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"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 5: 
Into the Land of Serendib 
 

INTO THE LAND OF SERENDIB:  SRI LANKA JOURNAL # 5

It’s frustrating.  I feel like we’re missing some key ingredient, some essential that will make sense of this picture.

How can such sweet, kind, smiling people, in a shockingly beautiful country, be at war with themselves?

A village boy... a future soldier??



We’ve left the war-ravaged villages and rice paddies of the North to climb into the hill country surrounding Kandy, the last of the Sri Lankan Kingdoms to fall to European colonialism.

We take winding (very winding!) roads clinging to the sides of steep mountains, painted deep, vivid green by the terraced rice paddies stepping down to the river valleys running below.  The houses of the paddy workers also cling to the sides of those hills, far from any roads and a very steep walk home.  In some places, the paths down are so steep that they consist of tall steps -- and those have switchbacks!  Up above, the clouds hug the tops of the mountains, and waterfalls tumbling down complete the picture of this paradise.

I see a farmer, thigh deep in rich, black mud, leading a brace of water buffaloes in tilling a very small paddy hugging the mountainside. Others are planting the young green rice shoots, or walking the paths on some errand in a land where it is impossible to hurry.

We stop for photos of a particularly striking valley.  Our vehicle is instantly surrounded with children -- the valley is so steep I can’t see where they’ve come from.  They aren’t begging or asking for anything: they are just looking at us with the direct, wide-eyed intense stare that we’ve come to get expect in Sri Lanka.  After the first few photos, the village adults start showing up.  We stop, bow, smile and get back in the vehicle before someone starts making tea!

The Arab sailors who first encountered this island called it Serendib -- “the land of happy surprising occurrences”.  It’s where the word “serendipity” comes from.  So what is this war about?

This war goes deeper than the obvious military conflict between the government troops and LTTE.  That is more symptomatic than causative. An indicator of how deep the internal war goes is the amazingly high suicide rate on this island, one of the highest in the world.  There is something about the Sri Lankan spirit that is at war with itself.

In Sri Lanka, one does not see hoards of angry, disaffected, gun-toting youth, like in America’s cities.  Sri Lanka does not have a culture that glorifies a warrior mentality, like the Maori or Samurai culture in Japan. What one finds are hoards of beautiful, smiling women, equally beautiful men, living in a paradise unsurpassed in its beauty. So what gives?

While traveling in Sri Lanka, I can't help but make comparisons to another beautiful island:  Bali.  Both islands are exquisitely beautiful, with wonderful people, gorgeous landscapes, and a deep spiritual tradition.  But  there is a transcendental quality that exists in Bali that I find strangely  elusive in Sri Lanka.  There is a peacefulness, a sleepiness, a timeless quality in Bali.  I would be willing to bet that Bali has one of the lowest suicide rates on the planet; I know that Sri Lanka has one of the highest.

Why?  Why does Sri Lanka harbor the intractable war, while Bali remains relatively immune to the issues that wrack the rest of Indonesia?

Religion

One thing may be the Balinese religion, an amazing blend of many different  currents, from Hindu to Buddhist to indigenous.  This is not a spectator religion, but is actively practiced by the entire population.   The high priests don't seem to have some staked out theological ground, a turf to protect.  The women weaving the temple offerings, the men involved in the kechak dance or the gamelan playing, the children watching the shadow  puppets, all in the context of the temple ceremony, each plays an integral part in the spiritual fabric of the society.  In Bali, near-constant spiritual ceremonies are an integral part of the economic, cultural and  social life of a village.

Is this the missing link?  When I attended the village exorcism in Sri Lanka, I asked how often there were ceremonies like this in a village. "You are very lucky to see one" was the answer.

Perhaps the coherent, cross-theological spiritual base in Bali creates the community-supporting conditions in what Dr. Ariyaratne calls the “psychosphere”.  Perhaps Sri Lanka’s indigenous spirituality can serve as a common thread to weave together the war-torn society.

Food

Another factor may be that Bali can feed itself, while Sri Lanka does not.  Sri Lanka is a net rice importer; Bali, with its near-miraculous three rice harvests per year, exports more rice than its populace eats.

As we are driving, we see huge bags of rice balanced on the backs of bicycles pedaled down the road.  The names printed on the sacks of rice are Vietnam, China, India... and yes, Bali.

I am told that the leading reason given for suicide among males is a failed rice harvest (in other words, economic stress).  What would happen if Sri Lanka’s poorest, most vulnerable population had “enough”? Would that be enough to return the serendipity to Serendib?

Peace,

Sharif
 
 
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