A friend in England recently gave me a set of photographs that he had snapped of a bus shelter for the general public along a road in the province of Uva. It had been constructed as a public charity by the parents of a young Sinhalese soldier who had died in combat during Eelam War IV. As I live abroad and my regular visits are mostly to Colombo I had not noticed such outcomes before; while my nourishment in non-Buddhist familial settings had not exposed me to this phenomenon (though I could make some conjectures about the motivations and purposes of such acts).
I decided to test these surmises and to seek data of an anecdotal kind by posing a question of fact-cum-interpretation before a number of friends and acquaintances. Some live abroad; a few are academics and a few are from urbanised middle class background. But a number also had deep roots in rural countryside arenas by virtue of upbringing and/or contemporary residence and/or occupational experiences.
Note that the plaque on the bus shelter was not on a scale that I could read in the photograph on my computer and this missing dimension probably had a bearing on the answers I received. However, it has now been inserted as an ADDENDUM at the tail-end of this Preamble.
Not all interrogated in this abrupt manner from out of the blue responded. Several did in ways that have been variously illuminating. I believe that it will be of benefit to the wider world, especially those unfamiliar with Sinhalese culture and those highly urbanised, for this cluster of responses to be made widely accessible as a “body of everyman/woman knowledge” with all its variations and differences.
The responses add up to anecdotal data from different life experiences. They can induce further comment and reflection, even debate. Hopefully, they will assist Sri Lankans at home and abroad to garner a greater depth of understanding about the island culture of their forefathers as well as their parental and contemporary generations.
I have sought permission from all those named below prior to the insertion of their responses. I pay homage to them in words rather than alms. Let reflection and comment proceed further on the foundations provided by this boost. Amen.
THE QUESTIONS POSED and its accompanying photograph
I attach a photograph taken in the Uva region by a friend, one depicting a bus shelter built by a mother and father as a charitable act honouring a soldier son who died fighting for the country.
A1. Is this unusual? Do you know of many like-acts?
A2. In your view what motives and inspirations would have promoted such an act, a public statement of sorts. Was (is) it a simple almsgiving? ….. that also earned merit for the young man in future lives?
Renton de Alwis of Kiula in Sri Lanka
“Erection of bus halts as remembrance of the dead is a usual thing in Sri Lanka.There are so many now for dead soldiers as well. don’t read too much into this. There is nothing unusual about it.”
Professor KNO Dharmadasa in Sri Lanka
“This is not unusual. I have seen many such bus shelters. The reason is all those you mention. A bus shelter is a public place where a lot of people go and the more the number of people who benefit the more the merit.”
Professor Siri Gamage in Australia
I vaguely remember that during the war years people in the far South installed bus stops etc.in memory of their sons who died in the war. My guess is that they did this to accrue merits and transfer them. I can’t however remember any other acts? What usually people do is to donate money to a temple for various constructions like a shrine room, Dharma sala, or chetiya.
During my field work in Urapola, near Kadugannava during 84-85 I attended a funeral of a dead soldier in a nearby village.
A2. Many people tend to believe donating money,food etc. to a temple is somewhat limiting,hence they think of more community-oriented donations. But the construction of a bus stop is particularly significant because many people used to die in buses as a result of bomb blasts. There is a symbolism involved here.
Mahinda Gunasekera in Canada
“Though not an expert, I shall venture to provide some answers based on my limited knowledge in respect of questions posed by you.
A1: It is not unusual, as many Buddhist relatives and friends have provided various amenities in memory of a departed family member. Additions to hospitals, places of religious worship, wells for use by the members of the general public, etc. have been donated many times over. Such donation by the parents of a soldier who died fighting for his country is rare, as the normal practice is for outsiders to provide something of value to the next of kin or family members of the soldier who died in defending the people of his motherland. SPUR Australia and SLUNA Canada joined others in contributing funds for the construction of the ‘Abhimansala’ in Anuradhapura, or place for providing care to seriously injured/disabled soldiers who risked their lives at the frontlines during the war as an act to pay our respects and also honour the fallen as well as injured soldiers (heroes) who paid the price on behalf of his/her fellow countrymen.
