2019 Was a Roller Coaster Year in Sri Lanka
Tara Lanka’s challenges were many. At the beginning of this year considerable efforts went into organising a 10 day retreat based on the Golden Light Sutra. Venerable Birgit most kindly had offered to return to Sri Lanka to lead it, and follow with a pilgrimage to the Mahayana holy sites. 14 people booked. Then suddenly the Easter Sunday terrorist attack happened. Soon the news of terrorism went across the world. The participants of the retreat and pilgrimage withdrew.
Sri Lanka hit rock bottom as tourists left. Tara Lanka lost its beautiful meditation venue when it shut down due to loss of Western yoga students. I lost my accommodation in Colombo when my American friend departed. Things became bleak and it was hard to see how to regroup from there.
Through a great stroke of luck Oi Loon, who is a committed supporter of dharma, offered to sponsor me to attend the Vajra Yogini retreat in France. There I met Rinpoche and told him things were hard in Sri Lanka and bombs had gone off killing many. He made a sympathetic face for a second, then immediately changed and said “There are no bombs going off every day, are there? Go back and do the work.”
The inspiration of seeing 460 people practice together and the kindness and patience shown by the VY volunteers throughout the retreat will keep me going in the hardest of times. I saw the joyful efforts of the VY team and the positive results of following the guru’s advice.
An additional bonus of being in France was meeting 16 Guidelines facilitator Lorena Adame. After a brief discussion with her, a month long workshop for the girls’ shelter in Kandy was confirmed. Lorena generously offered her time free of charge and Oi Loon offered to pay her travel costs.
Go Back and Do The Work
Sri Lanka is trauma country. War, poverty, and our culture all contribute to the huge suffering of women and children.
I am committed to helping a shelter for abused girls based near Kandy. In the last three years, through my involvement, I have come to realise that without addressing their emotional needs and past trauma they are unable to succeed in life. Even with the best teachers helping them, they cannot learn. They don’t seem to feel their bodies and are extremely powerless. Key to their healing is addressing their emotional needs and providing them with tools for their future.
I spent many hours teaching the girls about emotions using basic techniques from Non Violent Communication. They learnt to identify a range of different feelings and how to express their personal needs. This was a brand new process, introduced to give an alternative approach to interpersonal relationships. Anger and violence can be replaced with empathy and love.
By conducting various workshops, many experienced professionals continue to deepen this process of empowering the girls.
Laura Couda from USA did Partner Yoga which included touch and cooperation to build trust. Suppressed anger and aggression were brought up in some of the girls and they acted as if they were fighting an abuser. Honest acceptance and validation of these feelings is essential for their recovery.
Just three months after our meeting in France, Lorena arrived in Sri Lanka and led a grueling three week program on “Trauma Informed Yoga and 16 Guidelines for Life” which was hugely beneficial. Issues relevant to the girls were discussed, giving them an opportunity, for the first time, to process what happened to them. Addressing self-blame, guilt and shame helped them to understand why they felt anger and behaved in self destructive ways. A follow up workshop is planned in 2020.
Read more details on Lorena’s program in Sri Lanka here.
Dr. Thyagi from US is currently in Sri Lanka. She sponsored three girls to attend a private school and these students now show new confidence and strength. One student shows remarkable academic ability as well. During Dr. Thyagi’s stay she will conduct 9 days of yoga and dancing.
Local teachers continue to provide the girls with Literacy and Numeracy, Dancing, English and Maths. There were 30 workshops with various experts on movement therapy, emotional well being, counselling, communications, music, dancing, and movies all designed to empower the girls. In addition Rosalie Giffoniello paid to repair 21 drums that were lying idle for many years. Her sponsorship pays the salary of a dance teacher and the girls were able to show off their dancing talents at the opening ceremony of the new building.
A steady stream of girls are learning sewing through Singer Sewing School, a reputed vocational program. We are assessing other career options for them beyond sewing and weaving. Motivation and self-belief are challenging for most of the girls, but as they see their peers progress their aspirations will change in the future.
Marie Fowler continues her financial support for the majority of these programs. She is providing an income to some girls by purchasing handloom material woven at the shelter. It was a joy to have Marie and her friend Kate visit in February and do many practical and fun activities including baking , sewing, Yoga and Meditation. Marie started sponsoring cakes to celebrate staff birthdays, giving the girls an opportunity to express appreciation and gratitude.
Girls prepared for Marie’s arrival with enthusiasm by organising a welcoming ceremony which included many dances. We also celebrated Marie’s 60th birthday. A very amusing birthday card was on the wall and it was too late to remove it. Marie has a great sense of humour. Just as well. See the pic.
Sri Lanka Has the Highest Rate of Chronic Kidney Disease in the World
Puja for Chronic Kidney Patients
Rinpoche continues to encourage the recitation of the Golden Light Sutra as the main purification practice for Sri Lankans. Based on this advice, we organised a Golden Light Sutra recitation and a Medicine Buddha Puja in Weli Oya, a remote village in Northern Sri Lanka. Two hundred and fifty chronic kidney patients participated in this historic event. Weli Oya was badly affected during the war. The army sustained heavy casualties from the Tamil Tigers and many villagers died during the fighting. Now people are suffering from chronic kidney disease, which is unrelated to the war but nevertheless a huge blow to the community.
