Sri Lanka 1: Thinking Deep in the Kandy Temple

The procession
The procession

“This has got to be a sick joke,” I muttered, “Buddha’s tooth in the Candy Temple?”

“It’s Kandy, with a K,” Andy said from behind the Canon’s lens.  “But good point.”

Normally, such corny jokes plumb the full extent of my deep thinking, but finally stepping foot onto the fabled Ceylon soil, onto the emerald land that sprouted the spices and hid the gems that empires spread and died for, treading at last on the rocky slopes and toaster-warm coasts of Sri Lanka, it somehow got my philosophical wheels to churning.

This little nugget of wisdom from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in the mountain town of Kandy was only the tip of the iceberg.

Aside from being the home to my ironic epiphany—which I’m sure is duplicated by three dozen thousand visitors daily—the Kandy Temple is home to spacious sidewalks, stately fruit trees, a smattering of statues of legendary figures in Ceylon’s Buddhist history, and no less than four impressive temples, of which the home to Buddha’s famed chomper is the tallest and fattest and most impressively decorated.

Approaching the temple
Approaching the temple

After shucking our shoes and stashing them in a smelly stall, we pitter-pattered after the tourist herd flowing into the rainbow-splashed corridors painted full of elephants and drum-toting, sarong-sporting, bare-chested dudes with mustaches.  I hadn’t done my homework here: the only things I knew about this place seemed quite paltry—namely (1) that this place was a big deal, (2) that this place had a tooth purported to once have chewed the Buddha’s food, and (3) that this place, once a year, decks out a massive bull elephant in eighty million tons of Christmas lights, gold-fringed tapestries, and one super-famous tooth, and parades it through the streets of Kandy to the wild drumming and frantic dancing and nonstop oohing and ahhhing of Buddhists and adventure-seekers and photographers worldwide—and possibly percussionists, circus trainers, and dentists as well.

Gold corridors
Gold corridors

Judging by the shutter snapping and gaping and pointing, I guessed everyone else must have read up a lot more.

We followed the crowd past gilded thrones and glitzy lions and pools and flowers and gardens all reeking incense and hush and sacredness in the flash-pops of tourists at dusk.  Our bare feet eventually found their way up a wooden staircase capable of supporting several of those famed elephants and into a wide hallway with a huge line of impatient pilgrims milling around a long altar—a bar bestrewn with piles upon piles and mounds upon mounds of fresh, tender flowers, each presenting its fond youth to be plucked and left to wither before a tooth.

I see teeth, but probably not Buddha's
I see teeth, but probably not Buddha’s

We slid our way through the masses planting their lotus blossoms here.  Each would deposit the flowers, palm-palm hands and frown and bow a bit, and then settle in for a spot in the mob in front of an ornate little shrine.

Andy immediately went for the flowers, tricking the camera around lighting tints and focal lengths.  I settled in beside her like a good herd member and watched.  The crowd was growing, and growing restless.  All were hushed, all were reverent, all were fidgeting and awaiting something.

Something big was going down; we could feel it tingle in the air.  But we had no idea what it was.

Feet shuffled, murmurs rose, hands flickered around cameras and phones.  Andy still toyed with the lighting on the flowers.  White-clad, officious-looking guys were ushering a crowd in near the doors.  Whispers grew fierce, shoulders and elbows edged into strangers.  Noise was building.  What was going on?


Something was going down.

A thunder of sudden drums jolted everyone to stark attention.  All eyes lasered in on the narrow doors on the ornamented pagoda.  Another drum-blast split the silence.  The herd of tourists moaned in anticipation.  The white-clad men shuffled fussily around.  The drums pounded now, a steady, hypnotic rhythm.  And everyone’s fingers twitched in the waiting.

The noise grew, sweat beads bubbled on my forehead.  Still nothing was happening.

Drums pounded; bodies pressed past the level of comfort.

Andy and I found ourselves in the epicenter of the rumbling and shuffling, just in front of the narrow doors.  What was going on? Feet twitched and tapped, necks craned further, the officials escorted lines and people here and there.  A group kneeled and bowed before the doors.

What was happening?  What was—

The drumming stopped.

All whispers from our herd were hushed.

Silent eyes pounded on the door.

Then, in a wondrous crescendo, the music blasted again and the doors flew open, revealing. . .

The tooth might be inside
The tooth might be inside

A man-tall golden dome.

And folks went crazy, they just went crazy.

They clawed and shoved and climbed on shoulders to get a glimpse of the thing.  The drums and harps rained in at top volume, and the cameras clicked and I was pulled and shoved eighteen different directions by the sanctimonious palmers who’d moments ago been drifting lotus to the altars and the bowing calmly before the doors.

Madness ensued at the Buddha’s tooth.

Thirty seconds more and I’d have been mashed into a cream puff of gear-toting goo.  Thankfully a burly man in white, with a burly mustache to match, sprang to our rescue and herded the crowd toward the exit side.

We narrowly escaped with our cameras and sanity intact, but we got to see—well, what did we get to see anyway?  I guess Buddha’s tooth was in that thing.  I guess that golden dome must be the VIP who rides the elephant for that annual festival.  I guess… I guess I was disappointed I didn’t see more of it, even though twenty minutes ago I had no idea such a thing as a door-opening show existed.

The exit path led us, in a group of grumbling pilgrims, through more ornately carved paneling, through more murals and more incense, and out in a tranquil garden under a now-starry dome of a sky.  Calmness, serenity, order were restored.

The incense shack
The incense shack

Eventually we made it out to the shoe-shack to recover our deposited footwear—and by the way, if there’s a place in that temple that could use a bit more incense, it’s the shoe-shack.  I don’t know what the poor monks did to get stuck with that duty, but I was sure glad to step away from there.

We drove home up the winding mountain roads; the others spoke and wondered at what we saw, but I sat in silence, trying to pull out some deep thinking by the roots.

What exactly are those deep thoughts springing from this fertile soil of experience you ask—in a poetic voice while sipping a cup of Earl Grey, I imagine.

Well, I’m glad you wanted to know.  Here goes:

Are flowers placed on an altar of tourism madness any hope for sanctification?  Are the cents spent purchasing new blooms and laying them before Buddha’s tooth any different than the indulgences sold in medieval towns by the church of Rome?—or the bills dropped thoughtlessly into a collection plate after drowsing through a Sunday morning sermon?—or the alms offered from nothing but duty, simply to scribble a checkmark next to another pillar of religion?

That’s what I’m thinking deep about—something about human tendency to try to buy off our wrongdoing, something about how we seem to think the best we can offer for our sins and our souls is our pocket change, something about how hopeless we are if coming to God consists solely of a pittance given–and then in a moment to claw and gripe and step all over all our neighbors to satisfy a silly craving.

It’s not just the Kandy temple I’m talking about now.

Something about being human involves being guilty.  It’s certain.  It’s unavoidable.  And who wouldn’t like to feel forgiven?  Doesn’t a desire for holiness hide somewhere inside us?  Don’t we blindly burrow through life seeking somehow to either earn a pardon or explain away the guilt?

The Buddha taught that all desire certainly leads to suffering.  I might add this to that: a desire for holiness is the same–it too brings the suffering of not being able to attain it.

at the altar
at the altar

An evening in Kandy, and I’ve gone from cracking corny jokes to spinning amateur philosophy.  What will the rest of the Ceylon travels hold?

Maybe I’ll grow a beard. Or at least I could wear a toga.  Those things fit philosophers, right?

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