Chapter 5 – The Beginning

This chapter is out of sequence as it was written towards the end of my last visit in 2010. But some of you have asked how I came to be involved in this matter so I’ve inserted it here before going on chronologically.

December 2010

Some you have asked how I became involved here. As I begin to think about how to answer, it seems a bit complicated.  So I will start with what I hope will be a simple explanation and then go on to succeeding levels of a bit more detail. That way when you feel you’ve got all the information you really wanted, you can disregard the rest.

I had travelled extensively throughout Asia for the last 25 years of my career as Managing Director for Asian operations of an IT company. Through exposure to Buddhist culture in business and social situations, I became very interested in Buddhist philosophy and began to study it rather seriously. I began an online meditation course when I lived in Hong Kong. When I moved to Singapore I found the Buddhist Library and Research Society (BLRS). I enrolled in 2 of their courses in Buddhism and began a serious personal meditation practice.

The spiritual head of the BLRS is a very senior Sri Lankan monk, Bhante Bellanwila Dhammaratana. He is actually the hereditary chief monk of a large, very old and famous temple in Colombo. He came to Singapore many years ago on what I can best describe as “missionary” work. His uncle was the then chief monk of the temple. After his uncle died, Bhante Ghammaratana (Bhante D) chose to continue his work in Singapore and left his younger brother, also a monk, in charge of the temple. Both brothers are very well educated holding several degrees and publications between them.

When I retired in 2001, I continued my research into Buddhism after returning home to Seattle and enrolled in several university courses. In 2002, I made a one month trip through the ancient Buddhist sites of India. At Bhante Dhammaratana’s suggestion, in 2003, I made a similar trip to his home country of Sri Lanka. It was there that I met his brother, Bhante Bellanwila Wimalaratana. On both trips I had hired a car and driver and travelled by myself staying and eating at local establishments. I feel that I was able to get very close to the people and learned and experienced much more than if I had been part of a package tour.

When back in Seattle, I began attending weekly meditation sessions at a nearby Thai temple. The chief monk there asked me to help him establish the Buddhist Council of the Northwest (BCNW). This became a loose affiliation of temples of all traditions (Mahayana, Theravada, Zen, Tibetan, Pure Land, etc) in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia, of which I became the Director.

At the time, I had my internet search engine set to automatically download news from certain Asian countries. So, from the Sri Lankan and Thai newswires I understood the severity of the situation on the morning of 26 December 2004 (SL time) well before the world news networks picked up the story. I allowed a period of time for them to deal with the immediacy of the situation and then called Bhante D and his brother to see what I could do. They told me that immediate aid was being taken care of but that they hoped to begin a project to rebuild as many of the destroyed homes as they could.

The Thai temple immediately began to organize aid from their community to send to the agencies working on the Thai coastline. I broadcast to the BCNW and asked for donations to help with the reconstruction in Sri Lanka. In a matter of days I had received $35,000. Some of it was contingent upon assurances that the money would be properly spent. I agreed to travel to Sri Lanka in February 2005, six weeks after the Tsunami in order to make such assurances.  I was there for a month during which I participated in the reconstruction planning, and developed a web site for the Colombo temple. The web site was used to make an international appeal for assistance, to let people know of the plans and schedules, and to update the progress. I went back in November of 2005 to follow up on the projects and to begin several personal projects sponsored by my family.

Our family projects have centered on education and employment. My wife was a school teacher before she entered real estate and continues to be involved with education programs. An Italian family had donated a school building next to the temple but the temple was unable to afford teachers. During the 2nd trip we undertook to hire two preschool teachers that had been “Montessori” trained. They are still with us and have just started their 6th class year. The classes are offered free of charge to all 4 and 5 year olds.

