Discovering the wonders of wander

The Business Of Buddhism In Sri Lanka

“Oh my Lord, what on earth have they done to Buddhism?” I gasped in horror at the sight before me.

I was standing at the famed Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Buddha’s relic, in the form of a tooth, is believed to be kept in this temple and everyone, devoted locals and curious tourists alike are excited to see it. I’ve been standing at the front of the altar waiting to see the tooth of the enlightened one. It is kept under lock and key, the doors keeping the tooth safe from whatever danger it is exposed to are supposed to open at 6.30pm during the puja prayers.

It was almost 7.20pm and so far the only thing I’ve seen is the crowd filling up the hall.

The golden doors hiding the relic at the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy.

The golden doors hiding the relic at the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy.

It was just like a rock concert; my back was hurting, people were eager, sweaty bodies were squished. Some lucky few had front row seats, there was a special line where selected people went “backstage”, while the commoners patiently stood at the back of the hall. Those who knew the words were chanting a melodious tone. There was even an opening band – three very bored and unenthusiastic men in traditional garb played the drums and pipes with not a hint of passion in their eyes. You’d think they would take some pride to be playing for the one and only Buddha. And just like every good concert, the star kept everyone waiting.

The three-piece band at the Temple of the Tooth.

The three-piece band at the Temple of the Tooth.

Finally, the doors swung open and the crowd went wild. Cameras started flashing and everyone was craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the tooth. It only took 3 minutes for those who were standing at the back to start shouting and pushing for the people in front them to move along.

At least at a concert you have a full stage; the view of Buddha’s relic was only through a small window. Further obstructing the view is a long line of devotees who were taking their turns to pay respects at the front of the window. These devotees only have one short second to glimpse the relic before they are shoved away. I saw one Chinese tourist literally pushed away from the window as he bowed and prayed. By the third bow, he was already forced to the exit.

For curiousity’s sake, I joined in the frenzy and manhandled my way through until I finally saw it. It was a gold casket draped in a generous shower of glittering gold chains and bejewelled pendants. Inside this stupa-shaped gold casket is said to contain six more caskets and finally, the tooth. I looked around the hall and noticed so much gold decorating the walls and ceiling.

Buddha’s tooth was definitely housed in lavishness. It’s nothing neither a commoner nor a monk could, or should, afford; in fact, it’s the kind of luxury you would only see in palaces and temples.

The doors open to reveal a golden stupa-shaped casket that holds the tooth.

The doors open to reveal a golden stupa-shaped casket that holds the tooth.

I left the temple feeling confused at the show of greed, havoc and selfishness. If Buddha denounced materialism and greed, why is his fabled relic, which, by the way, no one actually knows if is real, wis kept in so much gold and jewels? If Buddha was a humble man for the people, why is the view of his relic strictly hidden away from his dedicated followers? The gold doors to the relic only open twice a day for barely an hour during the puja prayers. Why can’t the average Buddhist, or at least locals be given the time to pay proper respect to the relic, especially when they have travelled far and wide to be at this sacred temple? I don’t know what the process is to get the exclusive “stage seats” and “backstage passes”, but those lucky people had some pretty expensive offering in their hands.

I knew in my bones something was amiss with this temple when I was queuing at the ‘Foreigner’ lane and was told to pay a Rs1,000 (RM25) entrance fee. Even the official temple shoe minder asked me for a tip. I thought things might be different at the next temple that I would visit, but I was sorely wrong.

The giant Buddha at the entrance of the Golden Temple in Dambulla.

The giant Buddha at the entrance of the Golden Temple.

Tears of disappointment escaped my eyes at the Golden Temple in Dambulla.

I was halfway up the tiring ascend to the famous cave temples when I was welcomed with red signs shouting “Warning: All foreigners must purchase a valid ticket to enter the temple!” I did not see any ticket booths at the bottom of the steps and so assumed that it was at the entrance of the cave. The morning Sri Lankan sun was unforgiving and I was already halfway to the peak. After all the sweat, panting and burning muscles, the thought of walking all the way down to check for the ticket booth and making a second hike up killed me. Clinging onto hope that I could buy the Rs1,500 (RM38) ticket at the entrance, I continued the long climb.

