place up with a truck bomb in 2000), and depositing our shoes in cubbies containing 5000 other pairs of shoes, we got in line. When we entered the temple, we were added to an organic mass of white-clad human beings, stuffed together as closely as human beings can be. We couldn’t turn around. If one of us fainted, I believe that the bodies around us would support us and keep us from falling.
We meandered through the temple pressed together in a river of humanity. It’s called going with the flow. In spite of all the denseness and touching bodies, the crowd moved steadily through the building in an orderly manner. Most of the people didn’t talk throughout the passing, so it was a lot quieter than, say, the men’s room at a college football game. 5000 people stuffed inside a marble box.
It was dark when we exited the temple, and it wasn’t very hard to find our shoes.
The Temple sits on the bank of a lake. Kandy is infested with crows, especially in the trees surrounding the lake, but Buddhists avoid killing. Nobody molests the birds in Sri Lanka, consequentially they’re not afraid of people, and you can walk right up to them. Sri Lanka’s noise pollution is mostly birds. The enormous murder of crows around the lake talked all night, caw caw, you couldn’t take a nap on a park bench there if you wanted to. A single mynah bird can make quite a racket, and there’s nothing like being rudely awakened in the middle of the night by a peacock: aroo aroo aroo aroo. It scared the shit out of me the first time I heard it. They’re very loud.
I’ve written plenty about the Buddhist community experience, which I was able to observe by spending three months in a tiny jungle village, and another three months in a Buddhist monastery.
Buddhist study emphasizes seeing yourself as a part of an organic whole, like a soldier in a battalion, but most western Buddhists don’t have the experience of functioning in a time and place where the Dhamma forms the fabric of society itself. I’ve never felt it more intensely than when I went asshole to bellybutton with 5000 other worshipers packed together, to flow through the Temple of the Sacred Tooth with the kind of ease I wasn’t expecting.
No pushing or shoving, but rather passing through the temple with a feeling of human unity—literally connected—in physical contact with 5000 others, all together to pay homage to the dude who figured out how to make life worth living.
Editor: Dana Gornall