Sri Lanka: A Buddhist Priest offers refuge to tsunami victims

ReliefWeb, Nov 20, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Community consultation has been one of the guiding principles for the reconstruction process after the devastation of last year’s tsunami.

A US$5000 World Bank grant to one of Sri Lanka?s leading non government organizations, Lanka Jathika Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya, [Sarvodaya] earlier this year helped initiate talks among tsunami affected communities in the south and the east. The result was a Sarvodaya report, titled Post Tsunami Voice of Community Leaders.

Here?s a profile of one of the community leaders who contributed to the research ?Rakava Assaji Thero, a Buddhist priest from Maha Viharaya Ahnagama, the main Buddhist temple in Ahanagama, in southern Sri Lanka.

With the understated humility a Buddhist would aspire to, chief priest the Reverend Rakava Assaji Thero of the main Buddhist temple in Ahangama, southern Sri Lanka, says: ?We did what we could.?

What he ?could do? and ?did? went far beyond providing shelter and food for more than 1000 tsunami survivors every day for over a month. Assaji also provided guidance and direction to the survivors ? with his assistance rooted in empathy and combined with the efficient management of his temple camp.

In many coastal towns stuck by the tsunami, people sought refuge in Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and churches. Religious leaders were often the first on hand to provide support. In Ahangama as elsewhere, people streamed into the temple distraught, disheveled and traumatized by the unexpected tragedy that came on an ordinary bright blue morning.

Buddhist and Hindu temples are traditionally familiar with catering to large numbers but providing shelter and food, managing the aid distribution equitably and maintaining order and discipline among such large numbers was a greater challenge than usual.

?The grief was immense at the loss of children and mothers,? Assaji says. Funeral rites, often seen as an essential part of assuaging grief are important in Sri Lanka. The bodies were honored in the main hall of the temple, all rites performed and burials carried out in the family plots.

?When people started streaming in, I had only three packets of milk powder, set aside for the younger student monks,? Assaji says. Drawing from his own financial resources, his food bill for the first day alone was US$130 [LKR13,000]. Teachers from the temple school cooked lunch and dinner of rice with three vegetables and fish curry.

?We realized the people were so traumatized that we did everything we could to relieve their stress. The children were very frightened. We didn?t allow them to wash their dishes even. I washed dishes too.?

There was no electricity or working telephones. As night fell, work went on by oil lamp and candlelight. No one fell ill, as cleanliness was maintained at all times and garbage disposal was rigorous. Additional mats were added to the 75 sleeping mats in the temple and sleeping arrangements made on the upper terrace, open to the stars as there was no rain in late December. Mosquito coils were lit to safeguard a much needed night of rest for the survivors.

By the second day, lorry loads of food started arriving as Sri Lankans responded generously with rice, vegetables, coconuts and necessities. Everything received as aid was listed on a big board and transparently distributed under the supervision of the priest. He remembered too the poorest of the village - one kilo of rice and a packet of dried milk powder was handed to every villager as food items poured in.

No foreign aid was received but the temple did receive US$1,000 from a US-based Sri Lankan doctor for the destitute children. Assaji shows the meticulously kept accounts and the ?Thank You? letters the children have written to that doctor. ?I bought shoes, pens and mathematical instrument boxes that were needed to get children back to school and was also able to give out of this money financial help for a child who needed heart surgery.?

As survivors moved back to clear their devastated home sites, the temple provided packed rice and curry lunches for people to carry with them. Each evening, everyone returned seeking the security of the temple.

?For the first time in my life I got to know what ?Dhuka? (suffering) is,? says one well-to-do lady from a village who lost everything.

Understanding suffering and the cause of suffering, as well as the impermanence of worldly possessions are basic to the teachings of Buddhism. Guiding the lay folk to liberate themselves from this suffering is the role of a Buddhist priest. In the words of the Buddha: ?We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.? Assaji provided a quiet and ordered place of refuge and many found comfort there.