Leeches on the Road to Enlightenment

Leeches on the Road to Enlightenment

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No one warned me about the leeches. I arrived at Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre early on a Saturday morning full of trepidation. The Centre is located high up on the side of a mountain about twenty kilometers south of Kandy, Sri Lanka, where I am spending the year as a Senior Fulbright Fellow teaching comparative religion in the Department of Buddhist Studies at the University of Peradeniya. I was several months into my tour of duty, but had managed to avoid the obvious.

Sure I had studied Buddhism in graduate school and had taught perhaps a dozen introductory classes on Buddhism, but I had never exposed myself to the discipline of Buddhist meditation. Sure I could discuss the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path, the Ten Fetters, the Paradox of Anatman, the fine points of Theravada and Mahayana schools, and the subtleties of Nagarjuna’s deconstructive philosophy. Over the years I had had opportunities to dialogue with leading Buddhists and Buddhist scholars from around the world. Recently I had read a lot about the 20th century transformations in Sri Lankan Buddhism. The books and ideas I knew, but I had never actually practiced Buddhist meditation.

Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre is an example of what some scholars refer to as “Protestant Buddhism” (Obeyesekere, 1989) (Seneviratne, 1999). Buddhist meditation was once the mostly exclusive activity of the Sangha, which was divided into those monks who served a more priestly function in village temples and those monks who withdrew to forest monasteries to diligently pursue their enlightenment through meditation. In response to Christian missionaries under British colonial rule, however, Buddhism in Ceylon changed in many profound ways. With the encouragement of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott (1832-1907), the colorful founder of the Theosophical Society, who arrived in then Ceylon in 1880 along with his even more colorful companion, Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), new Buddhist institutions and new Buddhist religiosity evolved. In 1881, Olcott wrote “The Buddhist Catechisms”, which in his lifetime was translated into twenty-two languages and forty editions. By 1898, the Buddhist Theosophical Society had founded over a hundred schools in Ceylon modeled after the Christian missionary schools. Indigenous Buddhist leaders, most notably the monk Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), adopted a more missionary and chauvinistic attitude towards Buddhism and promoted a politically engaged Sangha and a new religiously observant laity. Today, every village temple in Sri Lanka conducts Sunday Schools, in which children dressed in white go to temples to learn basic Buddhist doctrines.

Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre (www.nilambe.org) is one of perhaps a dozen meditation centers in Sri Lanka today that is focused on training the laity. Some of these centers also cater to Western Buddhist tourists. Significantly, Nilambe was founded by a lay Buddhist, Godwin Samararatne (1932-2000). A healthy representation of Sri Lankan monks, nuns, and lay people also use the facility. It can accommodate some forty overnight guests.

I arrived early in the morning just after breakfast for my three-day retreat. “How long have you been here?” I asked the English woman, who oriented me. “Nineteen years”, she responded. I asked the same of a German woman. “Three years continuously,” she responded. The elderly Israeli man said that he had been here five times over the last nine years with his shortest visit lasting four weeks. I guessed my three-day retreat would not amount to much.

Sri Lanka is known for its many up-scale boutique hotels and spas, but Nilambe is not one of them. Instead I was shown to a small mildewed room with a concrete bed platform and an ancient mattress stuffed with hard coconut fiber, about a foot too short for my six-foot frame. Candles and matches were provided, as Nilambe has no electricity. Men were on one side of the small jungle campus, women on the other side, each with their own communal bathrooms and cold showers.

And yes, no one had warned me about the leeches. Within an hour of arriving at Nilambe, I discovered the first leech sucking blood between my toes. This was not my first encounter with a Sri Lankan leech, but the experience is to be avoided. In all, I counted five leech bites and a dozen picked off during my three-day retreat. The leeches were particularly plentiful given the almost continuous rain that weekend. Sri Lankan leeches are much smaller than those that I have known back home or than the monster leeches that cover Humphrey Bogart in the closing scenes of the African Queen. These leeches are diminutive and disgusting. They are the size of inchworms and move in the same way. Leeches release an anesthetic, so you do not feel them bite, and an anti-coagulant, so that the blood flows freely, even long after the offending worm has been removed. The slimy little guys stick to you, which makes picking them off quite a challenge.