My hopes were quickly dashed by the meanest ticket check guy I have ever met.

I’m sorry for missing the ticket booth, it was an honest mistake. I am ready to pay the full price, can I buy it up here? No? Okay, I promise I’ll buy it on my way out if you could please let me in. I’m Buddhist too and this is a sacred temple, I wouldn’t lie and cheat my way into a place of worship. Please? I walked 3km under the burning sun to get here from my hostel. I came alone. I didn’t have any guide nor friend to show me where the ticket booth is. Would you be so kind to understand my predicament? Please?

The only response I got from the mustached man was a cold, hard, no. “Go down. Buy the ticket. Come back up,” he instructed me with a mean frown. He wouldn’t even look me in the eyes, he wouldn’t even smile, he looked angry and unforgiving, as if I were a criminal.

I was rudely rejected. I understand that this was his job, but the least he could do was be nice about it. There is one giant golden Buddha beneath him, and 150 ancient Buddha statues behind him, what happened to compassion? Did Buddha’s teaching to be humble and compassionate ceased to matter once the money started pouring in?

An Italian tourist, his guide, and the shoe minders heard my argument and showed me the only bit of kindness I’ve seen in the temples here. Apparently this situation with tourists happens often, as one shoe minder was ready to brave the torturous climb and buy the ticket on my behalf.

“It’s really nice in there, here’s a solution,” said the Italian. “That’s not the point!” My frustration exploded into tears.

Everything here goes against the teaching of Buddhism. In 2006, the entrance fee was only Rs500 (RM12), a modest amount to ask as a token. Just because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they hike the price up by 3 folds? The Temple of the Tooth was only Rs200 (RM6) and now it is Rs1,000 (RM25)! That’s an exorbitant amount of money for a place of worship. The Italian and his Sri Lankan guide argued that the profits are being used for maintenance, and I pointed to the massive gaudy golden Buddha statue at the entrance of the Golden Temple that made the entire place look like a cheap amusement park.

It seems like they are using religion as a business and using Buddhism as a cover. How did the monks even condone this? I asked if the Italian guy believed that the money is actually being put to good use. “I want to believe that,” he said, “but it’s everywhere, and in every religion. The world is not perfect.”

On my way out of the Golden Temple, I finally found the “ticket booth” hidden at a far corner. The booth reads “Office For Donation” and welcomes a donation of Rs1,500 from all foreigners who want to see the wonders of the ancient Cave Temples.

The ticket booth/office for donation at the Golden Temple in Dambulla.

The sign reads “Temple Development Fund, Office For Donation”.

I didn’t realize religion mattered so much to me until these words came pouring out. The scene before me was a contradiction to the Buddhism I know and learned from. Buddhist temples may ask for a donation, but it is up to the kindness of your heart. It was heartbreaking to see religion being misused and its core values thrown out the window. What’s even scarier is the fact that I didn’t feel peace in those temples; I felt commercialism.

“It’s not Sri Lanka, it’s not the Sinhalese. It’s the money monks,” Lukman, a kind-hearted Rasta tuk-tuk driver whom I’ve befriended told me.

“I’m sorry,” he understood my frustration and felt the need to apologize for his people. I saw the disappointment in his eyes as he told me stories of money monks turning from humbleness into greed, getting caught in embezzlement and fraud. “But it is not Buddhism’s fault. The religion is pure, it is only the people running it who have turned bad.”

I was in the oldest continually Buddhist country in the world hoping to learn more about this religion that I was born into. I did learn, not of the history of Buddhism, but of the power of men. It’s ironic how the very same religion that said men are deluded with greed, ignorance and hatred is being manipulated to serve the same greedy desires it decried.

Perhaps two of the most commercialised temples in Sri Lanka might not be the best measure of how Buddhism is run in the country. After all, there are thousands other that dot the island, and I did stumble upon a few so sacred and sincere it touched my heart.

But two is too many, and it was enough to leave a confounded bad taste in my mouth.