At first it was impossible to imagine how things could work due to the remoteness of the village, but then everything came together.
The Head monk and the Chief of Police broadcasted to the villages that there was going to be a Healing Puja and Sutra Practice led by a nun. Many villagers had suffered for a long time and were desperate for a change. The army agreed to cook the meals, breakfast and lunch, and provide a driver through special permission from the army, to two females travelling alone. On the morning of the Puja three monks from the local Thervadan temples arrived to open the event in the traditional way. Considering there has been on-going friction between Theravadan and Mahayana Buddhists in Sri Lanka , this was rather unexpected. The Head monk mentioned that he hoped these prayers would bring much needed rain to this drought-affected region. At the end of the day as the Medicine Buddha Puja was completed, right one cue, it started to rain heavily. People were delighted and they expressed amazement and gratitude. Impressed by this, one by one people queued up requesting copies of the Golden Light Sutra so they could recite the sutra by themselves in the future.
These practices are now being done regularly by individuals and small groups around Sri Lanka.
The next day the Head monk rang up to confirm what the Chief of Police had observed the previous day. The villagers who are normally restless were very subdued. They felt no discomfort although they sat for a long time, seven straight hours. They seemed very peaceful. The monk extend an invitation to me to return at least once a year to recite the Golden Light Sutra and Medicine Buddha Puja and, if possible, to include all 600 kidney patients in the area. He specifically asked for 25 copies of the Medicine Buddha Puja so he could offer this at his temple. With the power of Rinpoche’s blessings, an event of this magnitude became possible.
Resurgence of Mahayana in Sri LankaMahayana Buddhism was practised in Sri Lanka in the past. The tangible evidence of that can be found in the Golden plates of Prajnaparamita Sutra in Colombo Museum, the world’s tallest Tara statue in British Commonwealth Museum in London and, more recently, the unearthing of Tara Mantra written in old Sinhala language in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. All this points to Sri Lanka’s lost Mahayana history. In the last three years there is a noticeable interest in practicing the Mahayana path and there are open discussions about Mahayana philosophy. Lotus Sutra, Golden Light Sutra, Arya Sangata Sutra are recited more frequently and Medicine Buddha puja is gaining popularity. The Pearl Garland – An Anthology of Lamrims is the latest Sinhala translation to be added to an impressive effort by Professor Gunathilaka. So far 2,000 copies of the Sinhala Golden Light Sutra have been printed and distributed. Thanks to Venerable Birgit and Christine Bohle and others for their contributions. Professor Gunathilaka completed the Heart Sutra as well and it’s being recited by many people now. Thathagaba Sutra is going through its eighth edit. There are unusual obstacles to the completion of it. Perhaps the time isn’t right to introduce the concept of Buddha Nature en masse in Sri Lanka yet. Spreading of Dharma A highlight of this year was a surprise visit by Ven. Michael Yeshe. Although his visit was short he gave a teaching and he led our first ever Tara Puja in Sri Lanka. Venerable Lhadzam from Root Institute and Venerable Khama Choedron from Malaysia also connected with us while visiting Sri Lanka. So delightful to have their company and energy during dharma practice. More Sri Lankan people are making their way to India and Nepal to connect with Tibetan Buddhism. Two participants of Tara Lanka study group attended his Holiness’ teachings in Bodhgaya. Another student, who attended the Kopan course last year, received highest yoga Tantra initiations from Ganden Tripa Rinpoche in Italy this year. Next, she hopes to attend a three month Vajirasathva retreat. An increasing number of people in Sri Lanka are becoming familiar with Mahayana Buddhism and the misunderstanding around Mahayana is lessening.
We lost Om Shambala our beautiful meditation space (above); it closed down after the bombing.
Discussions with Muslim sisters after the bombs.
Sri Lanka Gifts Branch of Bodhi Tree to Australia
Thanks to my connections with both Australia and Sri Lanka, I have been invited to accept a sapling from the Sri Maha Bodhi tree on behalf of the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion, a Tibetan Buddhist centre in Bendigo, Australia. The Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka is a branch from the original Bodhi tree where Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya. After the brief ceremony this sapling will be flown to Australia. Lama Zopa Rinpoche will formally accept it from Sri Lankan monks who will be flying there specially for this occasion. The sapling will then be planted next to the Sri Lankan Shrine at the Great Stupa. This is a historic event for both Sri Lankan and Australian Buddhists. No other female, particularly one from the Mahayana lineage, has ever been given such an opportunity. This is a wonderful blessing, and perhaps, proof that our ongoing dharma activities are coming to fruition.
Big Thanks For 2019
I thank Doc Wight, Marie Fowler, Oi Loon Lee and many others who make it possible for me to follow Rinpoche’s advice and to engage in dharma activity in Sri Lanka. May there be peace and unity as a result of our prayers and may Rinpoche visit Sri Lanka soon.
In addition there are a myriad of people who do a wide range of things, big and small. You are dispersed around the world and without your kindness I wouldn’t be able to withstand the pressures and difficulties of working in Sri Lanka on my own. Thank you very much; you are all in my prayers.