It was a warm Sunday (Iridha in Sinhalese) in Kandy and my new friend, Sanjee came to the gate to pick me up at 8:30am. We attended Hillwood together and had only recently discovered that our homes were within walking distance of each other. She waited for me at the base of our driveway and we waved goodbye to Wilson as he closed the metal gate behind us. I had never seen Sanjee out of her white school uniform. Her hair, always in two neat pigtails at school, was loose down her back and a bright orange headband was striking against her shiny black hair. We started down the walking path that lead towards Kandy. Sanjee had invited me to attend her Sunday School. When our class split each day for morning prayers she trotted down the stairs with the Buddhist girls while I followed girls headed towards the chapel. Today, I was going to attend the religious school at a small Buddhist temple close to her house. Our leather sandals both made the same snapping sound against the stone steps as we walked towards our destination. I thought that our principal in Geneva, Mrs. Peters, would hate the sound of flip flops and marveled at how different the dirt and stone path surrounded by jungle was from the industrial halls at West Street elementary school.
In Geneva my parents and I occasionally accompanied my grandfather to the First Baptist Church, an impressive brick and limestone presence on Main Street. With its square tower, colorful stained glass and warm honey colored wood accents, it was a welcoming place to go on occasion. As a young, only sometimes attendee, I had been recruited now and then to light or snuff out the candles before and after services. This meant I got to go through the closet in the room off of the sanctuary and find a robe that would not drag on the floor. I preferred the older cotton robes to the newer polyester ones. It was a pleasant enough place to spend a once in a while Sunday, but I had been increasingly anxious attending because older children were encouraged to become members and be baptized. Unlike many of my friends from other denominations who were baptized as infants, this ceremony involved full submersion in front of the entire congregation in a pool that was under the pulpit. The idea terrified me. I worried not about my eternal soul, but about the water that would get up my nose and the time I would need to spend with dripping wet white robes clinging to me while the service continued.
There would be nothing like that today. Sanjee’s temple was just off of the path. We entered through a gap in the trees marked by colorful flags and headed towards a small covered but open classroom. The teacher met us and welcomed me as we left our shoes at the door with dozens of other small pairs belonging to other children attending the school. The teacher immediately reminded me of my Sunday School teacher in Geneva. Their look was very different of course. At home, my teacher was short and round, with orangey red hair and plump red checks. This instructor was lean and dark-skinned. In Geneva, the teacher waddled around with a denim jumper with apples embroidered on the pockets which she wore tentlike over a red turtle neck. The Kandian woman had a pink and orange Sari with gold threads and a long black braid which reached to her exposed midriff. While the two women looked as different as could be, their demeanor was strikingly similar. They both spoke in hushed but excited tones about their subjects and both patted me on the head and smiled. Sanjee had to translate some of the lesson, but I got a majority of the story about the Buddha and his meditation under the Bo tree. It was a story I had heard before as we had several batiks and statues depicting the scene around our home in the United States. The main point of the lesson seemed to be pretty much the same point as any Sunday School lesson I had in the States- be nice to people was really what it boiled down to. Just like at home, the session ended with a snack – slices of mango and coconut water rather than Nilla wafers and milk. During our snack we were given colored pencils and a coloring page. While I colored the cross-legged Buddha under a tree I remembered our teacher in Geneva pinning to the bulletin board baskets we had made from woven construction paper with cutout fish that we had colored with crayons. Sunday School is the same everywhere I determined.
After snack, I followed Sanjee to a small shrine where the class briefly sat with a monk. Although I recognized some of the prayers from ceremonies I had attended with my Dad, I did not know the incantations and as the students all chanted I focused on the wrinkles on the old man’s bare head. “Dhammam saranam gachami. (I go to the Buddha for refuge) Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go to the Dhamma for refuge)…” As the monk chanted I could see the muscles move on top of his head with the subtle movements of his jaw.
One by one the students all took turns going around the corner to a covered statue of the Buddha. The monk indicated it was my turn and smiling handed me a white lotus flower with browning edges. Cupping the flower in my hands I walked into the covered structure. The Buddha sat with his eyes closed, one hand draped across his right knee and the other folded peacefully in his lap. Like the others I had seen before me, I placed the flower on the ledge in front of the statue, sank to my knees and sat back on my feet. I could see several chips in the paint on the Buddha’s saffron robes. The next move I knew was to bow prostrate in child’s pose. I paused and my back tensed. Images of Baptist Sunday school flashed through my brain as did the image of the fiery finger of God etching the Ten Commandments in stone as Charlton Heston shielded his eyes. “You shall have no other gods before me….” boomed in my head. I had visions of people getting swallowed up in a pit of burning rock and fire when they prayed to that golden calf. But as I sank to the cool floor no bolt of lightning came from the sky. I inhaled the smell of the incense, my back relaxed and I felt completely at ease. I didn’t know how to pray or what to say, so I wished that my family would be healthy before I got up and joined Sanjee.
It is strange to think that children all over the world are snacking together with mild mannered Sunday School teachers who teach them to be kind while coloring pictures of their gods. Then, some of these same children grow up to kill in the name of that religion. What do the soft-spoken Sunday School teachers think of that? Why is one coloring book any better than another? My year in Sri Lanka afforded me the chance to see several religions up close, an opportunity that I realize not every person can have. Since Sri Lanka I have also had the opportunity to attend Jewish religious school as well. I often wonder if more people had these kinds of cross-cultural immersions if religion would be less divisive. Sadly, the older I get the less optimistic I am that anything could make a meaningful change in the way that humans treat each other in the name of their gods. However, on the warm Sunday, my ten year old self was not thinking so globally as Sanjee and I walked home to the clomp of our sandals and kissed each other on both cheeks at the gate to my home.
p.s. Speaking of Charlton Heston…Did you know he was in a 1954 adventure film called Secret of the Incas? Heston’s character, Henry Steele, searches for lost Incan treasure at Machu Picchu and this adventurer is said to be the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. Stories featuring Dr. Jones are coming soon.