20 November 2008

Letter 4.26

(And then the rains came -- and came and came! The Upcountry of Sri Lanka had further to fall than the lowlands of the Negev -- though it was not even the second time the ground didn't stay put under Bob's feet -- for him, even the Flood's twice -- Hūm)

Ella -- January '86

For days we were in very thick cloud much of the time, raining almost continuously, atleast as a drizzle, swept by winds. As a result the parapet wall which fronts the verandah became increasingly drenched. Now, on this wall are 3 posts which support that part of the roof which covers the verandah and cantilevers several feet in front of the parapet. About 9:30 at night this parapet collapsed, in part, taking with it two of the posts which were holding up the front of the roof, causing that half of the front of the roof to tilt at a strong angle. I made an effort to shore up the beam but found this impossible. In fact, a support was torn from my hands as one of the cross-beams cracked. The inside was unaffected, and I contemplated staying the night there, moving over to the half of the room that was away from the tilted roof, but when another roof beam cracked I thought that although I might make a bed, and I might lie in it, it was unlikely I would sleep in it.

So I grabbed a bag, stuffed with a few things, donned a poncho, took the lantern, and was about to leave -- when I was delayed by two hours. First I discovered that a mouse and her pups had taken up their domicile in my bag. Perhaps to distract me from her sleepy pups not inclined to move, she jumped out and darted around the room until I finally caught her under my alms bowl. I took her and the pups a decent distance from the cottage and let them find a new home. When I came back and opened the door, a kind of robin, a black robin, flew inside. There was no catching her, except by giving up. I left the door open and she finally flew out. I heard several roof tiles fall off the roof. They're quite heavy and could be dangerous. The whole house seemed ready to collapse. Even walking into a storm at night seemed a safer place to be.

The gully by the bus road was in half flood, but I was able to leap it, and then went to my nearest neighbors, about 200 yards away, but it seemed they had already left their house -- a brand new and well -- constructed building -- for the schoolhouse, since they thought it was safer. However, my next nearest neighbors were in and they gave me shelter. Their house is tile-roofed from the front to the peak, but shingle and thatch-roofed down to the back -- they are not well-off and probably haven't yet been able to afford the additional tiles -- and the back half of their house dripped into numerous pots and pans through the night.

About 5 AM the rain became torrential for an hour or so, and at first light I could see the gullies -- not the little one I have to cross to the road but the much bigger ones that run year around -- in a raging torrent that reminded me of the flooded wadi mt Ein Gedi in '65, though the Ein Gedi flood was far more substantial since it was at the bottom of the riverbed systems rather than well up the mountain. You might think that since we have passed the winter solstice that sunrise would be coming earlier each day, but repeated observations through the years convinces me that in fact the sun continues to rise ever later until late January or so, and if the days do truly become longer (and it's not just a scientific hoax) that it must be due to the later sunset. Therefore it didn't get light until after 6, and then, once the gully to my place receded enough to be negotiable, we were able to survey the damage by light.

Of course, I hadn't known, as I lay awake much of the night, what I would find in the morning -- complete devastation or no further damage -- but it turned out between the two extremes. From the front wall forward every tile had fallen to the ground, many broken, and the third front roof support had collapsed, and he whole front part of the roof tilted down, lacking support. But without tiles it was no longer so very heavy and therefore the roof over the room held firm aside from a few tiles which were out of place, perhaps due to the roof tilting forward, dropping a load of tiles, and then resettling.

The verandah was blocked so that rainfall was trapped and running backwards under the door frame into the room, but most everything in the room was still dry. Since there is a problem with termites, before I leave I always pack the books and papers into the emptied rain barrel and a few buckets, so there wasn't a lot to do to pack up the contents of the room, and various neighbors came and helped remove everything to the house where I had spent the night, and to put up some temporary braces to hold up the front of the roof frame, and to cut a channel to drain the porch. Almost the whole parapet wall had collapsed and there were no tiles before the front wall to protect the top of it, but I didn't think it safe to start climbing up on the roof to put up tiles, so left that to stand or fall as chance would have it.

A repair job is possible, but not for a long time, since new tiles are needed and they are expensive and would have to be brought in by truck, which cannot be done until the road is repaired, which will take months. This road was built about 10 years ago by hand, without any heavy-machinery available for its repair. Once I had seen a round near Bandarawela being built by hand and I talked to the supervisor, who told me that in terms of cost there was little difference, except that when construction was manual the cost went mostly as wages to poor local people whereas when construction was by machine it went mostly to Japan for heavy equipment, wasting valuable foreign exchange. The only disadvantage to manual building is that it's so very much slower.

