Alanmathiniyaramaya Temple had a ceremony last night which blasted ear-splitting chanting through loudspeakers all down the street. There was literally a loudspeaker 15 feet from our bedroom window, playing at full volume. They were also loading a poor, terrified young elephant onto a truck under our window, with clanking of chains and slamming of metal. I’m a Buddhist and for the past few days I’ve been unable to meditate because they’re making so much noise. There are two things I really object to in Sri Lankan practice. Loudspeakers, and the use (frankly, abuse) of elephants.
On meditation retreats one generally engages in silent practice, or at least minimizes words used. Because people are meditating, which is largely the point of the dhamma and the fundamental practice of Buddhism. In Sri Lankan cultural Buddhism people do chant scriptures, which is fine. Beautiful actually, and the sound is contained within the temple or house that has invited it, generally. The introduction of loudspeakers, however, has made chanting a hostile and un-mindful act.
As the Dhammapada says:
If like a broken gong
never you reverberate,
quarrelling’s not part of you,
that Nibbana’s reached. (Verse 134)
Many Buddhist temples today, however, reverberate quite conspicuously, and offensively. Many say that Muslims amplify their call to prayer so Buddhist need to respond, but there’s a relevant verse for that too.
Speak not harshly to other folk,
speaking so, they may retort.
Dukkha indeed is quarrelsome speech
and force for force may hurt you. (Verse 133)
Whatever the reason, the blasting of chanting all night just offends people who are trying to rest, Buddhist or Muslim or whatever they are. Everyone needs to rest and everyone likes a bit of peace and blasting sound at night is just disturbing. What gets me is that the noise makes it especially hard to meditate. They play various sounds all day, especially in the mornings and after work when I try to sit and clear my head. The noise pollution makes it very difficult, which is odd cause it’s coming from a Buddhist temple.
This Alanmathiniyaramaya Temple, which I think was built by a British lady, is especially noxious because they’re not just blasting from their own grounds. They’ve set up loudspeakers every 20 meters down the whole road, and a few unlucky houses are directly in front of them. They turn it up so the sound carries, I suppose, but it’s a direct aural assault on the people that live there.
Chanting by force of voice is one thing. Still not especially mindful, but still limited by the human voice and there has to be some quality of effort behind it. These loudspeakers are another thing altogether. They take gentle chanting and make it almost violent. It’s really bad and I do think it should be banned at night just as a public nuisance. I also think it has no place in mindful Buddhist practice.
The other thing was the elephants. They were loading this poor baby into a truck and it was quite sad.
By harming living beings
one is not a ‘Noble’ man,
by lack of harm to all that live
one is called a ‘Noble One’. (Verse 270)
You could argue that keeping elephants in temples doesn’t ‘harm’ them, but I think that’s really quite disingenuous. To march them in pereheras you have to prod them with spears and they’re quite obviously agitated, especially the young ones. Elephants are not domesticated animals, they don’t breed practically well (long life cycle) and are considered captive animals. They really don’t enjoy being poked along, covered in sheets, surrounded by fire, whips, fire-crackers, etc.
I’ve enjoyed pereheras in the past but I’ve grown to think this treatment of elephants is simply not compatible with compassionate Buddhism. It’s an important and frankly amazing part of Sri Lankan culture, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not nice to fellow living beings.
I’m quite supportive of cultural Sri Lanka Buddishm because, through cultural encoding, it’s preserved Theravada Buddhism such that it’s an available and supported practice to me, 2,600 years on. Many people say that cultural Buddhism is a complete deviation and I don’t agree, the dhamma has to be transmitted somehow. There are a few glaring contradictions which I think need to be addressed. Chief among them are loudspeakers, elephants and the general aggressive territoriality of what should be a slightly more chill religion.