Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka

They sit in the power centers of their country or in the silence of the forests. They engage energetically in politics, or devote themselves solely to the long wait for enlightenment. Nowhere are monastic ways of life as different as in Sri Lanka, the island state in which the 30,000 members of a Buddhist order shape the everyday life of 20 million people.

Preparation for monasticism

Its a big day for young monks. Life for the young men getting ready for this age old Buddhist tradition will never be the same. Of course they will eat, breathe and smile again; all of them are rather skinny and not very tall, look a lot younger than their real age which is about 20. They will eat, sleep, if occasionally torment themselves with a toothache and occasionally burst out in laughter and fool around among themselves.

Nevertheless, at the end of this solemn morning, after a long ceremony, which attracts a lot of festively dressed people in the famous Malwatta temple of the ancient capital city of Kandy in the highlands of Sri Lanka, everything will be different: the young men will never again be like their peers.

Preparing for monasticism

From normal life and everyday life the boys have already adopted themselves as nine-year or ten-year-olds. Their parents had taken them to the monastery. There they were shaved off their hair, wrapped in yellow,  no longer to be heard, and no longer permitted to run about. They became novices and, although not even in puberty, had to maintain a certain religious dignity.

But the path from the parental home to the monastery was only the first step – out of everyday life, into the world of the spirit. The second, the decisive, the final follows today: On this morning, the novices are consecrated to monks. In Sri Lanka they call this Upasampada, Buddhist rite of higher ordination, by which a novice becomes a monk, or bhikhu.

Three ways

From this day, the young men can fill the most varied roles in the social fabric of the country. They can make careers in the city and as “political monks” can have a great influence on the development of the republic. They can retreat forever into the jungle, to expect as a “forest monks” meditating salvation.

Or they can settle down as “village monks” in a small temple in the country and provide for the spiritual and social welfare of their neighbors. Thus, the monks will fit into the life of the island. However, they will always differ fundamentally from the people of flesh and blood. Monks are symbols. Ideal phenomena. Philosophical Metaphors.

Everything about the monks is significant

The shaved head showing equanimity and modesty. The yellow, the orange, the red of their robes: the deceptively bright, fast-transitory colors of autumn, the leaves just before dying. The right shoulder, which remains uncovered by the robe, as a modest indication of the drama of original human nakedness and lack of protection.

Of course, the monks have different shapes – there are young, old, thick, thin, upright, bent, the whole scale of human physiognomies and faces. But the same shawls, the same skulls, the same shoulders, are always the same shoulders: the same image in massive repetition. And so the ideal image of renouncing individuality, the secular man’s pride and most holy property.

And some monks even groom their own face, remove their brows from their beard and hair, so that the eyes sit like in the contourless caves of a skull and the monks still look less upon themselves. For who should be? Nothing but an illusion.

Strict social separation

The idea of ​​a two-party society, which separates monks and non-monks from the state strictly, and which has survived to the present day in Sri Lanka, goes back to the early days of Buddhism. With this she came from the country of origin India to the island before its southern tip about 2300 years ago. Sri Lanka was the first country to reach the new religion on its long triumphal journey through Asia – and to some extent still dominates the Buddhist Middle Ages.

The ascetics in the woods

Forest monks are role models for all: just look, they have left everything, the villages, the cities and their families anyway. Now they devote themselves only to the mind and lead a life that could not be more painful and is reduced to the elementary. They live in caves or under overhanging rocks. Staying alone or joining small monastic communities, forest monks have been found everywhere in the country, which they call monasteries, even though their builder was the nature itself and there are usually no permanent buildings.