7 July 2008

Letter 2.30

As the sun sets slowly in the west… Over the hills of Kandy, sweet and clear, a constant medley of chirps, whirrs, and other insect cries -- Ven. Ñānaponika's place, several miles outside the city, warm days and chill nights -- a panorama of weirdly shaped hills -- trees: jok, coconut, teak, mahogany -- a dazzling train ride up from Colombo -- cliffs, valleys, boulders, orange clouds, brisk air, autumnal. Walks in the forest (when dry; leechy when wet) around ponds. The city still retains a vestige of its former culture, but is very English-imbued.

The Temple of the Tooth: a great building, formerly the palace of the Kandyan Kings -- stone floor, sense of massiveness, drum and clarinet-like music -- piercing runs and trills against a thunderous rhythm -- also very solid and compelling so that one doesn't think just follows -- over a bridge across a moat -- up turnings of stairs -- into the heart of the sounds -- again through an ornate door opened by a guard -- up a narrow staircase -- with no idea where I was going, all very mysterious, adventurous -- suddenly in the center of the building, conducted through numerous doors and rooms, each with walls and ceiling covered with the Buddhist-Hindu admixture that forms the popular Sinhalese religion -- to a gold lame curtain -- people bustling about me with strange tasks -- jugs, silver, beaten and wrought, of water, trays of white flower petals, a strange unmonklike monk -- impossible to describe the whole thing because from first to last the entire atmosphere left me fascinated, exhausted, and above all bewildered. Finally led into a small room where, behind a cage of solid gold was a casket, dazzlingly bejeweled, of gold -- housing another casket, 7 caskets, and inside it the tooth of the Buddha, preserved (perhaps all the water-I couldntt help thinking, was for brushing it?). Everything very traditional –- piety and reverence with the collection plate inconspicuously (but unavoidably) close by (though I was not expected to make any offering).

A gentle old Cambodian monk I knew in Calcutta had summed it all up for me 3 years ago when he said, in a very kind, wistful voice, 'Very joyous and good -- but two tousand five hundred years -- dat pretty old for a tooth. I don't know. and he very gently shook his head, very quietly, and just a little bit doubtfully.

Both much more and no more than I expected to find. I'm glad I went.

To be more (or less?) prosaic, I left the Hermitage on the 17th, the day after the Kathina ceremony, for Colombo, spent the night at Vajirama and the next day took the evening train to Kandy, where I am briefly the guest of Ven. Ñānaponika, an elderly German (ex-Orthodox Jewish) who has a small bungalow which he calls the Forest Hermitage where he engages himself in propaganda activities as head of the Buddhist Publication Society), and dreams sad dreams. When I leave Kandy, whenever that may happen to be, I shall head toward Matale District to visit Ñānasiha, a young German monk who engages in no propaganda at all and who dreams happy dreams and who is living on a coconut estate with an elderly Yugoslavian monk, an ex-professor of philosophy, the nature of whose dreams I don't know, and after that I shall probably continue northwards toward Anuradhapura and Polonuruwa, possibly with Ñānasiha, possibly not. There, I'm told, is the test weather in Ceylon at this time of year, If either the weather or the time if year change before I get that far then I shall head for wherever the climate is best at the next time of year. I refuse to commit myself even to the extent of carrying a map. Like the smoke of burning incense, I shall drift the way of the breeze. (Howzat for writin', huh?)

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