Naturally I was told I could put up with one of the villagers until the rains were finished, but this would be very inconvenient both for them and me, so I decided to go at least to Nilandahenna to learn the condition of the main roads. Since I didn't want to leave my things in the house where I slept (too small and also too leaky) we then arranged to shift everything to a closet in the schoolhouse some distance off. This was completed about 10 AM. All this time the rain had ranged from steady to drizzle. The road, I was told, was no longer passable even on foot -- I didn't believe this at the time but later when I saw the Randy road I could easily believe that the Udamdura road was indeed impassable even by foot.

However, several, villagers had to go to Nilandahenna, one of them being a a man I knew well, and they were going over the mountain, so I decided to join them.

It could have been a terrible climb if it had been storming and windy, but fortunately the whole climb was done in a light drizzle without wind, so it was merely difficult. In some places the way was very muddy, sometimes boulders had slipped across onto the path, obliterating it, but when I had climbed in the past it had been hot and sunny and this time at least it wasn't hot but cool, so that discomfort was eliminated.

I went as fast as I safely could, but still the villagers went slow for them to let me keep up. It was perhaps a 45 minute climb, with lots of leeches near the top, but we had a bar of soap, which when applied to the feet will instantly change a leech's intentions from bite to flight.

Along the top of the plateau there was a lot of laterite to deal with, which is extremely slippery when wet, and the down side was mostly stony. I found that the gully that we needed to negotiate was not crossed but rather descended along for several hundred yards, so it is extremely fortunate there were no heavy rains, since muddy water would obscure the rocky and uneven bottom, and its pressure would inevitably cause a fall. But the gully had only a few inches of water running and was negotiated safely and carefully.

While descending we met a village family going up, the wife had been in the hospital near Watumulla having a baby when a mudslide endangered the hospital and forced evacuation of all patients. Since they were poor people there was no place for them to stay, so they had to return to Udamadura. So the wife was carrying a 3-day-old baby while the husband was lugging all their goods plus a jerrican of kerosene up this rugged hillside -- and the side we were descending is about 4 times the length of the side toward Udamadura. Until the road is repaired this will be the only way the villagers can get supplies from the outside -- kerosene, food, medicine, building material to repair their houses, etc. It will all have to be carried over the mountain.

Near the bottom it started raining hard, but a few minutes later we were among tea bushes, and in another few minutes had arrived in Nilandahenna. I went to the post-office to give them a change of address to the monastery in Colombo where I usually stay when in the city. The post-master told me all roads were blocked, even to Watumulla, the next town towards Kandy, 4 miles away, me that I would have to stay in Nilandahenna for at least a few days until the roads could be cleared. I thanked him and left. Then I met the G.A. (Government Agent, top man in each district), who also told me that the road to Watamulla could be walked but not driven. I said I'd walk. He tried to discourage me. As we discussed the matter the van which plies this stretch of road pulled in from Watumulla and discharged passengers. End of debate. I got in the van and when they collected a full load we set off for Watumulla.

The road was indeed in bad shape, and there were many places where there was just barely enough clearance between the edge and the mud, or as fallen tree, or boulders -- many kinds of obstacles. But the road was motorable and we made the 4 miles in about 30 minutes. From here I set out on foot, but my writing hand is giving out so I'll continue later.

Later -- So I set out from Watumulla on foot. I'd been told the road was closed as far as Rikilikasgada, 18 miles away, but that from there I could get a bus to Kandy, but I had the idea that I might get lucky along the way, for example meeting some earth-moving equipment which might give me a lift.

About a mile out of Waatumulla I met a bus coming the other way. It stopped and the driver told me that the road was motorable for only another 3 miles or so and that he would return if he got enough passengers, but I decided to keep walking, and if he came along then fine and if not I was better off moving.

The weather was drizzly to dry. I was now on the west side of the big range of hills that form the first barrier to the NE monsoon (Udumadura is on the eastern side), and as I learned later this was in fact an effective partial barrier. Also, this stretch of road offers views of some of the most spectacular variegated, and dramatic country in Sri Lanka, and I'd never seen it before it as walking pace, so it was actually quite pleasant.

Again there were narrow places and some ankle-deep mud, but with sandals off this could be managed without difficulty. So after a while I came to the end of the motorable stretch. There were people walking here and there most of the way, generally going short distances, but I met one person who had begun walking that morning from Rikilikasgada (coming from Kandy), and who warned me that there were many places that were difficult or dangerous.

