My throat tightened with tears as twenty young boys aged five to twelve lined up and one by one fell to their knees, touching their heads and hands to my feet. I wanted to pull each one into my arms, but instead reached down to pat heads and shoulders. This demonstration of gratitude and respect was repeated before my host, Muna, his little son, his parents, sisters, brothers, and several guest house staff members who bring the noon meal each month during Full Moon poya. It is an act of compassion and worship rooted in their Buddhist practice.
The small orphanage receiving these gifts from the family sits far along a dirt track, close to the simple temple we visited the evening before. In fact the very land upon which the temple sits was donated by this family, a family far from wealthy.
I had contributed nothing, but was encouraged to serve a plate of food to at least one child and then to deliver a cup of ice cream to another. Even the act of generosity was shared. I led one singing game and the boys sang for us in return. I photographed as many children as I could, each boy looking into the camera with amazing eyes and a bright smile. One fellow insisted that I take a picture of his t-shirt design. It must be very important to him.
Figure 1 One of 20 fabulous boys!
The boys sat in plastic chairs inside a basic shelter of concrete blocks. They washed their hands before and after the meal at a spigot near the door. They waited until all were served, said a brief prayer and ate enthusiastically. One boy said, “I love ice cream” in perfect English. As each boy carefully licked up every drop, I knew he had lots of company in that.
Figure 2 More sweethearts
Figure 3 Waiting to sing
Afterward, they knew the routine. Eat, wash your plate and cup and return it to the table for the next meal.
Before lunch they showed off their drawings. The subjects were cattle, trees, crocodiles, houses, elephants, Buddhas, dagobas, fruit……and oddly several beach scenes showing tourists under beach umbrellas with dolphin swimming past. A few included helicopters, but oddly there were no tuk tuks, buses, or tractors, the transportation most might have experienced. I tried to identify each artist and point to something special in their art. They loved the attention.
White shirts and blue shorts flapped on the clothes line. These are the government supplied school uniforms. A staff member, crisp in her sari was there to assist with homework and supervise their days. I spied their toothbrush rack and an outdoor shower.
Figure 4 tooth brush rack
There were no playing fields, no toys, games, puzzles, sports equipment. No video games, no television. In fact, these children have next to nothing that children in my world expect.
I thought of boys in schools where I’ve taught, or those who play with my grandson-noisy, action oriented, and with relatively short attention spans. What a contrast to these children who seemed peaceful, steady, and attentive. These children do not experience much variety in diet, activity, or exposure to the world. They own a change of clothing, some shower shoes, some school supplies. They probably have never seen the beach they drew, or attended a movie or a sports event. Life is simple indeed! Even a packet of balloons brings great delight!
The Munasingha family has roots going back two centuries in this area. They feel a deep responsibility to the community and dedication to Buddhism, contributing to temple and other community needs.
Figure 5 Family and Staff at Gem River Edge
But they are not alone. I am told that acts of generosity are common. Even those with few resources are quick to do what they can for others. There is a lesson here for me.
When the beggar approaches, I look for the smallest bill in my purse. When I am asked to contribute I compute what I can afford and cut to the quick on that. I am not Scrooge, to be sure. But I look to the Sri Lankan way to become more open hearted and handed.
Have I found the heartbeat of Sri Lanka for which I searched? I think so!