Answers hard to find under the bo-tree: Tension builds up in Buddhist Sri Lanka in the wake of assassination of the president

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The Independent Online
A ONE-EYED mystic in saffron robes sat underneath the sacred 2,000-year-old 'bo-tree' in Sri Lanka's spiritual capital, Anuradhapura, and preached. Yesterday was Vesak day, a special festival celebrating the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha, and so the mystic, who cut quite a figure, attracted a large audience from the pilgrims who had come to worship at the bo-tree. He had a long beard, and his unkempt hair was tied up in a knot like the end of a ship's rope.

Sri Lanka has been deeply troubled since last Saturday's assassination of its president, but the mystic was serene: 'If we come to understand the Buddha there will be no problems,' he intoned. His audience nodded attentively as he explained the significance of the four different entrance doors to the bo-tree, which had something to do with shedding the three vices of jealousy, pride and selfishness.

Why was it, I asked the mystic, that there could be such violence in Sri Lanka, where Buddhism was so strong? Two- thirds of the country's 18 million people are Buddhist, a religion of non-violence, selflessness and harmony. The mystic turned his one good eye and an empty socket on me and shook his head sadly. He cited the bad dreams of a mythical king who lived more than 2,000 years ago - 'they are the reason for these troubles coming up'.

He had no solution. Nor could anyone else underneath the bo- tree yesterday explain how one of Asia's most devout Buddhist nations could have waged brutal war on itself and on its Hindu Tamil minority for a decade, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Sri Lanka has seen it all in the past 10 years: massacres of entire villages, women and children beheaded, torture, disappearances, bodies burnt in car tyres.

And yet they keep coming to the bo-tree, the most sacred Buddhist site in Sri Lanka, to worship - 2,260 years ago a sapling from the original bo-tree under which Buddha famously attained enlightenment in India was cut off and transported to Sri Lanka by the nun Sanghamitta. This coincided with the arrival of Buddhism in the island.

Since then the tree has been protected by a special group of guards, and there are documents to show that the tree is indeed over 2,000 years old. Anuradhapura's bo-tree is all the more important because the original bo- tree under which the Buddha sat in India has not been preserved.

The tree is wizened and its branches are mostly supported on crutches. But it has seeded many other trees around it, and here pilgrims sit for hours, meditating or just resting in the shade.

Haldyage Bodhidasa was one of the 40 guards of the bo-tree. They are dressed all in white, and their hair is tied back in a bun. The job is hereditary - he got it from his father. He had been tending the bo-tree for 36 years. Did he know why Sri Lanka was so violent? 'I cannot say,' he said. Was there any point in all the pilgrims' prayers? 'Sometimes it can help,' he replied. There were few clear answers under the bo-tree.

'You cannot relate Buddhism or Christianity to this violence,' said a farmer who had made the 65-mile journey from Trincomalee that morning to worship at the tree. 'All religions are the same, all are good. But man's idea is not good.'

People were coming and going, heaping flowers in front of the Buddhist statues - lotus blossoms and frangipani, with clouds of perfumed incense smoke. 'Many lessons are to be drawn from the lotus blossom,' said Ramani Weerasinghe over my shoulder.

He is 60 and a former employee of the Prisons Department ('don't misunderstand me - I worked there'). He has studied Buddha's teachings. 'The lotus blossom comes out of the mud - we are all born from mud and will return to mud,' he recited.

So why was the president killed? He took the blunt question in his stride. 'A very good question.' Mr Premadasa, he thought, had not followed the straight road of Buddha. 'If you make a wrong turning, there are troubles and enemies.' The president, by fighting - perhaps killing - his rivals, had 'taken a wrong turning'.

But the violence was not good. 'Somebody must stop this, sir. Lord Buddha must stop this.'

(Photograph omitted)

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