The first few places that were not motorable were relatively minor -- a couple of men with shovels could have cleared them sufficiently for a car in a few hours -- but then I came to a place where large boulders blocked any possibility of motor traffic. Many earth slips, and a couple places where part of the roadway had collapsed into the deep valley below. But certainly the worst of all was a place where mud about 2 feet deep covered the entire road up to the very edge, and the only way across was to plunge in. It was thigh-deep, and each step involved pulling out one leg and swinging it forward and plunging it into the mud. Only about 30 paces, but it took 30 minutes, and was very exhausting. Of course, there were plenty of small stream where I could wash off, but the mud was smelly and I noticed bright pink splotches on my legs as I cleaned myself off. These remained with me until Colombo, and I've been treating them with a cream since then with some relief -- they can itch fiercely for short periods of time -- but they will no doubt go away in a few days.

The sky remained leaden, with a light rain on-and-off through the day -- not unpleasant walking weather, and since the road was a steady slight downhill grade this was also nice; and by evening I'd covered about 9 miles from Watumulla, leaving me, I incorrectly calculated, another 6 to go to Rikilikawsgada, when I came

to a village where I asked about shelter.

I was told the schoolhouse (apparently built to be a refuge not only for the mind in these small villages) was completely filled with refugees who had fled endangered houses, but I pointed out that I was also a refugee, since my house had, indeed, collapsed, so I was taken to the schoolhouse, where I was recognized by someone from the Nilandahenna area as the foreign monk who lived in Udamadura, and the outcome was that eventually I was taken off to a private house and given a bed to sleep on -- a result which was very pleasing and very kind of my hosts, but in Sri Lanka not really at all surprising. You would be correct if you supposed that I went to sleep right away, although the sleep was neither as solid nor as long as I would have liked due to the itching of my legs.

Wednesday AM

I forgot to mention yesterday that while walking, on that first day, in late afternoon I heard loud motor sounds and shortly afterwards a convoy of road-repair vehicles came along, heading toward Nilandahenna -- a jeep, dumpster, backhoe (with those huge 4 feet high balloon tires), and road gang. They gave me a cheery wave as they passed. Too bad they weren't going my way, but I reflected first that it was conceivable that they could clear the road as far as Nilandahenna that night, in which case it was possible that the 6:30 AM Kandy bus might run the next day, and secondly that even if that didn't happen, at least the road would likely be clear now of any more major obstacles ahead of me, and in fact this was true the rest of the dayn -- nothing more than ankle-deep from then on.

So when I set off the next morning shortly after 6 I was still quite tired, but hopeful that perhaps a bus or van would come along or that atleast there would be no obstacles ahead.

After about 2 miles of walking in fact a lorry came from behind me, having started I don't know where -- the first vehicle since Watumulla, except the road gang -- and gave me a lift. They said they were going to Kandy, so I started to feel very lucky, but my luck didn't hold. After a mile or so we came to a place where a bridge had been washed out and a way had been cleared for vehicles to go around and through the streambed -- boulders as large as houses lay about and the way went around these. But apparently during the night there had been further earth-slippages and mud-slides and the way was blocked.

We cleared some of the stones by hand and then the driver tried to bully his way across the rocky terrain, but he became stuck on an iron girder from the bridge, and after a lot of pushing it was apparent that he (and anything that might come behind him) had gone as far as he was going until heavy equipment arrived.

So I set off walking again. I could see two sets of caterpillar treads on the road, one coming and one going, so I assumed the way past the broken bridge had been cleared by a treaded vehicle, and in fact after a mile or so a Jap version of a D-9 or D-10 came along, obviously to clear the landslide of the night before -- all heavy equipment in Sri Lanka is of Japanese origin.

I figured there were about 2 miles left to Rikilikasgada, and was disappointed now to be told by several different people that there were in fact 5 miles to go. I was tired, and had developed a few blisters, and would have been glad to stop, but was determined to get on with the trip.

However, after 2 miles I did come to a town where in fact a CTB bus was parked and just about to leave for Rikilikasgada -- apparently it had been mrooned there for some days and the drivers had enjoyed a paid holiday which they were now obliged to end. So I hopped on and stretched out while we jangled the last 3 miles Rikilikasgada, where a Kandy bus was due to leave in 10 minutes.

I was told there were no further roadblocks and that traffic was running freely, so I thought that at last my difficulties were over -- a dangerous thought, as I soon found out, for a few miles down the road there was a sudden loud hissing sound, the bus started listing and bouncing to a stop -- flat tire! It's never over I decided, and sat down to wait until, about 20 minutes later, another bus came along and went into Kandy without further incident.

