FEATURE | THE WHISPERING PATHWAY

Located in the mountains of Central Sri Lanka, and about 30 kms from the city of Anuradhapura, lies the ancient Ritigala Buddhist monastery. Dating back two millennia, the monastic complex is an epic work of mindful architecture connected via a continuous, forest-hemmed stone walkway.

The 1.2 km hike begins at the office of the on-site branch of Department of Archeology of Sri Lanka close to the foot of the Banda Pokuna, an ancient man-made reservoir with a circumference of almost 400 metres. Erected right down to the base are stone steps that circle the entirety of the reservoir. Here visitors to the monastery possibly completed their ablutions before heading on towards one of the many Padhanaghara – double platform structures made from massive pieces of granite linked together by a stone bridge; these served as meditation spaces. There are over 60 such double platforms over 120 acres at Ritigala. Among these structures are also the vestiges of what was once a “hospital” complete with root grinding stones and Ayurvedic oil baths with sophisticated drainage systems; the foundations of “floating air conditioned” rooms; and ornately decorated urinals to remind one of the fickleness of power and glory.

We began our journey at the Banda Pokuna into this ancient realm held as it was in the benevolent arms of nature herself. As soon as we started walking up the granite pathway, we felt the aura around us shift; take on an ethereal feel. The place manifests a melancholic trance in which one becomes completely cloaked, experiencing each of its elements in vivid sensory detail: The murmuring forest, the life force of its roots underfoot, the iridescent salamanders flicking between the stones and the continuous pathway like a silver beacon to venues of meditation and peace.

Trees, some old as age itself, their serpentine roots traversing the forest floor as far as the eye can see, shade the path with their green verdancy. As we hiked uphill, the atmosphere continued to thrum with their primal energy as one ancient one whispered and its murmur was carried like an undulating wave through the rest of the grove. Then all would be quiet except for the chirr of the crickets and the chorus of a songbird. It felt like we were witnesses to the sharing of a sage old secret; the trees of Ritigala retelling it among themselves and then quieting down as 21st century humans hiked up its ancient trails. Then whispering it again, until one stops to listen; and then the pulse slows down as the heart beats to the gentle rhythm of the humming trees. If ever there was a place where one can SEE one’s feelings, this mystical pathway held in the embrace of the ancients is that place.

Serenity is everywhere. The scene is mesmeric. The trees continue to tell their tales in the sun dappled patterns that shimmer on the path and on our skins; like golden runes that speak of the most profound quietude and peace.

To stand there and to take all this in is like absorbing the quiet energy of all that the monsastery once embodied; the tread of thousands of devotees; their quiet meditation, their rhythmic chants and even the ascendency of their consciousness. One can almost see the ascetics of old and the seekers of calm walk up the steps, their spirit energy conjured up again by the gentle cantillation of the trees. The experience rouses in turn, awe and an overwhelming humility; an acute awareness of the smallness of the individual and the profoundness of the collective.

We came away from Ritigala cloaked in the magic of nature that has continued to keep its erstwhile history vibrating through its quadrangles, pillars and its meandering walkway. The Ritigala monastery is truly a mystical portal through time.

FLASH FICTION | A DIALOGUE WITH THE DEVIL

(I)

Are you there?

Where else would I be?

I mean are you really there or is it just my mind filling in the dialogue?

Dialogue by its very essence means a conversation between two people

People?

Beings then.

I call myself a ____. But I have so many questions in my head. Secret. All secret. Shared with no one. I don’t want to be termed an infidel. A pariah.

What questions?

Why is religion so … restraining? Incarcerating almost. And claustrophobic.

I want to be good. I want to receive your divine blessings. I want to go to heaven. But I sometimes feel so trapped here.

You have a mind. Listen to it.

I do. And it tells me that the rituals of religion have overtaken my humanity. I do them with more earnestness than any act of actual kindness or empathy or consideration for the people around me. I feel like a fraud. Like I’m doing all this so I can go to heaven and not … not because I really want anyone to benefit from any of my good deeds in themselves.

My mother is going to perform her third pilgrimage … blessed is she! But I can’t help thinking that in place of raking in more divine favour, she could have instead funded the education of our driver’s daughter. She’s such a smart girl but was pulled out of school because it was a choice between her and her brother. Why does wanting my mother to forgo her holy pilgrimage to help someone at home seem right to me? And yet, thinking that seems sinful? And why must I give fully only to those poor that share my exact faith even if I have to look for them on the streets, and give grudgingly or not at all to the Hindu woman who slaves in my kitchen everyday? Why does that seem incredibly unkind to me, and yet even thinking about the inconsideration somehow seems sinful? Like I’m questioning the very fundamentals and wisdom of my faith.

When I’m alone and these thoughts take over my heart and mind, I get frustrated because I can’t do what really feels right to me. I feel like I’m being cold, calculating, ruthless. And then I get panic attacks because thinking like that just seems damnable and wrong. Everything is upside down and inside out. Nothing makes sense anymore.