The leeches, found only in the Central Highlands, may have played a significant role in the colonial history of Sri Lanka. While the coastal regions of Ceylon were first colonized by the Portuguese in 1505, by the Dutch in 1602, and the British in 1802, it would not be until 1815 that the Kandyan Kingdoms in the interior were conquered by the British. I have been told that the real reason that the Europeans had such a hard time conquering the interior was actually because of the leeches. Nor would I conquer samsara during my brief Buddhist retreat, though not because of the leeches. The little bloodsuckers actually provided a useful reminder of the Law of Dukkha, the Buddhist Doctrine of Universal Suffering, Impermanence, Death, Rebirth.

My first experience in meditation was as a teenager at a Unitarian-Universalist youth group. We lay on the floor, as we were guided through a relaxation exercise. I quickly fell asleep and began snoring, which resulted in a cackle of adolescent laughter and the abrupt end of the meditation exercise.

Later I became a Quaker and submitted myself to a weekly hour of silent worship, which would generally also involve several people giving vocal ministry. Quakers talk about a Centering Process in Silent Worship, but there was no great technique developed over 2500 years. For me, Quaker meditation involved working my way through every possible list of things to do or consider, a taking of inventory in my life, a consideration of existential problems and relationships, prayers to God-by-whatever-name for healing and fortitude. Once this was all taken care of there would be some precious moments of sweet silence, a space where something else, some stirring of a “still small voice” might rise up in me.

Make a note to myself: if the Spirit moves me, do not, I repeat, do not give vocal ministry during the meditation sessions at Nilambe.

In Buddhist terminology, I have an overactive “monkey brain,” actually in my case more like a drunken monkey in Times Square on New Year’s Eve with firecrackers tied to his tail. Add to that a lot of reptilian passions in my cerebellum and you understand why I approach meditation with trepidation. The idea of emptying my mind is anathema to me, hence the Ph.D., all of the reading and writing, the love of conversation, debate, travel, adventure. I have long claimed to practice Buddhist mindfulness, but for me that means filling my mind full with as much as possible. Buddhist meditation always struck me as more about mindlessness, a process of clearing away all desires, all sensations, and all thoughts. HADD welcome to the Dharma.

The main meditation hall at Nilambe is about 60 feet long and 20 feet wide. At one end stands an altar with a small statue of the Buddha, candles, incense, a bell, and a number of other sacred objects. The sides of the room are raised concrete platforms for sitting with cushions and pillows to help in maintaining comfort and good posture during the long sessions. The roof is made of hand-hewn logs and covered with earthenware tiles. The concrete floor is covered with long hemp carpets. Windows on one side let in natural light and sounds.

A Sri Lankan monk and a Belgian monk in residence sat near the front near the altar, each with an extra cushion covered with a white cloth to raise them ritualistically above the rest of us. The other twenty-eight guests spread themselves around the room, wrapping themselves in sheets to stay warm in the cool mountain air. At different times, one or more would stand up to practice walking meditation, making their way slowly with deliberate steps from one end of the hall to the other. The Belgian monk had brought a dozen Flemish practioners with him for a three-week retreat.

The day began at 5 AM with sixty minutes of meditation, followed by tea and an hour of yoga. At 7:30 breakfast was served followed by an hour of “working meditation,” taking care of the grounds and cleaning the rooms. From 9:30 to 11:00 AM, there was another meditation session in the main hall. At noon lunch was served, followed by some free time. At 2:30 PM there was another ninety-minute meditation session in the main hall. At 4:30, tea was served with a half-an-hour set aside for mindful conversation. Otherwise, there was not a lot of talking. Another opportunity followed for yoga. At six, there was some chanting followed by another hour of meditation. No dinner was served, but one could avail oneself of a simple snack. The day ended with an eight o’clock Dharma talk or a group sharing.