From Kandy, in a pouring rain, I got the Colombo express, which plies the 72 mile route (for 20 rupees -- about 72 cents) in a mere 2½ hours -- a fantastic speed from my point of view! By the time we reached the plains the rain had stopped and I could see blue patches of sky -- the first in over a week -- and when we arrived in Colombo it was warm and sunny and people were walking about doing their shopping and it was obvious to me that none of them had the slightest notion of what had been happening Upcountry -- oh, they heard the news and read the papers, but it might as well have been on Mars, they didn't relate to it (except perhaps to wonder why I would go about town looking so scruffy and dirty -- even for a monk). A genuine refugee, unnoticed in the throng, though perhaps not unsmelt. But I have no plans to register myself with the UNRWA.

Since then a few people I've spoken with seemed genuinely interested in what had been going on in Upcountry, but most listened only out of politeness or stupor -- it meant nothing to them. And why should it? The next day, Sunday, was sunny and I wondered what conditions might be like up there, but aside from a few newspaper reports it was for me too becoming just a somewhat remote incident. I don't even know whether the rains have ceased yet -- no way for me to find out.

So here I am, contemplating my next move. They say that getting there is half the fun. I can't wait for the other half.


If any character in Catch-22 comes close to accepting the Buddha's advice it would be Dunbar, who tries to increase his lifespan by cultivating boredom, on the grounds that when you're bored time passes slower. His idea seems to be that if only he could achieve a state of total and absolute boredom he would be, for all intents, eternal. This sounds like a rough literary approximation to meditation (although we must remember that the Buddha, unlike many Eastern teachers, quite explicitly stated that meditation by itself is an insufficient condition for enlightenment).

Dunbar, given to cultivating boredom, to seeking eternity, lies motionless in bed: he goes so far in his efforts that at one point Yossarian, looking at him, wonders whether he is still alive. This will remind us of the story of the Ven. Sañjīva who, we are told (M. 50: i,333), was seated immersed in the highest meditative attainment when some cowherds, shepherds, and ploughmen, passing by, saw him and thought, as did Yossarian of Dunbar, that he was dead. They collected grass, wood, and cowdung, heaped it up about the Ven. Sañjīva, set his pyre alight, and went on their way. The next morning Ven. Sañjīva emerged from his meditative attainment and went wandering for almsfood. His would-be cremators were astonished at seeing him alive and gave him the name by which he became known, Sañjīva, which means "with life." Dunbar seems to have lacked the Ven. Sañjīva's meditative abilities, but each sought to escape death (Ven. Sañjīva, the Sutta tells us, successfully), and each came thereby to be taken as dead.

It is common, of course, for beginning meditators to be assailed by boredom (as well as the other four hindrances); however, this does not justify equating boredom and meditation: on the contrary, boredom is an enemy of meditation. Despite the story of Ven. Sañjīva, then, we must regard any effort to equate meditation with the cultivation of boredom as tenuous, and as being further weakened by the episode in which Dunbar becomes a fortiori. However, we must also note that it is immediately after Dunbar becomes convinced, upon re-encountering the soldier in white, that (p. 358) "There's no one inside! ...He's hollow inside, like a chocolate soldier" -- thereby perhaps suggesting something of the Buddha's teaching of anattā, of not-self -- that Dunbar is disappeared. We never learn the meaning of this cryptic event ("It doesn't make sense. It isn't even good grammar" -- p. 359), but if the parallel with meditation is accepted then the further parallel that would be suggested here is with nibbāna, extinction. After being disappeared Dunbar is described (p. 360) as being "nowhere to be found", which is exactly how the Suttas describe beings who have attained full enlightenment (arahattā).[1]

Perhaps a literary parallel of an achievement that transcends literature (let alone literature, nibbāna transcends bhava, being) could not be more closely described; but in any case we cannot allow that the parallel is more than a suggestion, and (no doubt inevitably) an inaccurate one at that. And in any case to be disappeared sounds, from Heller's description of it, far less desirable than extinction, from the Buddha's description of that. (Still, it would be interesting to know how much acquaintance Heller actually had, if any, with any school of Buddhism during the seven years in which he was writing Catch-22.[2])

Sāmanera Bodhesako,
from The Buddha and the Catch-22

[1] The phrase occurs frequently in the Suttas. See e.g. the concluding lines of the Vakkali Sutta (Samy. XXII,87). At Dh. 180 we find:

That tangle of snares by which he'd be penned isn't found anywhere.
His range has no end, that Buddha awake.
What track can there be to trace one who's trackless, craving-free?

[2] This question was put to Mr. Heller. The reply was that he knew "not an inkling." The range of the puthujjana, it seems, is more extensive than commonly supposed.

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