When you feel right in your gut about something, anything, a conundrum, then that is your moral obligation. Religion is just another name given to that personal value system, that credo.

But I’m not always sure. There are so many mixed messages. The world has changed and yet we have not. We are discouraged from embracing that change in ways that should happen naturally. Change does not sit well with the communities and the people that were enlightened by your wisdom and guidance so many ages ago. They still want to hold on to all those early norms and customs. It seems unnatural. Counter-intuitive. And yet, I want to do what’s right. I want to go to heaven.

Is …. Is there a heaven?

What is your concept of heaven?

What I’ve been told: a place of ease and abundance. Also a place where so much that I’m not allowed to do in this world, I can freely do there.

That sounds complex.

Yes! Again, I feel like a fraud. Why are so many things sinful and wrong in this life and yet those same acts and liberties will be allowed in the blessed heavens?

You tell me.

But it’s in the teachings. Revealed through your blessed apostle. It is your final word.

You have hundreds of years of history behind you. Your humanity and your spirit together with your instinct, make up your three most enlightened and reliable guides. Let them lead you and you will gradually find your way: a state of being that will make you feel light and joyful on the inside. You know, it’s true when someone said that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

That last bit was funny; I’m actually smiling. That felt good. But …religion is never lighthearted; it’s not meant to be cheerful or playful.

Any enterprise of the body and the soul that stops you from feeling happy on the inside, is not viable in the long term.

(II)

I listened to my heart and my mind. I tried to do what felt right at the deepest, truest part of me rather than what I’ve been taught is right.

And how did you feel?

I felt elated, free, at one with everything around me. No one was beyond your divine magnanimity no matter what they believed in; it was their goodness that was at the front and centre of any and all consequences. I felt an overwhelming compassion for everyone, every creature. There was nothing binding me down in odd, contrived ways. Rituals became so secondary. They ceased to define my whole belief system and instead became the anchors that I sometimes went to when I felt agitated or overcome. Sometimes I even felt like I had no … religion; at least, no mainstream religion. My renewed faith was like a shimmering pathway in my own heart and mind. I began to question things without feeling guilty, and I looked for answers. I began to see so many similarities with others who are faith-wise not like us. My perspective evolved … changed. I realized how difficult it was to identify and focus on the differences rather than on the similarities; how unnatural that was. We were all the same. I felt free, grateful, confident. And heaven would be more of this.

More of what?

More of every one of us trying to be ever better versions of ourselves. Our true selves. Our natural, spiritual selves. Because there is so much joy and freedom in that. So much honesty. So much harmony. So much peace of mind. Such lightness of spirit. That has to be what heaven feels like.

Yes, I listened to my inner voice and everything seemed so easy, so natural, so unbinding.

You LISTENED to your inner voice. You used the past tense. Why?

Yes, I did. Because my new sense of godliness came with a tremendous price. Everyone around me, those I love, those I look up to, those that have always guided me and protected me, they didn’t like what I had become. I felt my mother’s painful disappointment, my brother’s deafening silence and my father’s quiet fury. It has to mean something … all this outrage and disillusionment.

What do you believe in now?

I believe there is sagacity in the old ways. I believe in everything that I have been taught. I believe in the precise observance of rituals to keep us focused and dedicated. I believe that our differences are important and cannot be ignored; that these differences, even if they appear small, many times outweigh our similarities. They keep us cohesive as a community, an impregnable force that can withstand an assault of any kind. More importantly, I believe that we are not all equal in the eyes of the Divine. In terms of faith, we have got it as right as imperfect human beings can get a belief system. The final Hereafter will be ruthless, exacting for the unbelievers and also for those of us believers that stray from the one true path.

That sounds ominous.

That feels safe. I feel protected, part of a whole, when I reaffirm this credo. There has to be a reason for why so many believe these tenets. Why we are so many many millions strong. I can’t lose sight of the bigger picture by focusing on the inner, confounding, disquieting workings of my heart and my mind. They are distracting, frustrating and damaging to me, to my wellbeing in the Hereafter.

Damaging to your peace of mind too?

Faith is not about peace of mind. It is about a constant battle inside. An unending war against the voices of excess and those that would try to tempt us from our one, sacred path. Complete peace of mind is an intemperance, an indulgence, a fantasy. I’m sticking to my guns now. You can’t confuse me.

You are not God! With all your postulations about questioning everything, looking for answers, listening to my heart, focusing on the fairytale of my own spirituality, my peace of mind.

You are the devil pretending to be Divine!

(III)

I blocked the other voice. I ended the dialogue. I turned away. I turned away feeling triumphant and blessed. I had vanquished the unsettling, misleading rumbling inside. I had been lured away from the wisdom of centuries and I had found my way back. I basked in my victory.

Even as the muscles of my face celebrated the triumph of my soul, I felt something wrenching in my gut. I resolutely swallowed the acid aftertaste that rose to my mouth.