Though no one spoke, the meditations were hardly silent. The jungle sound of birds, frogs, geckos, and frequent rain were constant companions in our meditations. Sometimes a sound from the valley would make its way up to our mountain retreat. Sometimes a tuktuk or a van would drive up through the tea plantation to deliver supplies or a new visitor to our jungle retreat.

About a third of the visitors were Sri Lankans. There was a young monk taking a retreat. I do not think he spoke English. There was a young Sri Lankan woman up from Colombo, where she worked in one of the embassies. There was a young Sri Lankan artist, now living in Sweden, who had been coming here since 1997. There was a young Sri Lanka businessman from Colombo, seeking peace and renewal from his hectic city life and the constant worry about the next terrorist attack. There was the elderly Sri Lankan woman, who seemed to be in mourning over the death of a loved one. Poya Day was coming and on my last day five new Sri Lankans arrived to take up residence in anticipation of the Full Moon Holiday.

The Sangha in Sri Lanka is in the midst of a quiet crisis, quiet it seems only because no one will talk about it. Monks are typically recruited at the age of ten or twelve in a system not unlike Roman Catholicism in Ireland a hundred years ago. People are poor. There are too many mouths to feed, so you send one of your kids to the monastery, where they get fed, schooled, and maybe even preferential admission to universities. I am told, however, that something like 80 percent of the monks disrobe when they become adults, but I have found no studies to document this number, why they leave, or what happens to them after doing so.

The monks who seem to do the most to promote Buddhism here and abroad are the Western converts. While they speak Sinhala and often acquire a scholar’s mastery of Pali and the Pali Canon, they do not equate Sinhalese culture with Buddhism and take no part in the Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism, which has brought so much misery to this island paradise. Then there is the charismatic monk Ven. Kiribadgoda Gnanananda Thero, who is attracting educated young men to high ordination, preaching a return to the Dharma, eschewing politics, building new temples here and abroad, and attracting resentment from the caste-dominated leadership of the main Buddhist lineages in the country. If Sri Lankan Buddhism is now also somehow “Protestant” in form, then we should expect further reformations and renewal movements in the decades to come.

In my brief foray into Sri Lankan Buddhism, it is clear that the future health of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is as an “export-import” industry, taking a page again out of the Protestant missions, who are once again very active in Sri Lanka today in the form of the Assembly of God and other Pentecostal groups. In that sense, the wellbeing of Buddhism will be increasingly divorced from Sinhalese language and culture. I note that my students at the University of Peradeniya are all Buddhist monks and nuns from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma. Why they are studying in Sri Lanka probably also has something to do with reformation and renewal back home, a return to an imagined authentic origin in the Pali Canon. I have only one Sri Lankan student, a curious lecturer from the Psychology Department. Unfortunately, most of the Sri Lankan monks do not speak English and are not compelled to learn it. This is not to say that my East Asian students speak English very well, but they are eager to learn it. If only the village Sunday Schools taught their Dharma classes in English. That would be a double-boon to the increasingly mono-linguistic Sinhalese lower classes in this caste and class stratified society.

During the evening sessions, we began by chanting in Pali by candlelight, ending with these verses, translated in our prayer book.

May there be timely rain,
May the harvest be abundant
May the world prosper
And the rulers be righteous

May the suffering not suffer,
The fearful not fear,
The grieving not grieve,
May all beings be well and happy.

On one occasion, the chanting was followed by a guided meditation on metta and karuna, loving kindness and compassion, led by Nilambe’s new guru, Upul Gamage, a young lay leader and student of Godwin Samararatne. In the dark room lit only by the candles at the altar, we were asked to focus our meditations on spreading peace and goodwill, radiating kindness over the entire world, and an end to suffering everywhere. I thought perhaps it would be better to begin our compassion meditation by reading the newspapers together or the latest human rights reports, so that we might focus our meditations with some specificity on the disappearances and murders, the terrorist bombings, the poor young men forced into military service by poverty, the child-soldiers forced into war by the LTTE, the on-going attacks on journalists by government thugs, the war raging in the North with its daily air strikes, the families whose mothers were compelled by poverty to work as domestic laborers in the Middle East, the one million internally displace persons, some who have been in refugee camps for twenty years, the already miserable prisons overflowing, the violence of the growing underworld, the high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicides, the inflation eating away at the already meager income of most of the residents of this country, the steady erosion of the rule of law, and the unmistakable movement towards dictatorship. And that is just in Sri Lanka. I had a whole world of violence, injustice, and misery left to account for in my meditations. I remembered a poem by Walt Whitman:

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world,
          and upon all oppression and shame…
All these — all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon,
          See, hear, and am silent.