When the tourists started to come back in 2006, I went again in 2006/2007 to teach English to those seeking jobs in the tourist industry. At that time I stayed in a guest house a few miles from the village while the monks’ quarters were being rebuilt. After rebuilding the homes, the biggest need was employment. Many of the people had had small shops and businesses in their homes that were now gone. The souvenir shops, restaurants, guest houses and resorts where some of them had worked were also gone.

Some of the villagers have a little knowledge of English vocabulary and phrases. But to be hired in the hotels and restaurants frequented by European and Australian tourists, they needed a little better understanding and a lot of practice. There are no such tourist facilities in Godagama but the backpacker/surfer haven of Hikkaduwa is about 5 miles south and there are large and small resorts all around the coastline. And the villagers will travel great distances on the buses if they find a job, even going as far as Colombo which is several hours on the bus each way.

We discovered that Sri Lanka had evolved to a point that basic computer skills increased the chances of employment. Realizing that only a few children and fewer adults had any familiarity with information technology, we set out to see what we could do. We live where Microsoft lives, so through contacts we were able to acquire 6 copies of Vista and Office 2007 at a very low price. Very good friends in Singapore, which I met at the BLRS, arranged the contribution of 6 used PCs and monitors. Everything was shipped to the Colombo temple by Bhante Dhammaratana, thus easing import problems.

I went there again for six weeks in 2007/2008 to set up a Computer Lab. I had hoped to set it up in the preschool but it proved impractical so it has been in the dining hall of the monks’ residence all this time. I harangued and cajoled the local office of the government telephone company to run an aDSL phone line from the coast road, through the jungle to the temple even though it was a further distance than their guidelines dictated. We were able to establish a mixed LAN/wireless network and introduce the children and their parents to the wonders (and perils) of the World Wide Web.

After learning the basics the children are free to use the computers as they like. Left to their own, the most popular programs are graphics based and they create some wonderful drawings. Among the adults, Skype, email and Facebook are becoming the most used applications.

Bhante Dhammaratana began to talk of a purpose built computer school room with donations from his Singapore followers. It was completed last month and here I am again until December 18th, making the move and reestablishing the network. Bhante, my friends and some others are coming over on the 15th for the official opening ceremony.

With assistance from my friends in Singapore, I’ve bought 3 new PCs and replaced all the monitors with LCDs. During a huge storm five months ago a lightning strike took out all the equipment. I have been able to repair two of the PCs but the monitors were hopeless. I think we’ll need a new router/access point as well as the RF range has dropped to only a few yards. Fortunately, the IT market in Sri Lanka has evolved to the point that I can pick up whatever I need (although very off-brands) at reasonable prices from a shop about 5 miles up the road.

I had hired and trained a wonderful young lady named Champi, as the principal teacher. She had taken a few IT classes at a vocational school and was a quick study. I would train her on Vista, MS Office, Internet Explorer, eMail, etc. in the mornings and then together we would teach 2 classes in the afternoon to children and 1 in the evening to adults. She also learned how to maintain the systems, scan and clean virus, update software, and connect to the network. She’s a treasure and you’ll hear more about her in future “Letters from Sri Lanka”.

OK, we’re getting to the end. I thought this would be briefer but I seem to have run on a bit.

Why this particular village?

On the day of the Tsunami, Bhante Wimalaratana immediately called together the Colombo temple committee of lay “deacons” and began to organize fresh water and food. Hearing there was tremendous damage starting at the outskirts of Colombo and running all the way to the southern tip of the island and back up the east side, they loaded trucks and headed south. The coast road was impassable in many places and they had to travel many miles inland to get around washed out bridges. They stopped and distributed what they had whenever some other group wasn’t already assisting. By the end of the day they had made it to Godagama, a small village that is normally about a four drive from Colombo. There they came upon total destruction. Practically every house had been leveled. Every bit of vegetation except for coconut trees had been stripped away or covered with mud. A Japanese survey team later determined that the waves had reached 25 feet high and run nearly a mile inland surrounding a small hill that this temple is built on.