A2: The motivation on the part of the parents may perhaps be due to their wanting the public to remember their son who paid the supreme sacrifice to regain the country from the growing terrorist threat to break up the island homeland. Whenever, the amenity of the bus shelter or other facility is used by the public, they in turn extend merit or thanks to the donors and the departed. It could well have been an act of offering merit to the departed son to progress on the Path to ultimate liberation from all suffering in the samsaric world of endless birth followed by death through the attainment of Nibbana or Nirvana, when one is free of the defiling roots of greed, hate and delusion through the purification of one’s mind which results in the purification of one’s thoughts, words and deeds. This also makes one act with equanimity towards all situations, and not affected by the eight worldly winds of ‘Gain and Loss; Fame and Infamy; Praise and Blame; and Pleasure and Pain’, and also help to develop more noble responses based on generosity, kindness and understanding. A Buddhist monk from New Zealand had in fact composed a little song for children on the theme of the eight worldly winds, which went as follows:
“The Eight Worldy Winds will sweep you away; Find the Centre of the Storm each day;
The Eight Worldly Winds will tear you apart; Find the Centre of the Peaceful heart.”
Merit bestowed on the departed is believed to be beneficial to the departed relative in his/her future existences. It is also said that those beings reborn as ‘Prethas’ or ghostlike forms, of which there are said to be four types, only those deemed “Paradattu Jeevi” are able to ask and receive such merit. Even Devas or Deities seek the merit of good deeds of humans for them to lead happy lives. (It is said that a scientist who did certain experiments with bacteria generated thoughts of goodwill on one batch, and destructive thoughts on the other. He found that the first batch was stable whilst most of the second batch had perished. He concluded that good and evil thoughts carry vibrations of similar quality affecting the surroundings.) Hence, it is possible that meritorious actions generate thoughts of goodwill which impact the recipient with beneficial results.
Dr Hemantha Herath in Sri Lanka
“Your picture could not be opened. Therefore, I may not be totally correct as far as this picture is concerned. In my opinion,
A1 – Doing charitable acts honoring soldiers died fighting for the country is not unusual. You may find hundreds, if not thousands, of bus shelters alone when traveling in the countryside. This type of acts are not confined to soldiers, Many who can afford to do (and some with generous donations from the public) do this in memory of their loved ones. However, I have observed this predominantly among the Sinhala community, both Buddhist and non Buddhist.
A2 – Motive behind such acts, in my opinion, is personal. Many do this in memory of their loved ones. In addition, Buddhists do this with the hope of bestowing merits to the dead for the betterment of their afterlife as well as to earn merit for themselves. We hardly see any single organization doing such activities in a large scale with different motive or ideology.
Professor Nandasiri Jasentuliyana in USA
Photo did not come through.
It is not unusual as it is a simple memorial, just like all memorials from Lincoln/Washington or DS/NM Statues. Many build schools, class rooms, meditation centers, stupas, Buddha Statue or a small Dana Sala (hall), in memory of the departed. In fact, on the day of Dr. Guruge’s funeral, the President of the Stop the Violence Group in Orange County, LA, where he served as a Board member for years announced that a newly built elementary school will be named ‘Ananda Guruge Elementary School’. I sent you a copy of my Eulogy. A friend just built a library in Galle at his ancestral home and property in memory of his parents. That would memorialize his parents and ancestry (opened this month by Basil). I will send you photos and will also ask him if there is any more to it than what I have said.
NO other significance in terms of merit as such except that good deeds are supposed to be beneficial to the giver like all charitable work. (merit for the young man – NO. If any to the donator).
Feel the motivation is that he felt a general sense of obligation to those who fought, got injured and died for a cause that he/she was in sympathy with.
Mevan Pieris in Colombo
The attachment did not reach me.
A1 I am not aware of similar charitable acts.
A2 A bus stand is used by so many and if it could serve as a reminder of a sacrifice made, it would serve that purpose well. A noble act indeed to provide shelter to another. It is an effort to meet a most basic physiological need of man. Indeed, people tend to believe that noble acts heap merit on the departed as well as on themselves.
Myrna Setunga in Sri Lanka
Thanks Mahinda. I am sure Michael will be fully satisfied with your detailed response.I have in fact seen a bus stand dedicated to a departed relative in the Badulla District. I too think that the family hoped that all those who enjoyed the shelter of the bus stand would give merit to the departed person. Another popular donation is beds for patients in the Cancer Hospital and Hospice.
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IMAGE ON LARGER SCALE
ADDENDUM: Amended Transliteration of Text engraved on the bus stand
This [shelter] has been built by a cohort of relatives that including his parents.towards the offering/accruing of merits (pin) to Lance Corporal Sāliya Chaminda Disanayaka who gave his life for the country.
ADDITIONAL PICs from Mango:
NOTE: Daniel Kent’s 2008 thesis on Shelter For You, Nirvana For Our Sons: Buddhist Belief and Practice in the Sri Lankan Army is available at http://thecarthaginiansolution.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/buddhist-belief-practise-in-sl-army.pdf