This column, as the readers must have observed, is often inspired by my encounters with food and my travels. I have been rather sedentary in the last few weeks, and hence, it was the food on its own that gave me food for thought for this column. Food, in a different way, though.
Last week I happened to be on the beach as early as five in the morning. It was still dark. Only a few dim lights were burning but from a distance. Amidst this dark backdrop I saw a hefty creature moving at a rather fast pace. Out of curiosity I jogged towards the hefty creature and found that it was a Buddhist monk. He was wearing a trendy pair of trainers with a matching pair of sports socks, I noted, below the hem of his saffron coloured robe, which was swaying rhythmically to his brisk walk. It was a bizarre sight to see a monk in trainers, socks and robe. But then, I told myself, – we live in modern times.
With the best of respectful language used to address a monk, I asked what brings him to the beach. “Seeni, mahaththayo, Seeni” (sugar, sir, sugar) said the monk, panting. The monk made a compelling case as to why he’s doing this brisk walk well before the dawn. As an acute diabetic patient he needs some regular physical exercise in addition to medication. It was apparently not possible to do exercises in the temple as the ‘dayakas‘ would not be too pleased to see their chief priest doing push-ups and stretches on the bo-maluwa. So my newly acquainted monk does it in the dark, on the beach, a couple of kilometers away from his temple. He comes with a few child-monks as this is also a time for them to freely play around, without been seen by the dayakas. What he said was true. We met the small monks when we walked back. They were chasing the small crabs that emerge on the shore when the waves wash back to the sea.
Coincidently, a day back after this rare personal encounter, I saw on the news the Hon. Maithripala Sirisena, the Minister of Health, respectfully offering a handbook to a Chief Priest that gave a diet-plan to monks. A news site reported that “more and more monks are being diagnosed with diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. The trend prompted the health department to recommend a diet plan, which will be announced in December”. The news site quoted what the Minister had told the Daily Mirror: “Because of their great affinity towards religious observances, most devotees offer food with high cholesterol content and the Buddhist monks have no choice but to partake of these foods all year round,” and “The situation is further aggravated because monks do not engage in recreational activities or exercises to shed their excessive weight.” But there could be exceptions, such as the monk I met.
Monks and temples have adapted themselves, at times drastically though, to changing times. An example is a famous monk who cut a gigantic birthday cake recently amidst a large group of well-wishers, some of them prominent politicians and wealthy business people. The dayakas too are changing their rituals of offerings.
A friend of mine, a former President of an association of professionals, told me this story. He had been thinking of making a ‘modern but a meaningful’ donation to a temple. Having seen the over-weight, ever-panting monk whose waistline was ever-expanding in the temple of which my friend is a dayaka, he chose to donate a treadmill! Yes, a treadmill because the monk cannot join a gym. The monk, as I was told, was thrilled to receive this ‘modern-daane‘. Being a modernist, my friend argued that a treadmill could be added on to the ‘ata-pirikara‘, the eight items that are offered to a monk. He’s probably right, as ata-pirikara itself is sold on-line nowadays. It’s interesting to see the stiff competition between the online ata-pirikara sellers who undermine the robes made out of ‘lanka-poplin’ and convince the customers to buy their best quality imported ‘tetron cotton’ or ‘challenger’ robes, ranging from US $ 58-150. So what’s wrong in offering a treadmill or a pair of Nike trainers as the ninth pirikara? I was curious to know the rest of the story but my friend wasn’t that upbeat when he told me what happened next. To the disappointment of my friend, he had seen the treadmill been used as a clothes-rack (to be precise, a robes-rack) when he visited the temple a few weeks later. The monk’s diabetic condition has remained unchanged.
I was expecting some words of wisdom on these sugary challenges at the rally organized by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) in the weekend in the immediate aftermath of Honorable Health Minister’s presentation of the diet-plan to the monks. The news items that I read on the rally reported no news to that effect. For one, the BBS monks and their followers are not the sedentary types. They are always on the spot when their ‘action’ is needed to protect Buddhism. Neither do they hesitate to get physical. I am confident that such an active, physical orientation and routine reduce the risk of diabetes. So the BBS had other savory challenges to take on than the usual sugary ones. That could be the reason why the rally in the weekend pledged a five million vote bank for a real, legitimate Sinhala-Buddhist leader. Ironically, the savory five million votes will not be ‘offered’ to the fellow Monk who’s tipped to be the common candidate. Perhaps he’s too sugary for the BBS’s tastes.