It was to here that the surviving villagers had run to escape. There were hundreds of people camped out wherever they could find space. Many refused to go back down for days even after the water had subsided. It was here, on the day after the disaster, that Bhante Wimalaratana and his group found Bhante Piyananda and a small group of monks tending to the people as best they could. They had even begun to tear up their robes to make bandages. Bhante Wimalaratana was so impressed with this young chief monk of a very small, practically derelict old temple that he decided that the Colombo temple, Bellanwila Rajamaha Vihariya, would adopt the local temple and the village.

Bhante Dhammaratana arrived on the 3rd day with a Singapore Airline mercy flight with tons of relief items, 3 Singapore doctors and crates of medical supplies. They dispatched to the eastern side of the island near Trincomalee where they set up to provide supplies and medical services to a Muslim tent encampment. Both brothers are very active in international inter-religious affairs. A forty foot container filled by his Singapore followers left the docks there a few days later.

At the time the civil war was still going on and the rebels were active if not dominant around Trincomale. So they were forced to operate with an accompanying armed SL Marine detachment. I went with him during my November 2005 trip when he delivered 2 TVs to the Marine barracks in gratitude for their help.

Bhante Wimalaratana had received money for the housing project from Buddhist organizations in the UK, China, Burma, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan and elsewhere. When these organizations heard of the success of the project and the part Bhante Piyananda and his fellow monks played in it, they sent additional funds with which to honor them with a new 2 story residence to replace the ratty old 2 room, broken roofed one they had been living in.  Included was a 2nd floor room with a Western toilet. That’s my room when I’m here.

In total we rebuilt, from the ground up, about 50 homes and made major repairs to another 50 that had been severely damaged. We had to purchase land from an old cinnamon plantation behind the temple and build 21 homes for families that had resided in the ‘100 yard from the beach’ zone that the government has now banned for private homes.

If you are interested and have Google Earth, you can see a graphic image of what I have been talking about. The latest versions of Google Earth have a Historical Image feature. When you open it you can scroll back through time and view images of the same area taken by the satellites at different times. There are several images of this area. One was taken in April 2010 (update: Oct 2011) which is very current and one in January 2005, a few days after the Tsunami.

Copy and paste these coordinates into the “Fly to” box.  6°10’52.00″N, 80° 4’45.41″E. You’ll be directly in the center of the temple complex.

Zoom into an altitude of about 1200 feet. Move the image so that the temple complex is in the upper right corner and you should be able to just see the beach at the end of our lane. Then move the Historical   bar all the way to the left and you can see the before and after images. In the January 2005 view you’ll see that except for coconut trees, most everything has been flatten or washed out to sea.

One last comment. After the housing project was fully funded, we had about $1100 left over. I advised my contributors that I was going to use the money for some other village needs. We bought several hundred pounds of milk powder to be distributed over the following few months to families with children under the age of six. We also bought seven Singer sewing machines to replace those washed away or broken. A number of the villagers had small home businesses sewing items for the tourist shops. Manual, treadle operated machines were chosen because it would be months before electricity was restored. One of the ladies who received a machine from us has made a success out of sewing handbags and totes from native materials. She now has several machines and a half dozen other ladies working for her.

I hope that some of what’s contained herein answers your question. If you have others, by all means ask them. I’m always glad to make interested parties aware of the situation here.

If you have questions about my views of the government or other sensitive subjects, I would prefer to answer them after I’ve returned home. I have an unusual visa as it is good for 5 years with multiple entries allowed for up to 6 months at a time. It was arranged by Bhante Wimalaratana. But even his high status cannot guarantee my continued presence here if I were seen to be critical of the government. And they see a lot. Suffice it to say that my love for things Sri Lankan is bounded by this village’s borders.

Please forgive any grammatical errors as I wrote this hastily. I have a little time on my hands as I’m now waiting for *!@# telephone authorities to reroute our aDSL line.

Regards,

John

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