Perhaps mindful silence and compassionate concern can be transformative. I also pray to God-by-whatever-name, but I am not sure that is anymore effective. I pray to a personal/impersonal God/Universe, whatever you want to call it. I find this more satisfying than simply meditating on a transitory existence. Of course, though it technically is contrary to the Theravada canon, most Buddhists also pray to Lord Buddha, to a kind of superhuman person who cares and pays attention, wants the best for each of us, who can maybe provide some special grace to help us better cope, to be better people, to simply survive. At every hour of the day, lay people can be found making pooja at Buddhist temples all around Sri Lanka, seeking divine assistance in difficult times.

I walked the meditation hall, back and forth. On one side was the shrine of the Buddha. In the other direction was a blank wall, which for me came to represent death. The seated meditators served as witnesses, judge, and jury in my trial. Back and forth I walked – five minutes each way, each step a slow meditation, my death in one direction, the Dharma in the other. Daily meditations on my death have long been a part of my spiritual practice, but perhaps had become too much of a routine. Death definitely helps focus one’s life on meaningful living and the appreciation of small things. At fifty though, I find myself not less, but more obsessed with small things – my fears, inadequacies, and desires. I am riddled with concerns about pleasures, failures, insecurities, finitude, death.

Slowly, the God/Dharma of small things began to fill my consciousness. Little daily miracles became present to me – eating food, walking, a flower, a bird, a person’s face, the sound of the rain, the view of the distant mountains, brushing my teeth, removing another leech. After two days and over fourteen hours of formal meditation – seated, walking, working, eating – my worries began to dissipate, my senses and thoughts grew more attuned to my surroundings. Even my dreams became part of this growing consciousness; my sleep also turned into a kind of meditation.

I do not know what to make of the afterlife. Whether it be the doctrine of reincarnation or the notion of a resurrection, I am skeptically agnostic. I wonder what happens to Buddhism, if we remove the doctrine of reincarnation. You have got one life. This is it. Long or short, the only certainty is death and taxes. Of course, I cling to life, knowledge, goodness, beauty. As much as possible, please, for me and by extension for all beings everywhere (unless that being happen to be my dinner tonight, in which case I am truly grateful for the food I am about to receive). I want life lived to the fullest, which is probably why I will foolishly not spend many weeks, months, or years in meditation, not yet at least. I will continue to try to live an awakened life, to keep my passions and intellect burning, to engage people and nature in deep dialogue, to expose myself to the drama and dharma all around, its tragedies and triumphs, its evil depravities and simple kindnesses, its extravagant beauties.

It is five in the morning on my last day. I seat myself in the long meditation hall, one of the last to arrive. It is raining again. Not the torrential rain of last night, but a gentle rain, its sound falling on roof tiles and trees mixes with the sounds of the dark jungle. The meditators are covered with their robes, only their faces are exposed, though invisible in this dimly lit darkness. I fold my legs and adjust my posture placing my palms together on my lap, thumbs touching. I calm my breath, watching the gentle rise and fall of my diaphragm and my thoughts. Letting go. Letting go. Letting go.

Time passes in this half-wake, fully present state. As the grey light of dawn slowly arrives, I note the changing of the jungle guard, as the energetic sounds of the nighttime amphibians give way to the equally boisterous daytime birds. Today I will leave, much as I arrived, tangled in the Ten Fetters, but a little bit more mindful of my condition and with a hint of something more, a no-thing-ness, that may lie beyond or ahead, but that is somehow already and always present.


Obeyesekere, Gananath and Gombrich, Richard (1989).Buddhism Transformed. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Seneviratne, H. L. (1999).The Work of Kings: The New Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.