If you meet the Buddha on the Road, think twice before killing him.

The title derives from a famous Buddhist paradox designed to confound and frustrate attempts at understanding. Unlike most religions, most schools of Buddhism do not mention a God or gods, but rather hold the Buddha as having attained “enlightenment” and pointed the way toward seeing beyond this illusory “reality” and endless cycle of earthly reincarnation (samsara). An English monk illustrated it with an eloquent analogy: when the Buddha sprung off a diving board into the beyond, he left behind the board which we’d do well to not be too distracted by.

Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all coexist here in Sri Lanka and, except for Islam which doesn’t allow depictions of Allah, there are many shrines, temples, stupas and a few churches with the mythical faces of Ganesh and Shiva, the tortured figures of Christ and St. Sebastian, and the serene countenance of the Buddha sat in padmasana. The imagery of all three has been honed through the ages to give the faithful a particular vision – I’ll take serenity. 

Though the idolatry of shrines seems contrary to buddhism, to see families offering food and incense before a statue makes me wonder if such places really serve as stages for shared experiences and touchstones for spirituality. 

Whilst respecting and admiring the likes of Dawkin’s, Dennett and Gervais, their dismissive, intellectual atheism irritates me and smacks of arrogance. Religious parables and messages have been edited and reworked over the centuries to be of value, and remain relevant. Of course religion has a darker side, the control of the masses, the perpetuation of elites and, more often than not, the patriarchy, but digging down, there’s perhaps more to it: preserving the wisdom and follies of the generations, promoting social cohesion, propagating values and awareness, facilitating our spiritual (superstitious?) natures…

One final, thought, there are many tourists here in Ella busy beetling from waterfall to viewpoint, but I’ve found the attraction here to be the Sri Lankans. The other day I decided to go for a ride without any purpose or destination and ended up at a rather splendid stupa. I climbed its steps slowly, following a chap who was helping his elderly mother make the ascent and when the three of us found ourselves before the Buddha, he offered me some of the rice he’d bought to make an offering. That simple, spontaneous act of kindness touched me, reminded me of my grandmother, and made me weep.

Now’s a good time to reflect on the year ahead, decide what’s important, set a course
and take a ride on the party bus banging away on the beach.


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