Sri Rathanasara Pre School

My friend Lauren first traveled to Sri Lanka in 2005.  She came with a Sri Lankan Art project which taught art to children who were orphaned after the 2004 tsunami ravaged the town.  "Art was approached as a form of expression and communication." Years later she decided to return to Sri Lanka and I was lucky enough to come with her.  Her friend Tilack has been spear heading community projects around the small village since the tsunami and she decided to let him guide her to the local Buddhist Temple Amarasingharamaya and the school residing in it,  Sri Rathanasara Pre School.  This school is where most of the villages children start their education and the classroom and the playground were in a less than stellar state. Our goal was to revive it with some new supplies and paint and continue to make it a fun creative place to learn.   We paid our own way to Sri Lanka and through an Indigogo fundraising project,  raised enough money to make a big difference at the school.  We arrived on Friday morning at the temple and  before we began our work,  we met with Rev Talpe Ariyojothi Thero or as he asked us to call him, Talpe.  The temple was built 150 years ago and Talpe has been there since he was 15 years old.  We climbed to the top of the temple and were asked to clean the space before the monk entered.  A few people grabbed brooms and started sweeping,  I was just sitting there taking it all in,  and becoming increasingly nervous.  I had seen monks before,  Id gone to see the Dalai Lama speak in New York and I'd watched touring monks paint mandalas out of sand,  but this is the first time Id actually officially met one,  like ask me what my name is and smile and say nice to meet you sort of thing.  So I sat there and waited, sweaty palms and sure enough  and after a few minutes he showed up.

He looked like a typical monk to me.  Adorable,  orange outfit,  little belly,  lots of laughs and he was followed consistently the whole time I saw him by a little dirty dog.  When he sat down and started to speak I felt like I could not listen any harder,  like everything he said was going to be the most important things I would ever hear.  We sat on the ground on little bamboo mats while he spoke about his life, his faith and about Metta Meditation.  Metta means friendliness and kindness to others.  It is an antidote to ill-will and anger to others.  He said everyone should cultivate Metta and that practicing it daily will make a person more calm and friendly internally and when interacting with others.  We practiced it together before heading down to the school  More on that soon.  

After he offered us coconuts to drink,  tea and tons of fruit,  we took a look at the school.  The room was very small,  filled with art work on the walls,  a giant statue of Ganesha and lots of teeny desks and chairs. Below is a pic I snagged from Judy, our friend and photographer for the adventure.  Afterwards, we headed out to the playground,  where it had become completely over run by trees and weeds.  It was still early so we set out to work,  dividing up into two teams.  The playground team began renovating the garden,  removing tons of debris and delivering it to the woods out back.  I was on the classroom team,  and we  moved all the furniture outside,  gently removed the art work,  prepped the room for a new paint job.
Christina and I tried to wash and move the massive Elephant statue,  but it was made of a large piece of wood and he wasn't going anywhere.  Up behind him I moved a wall clock to wash the walls and ran into an unexpected visitor napping behind it.  It was a pretty big lizard and when I lifted up the clock we was so scared he ripped his tail off and threw it at my face. It was dramatic and yes,  this happens in the wild when lizards get super scared and drop there tail to confuse predators.  Cut to me screaming my face off running out of the school house and everyone laughing at me.  It was the scariest experience of my life,  his tail was still shimmying around on the floor when I slowly slinked back into the school house. 

Meanwhile, we discovered the windows were all infested with termites and needed to be removed.  With the money we raised from IndiGogo we were able to hire some contractors to knock out the windows and replace them,  as well as installing brand new ceiling fans curtains and posters.  With the walls prepped,  we went to work repainting the tables and chairs with some help from some local school girls who stopped by to help.  The garden was looking amazing.  Some of our pals from the group had engineering background so they went to work on how to fix a merry go round that had fallen into disrepair while others started the paint job on the playground.
 We worked Friday and Saturday putting on second coats,  battling ant colonies and the heat and always grateful for the younger monks bringing us fresh coconuts and fruit to keep us cool.  
We were done by Sunday.  the contractors were still working on installing the windows,  but the school was repainted and Lauren,  our fearless leader with Judys help painted a lotus flower mural on one of the walls.   The children came in for Sunday School and we gave them all art supplies we and brought from the states,  let them play on their new barely dried merry  go round and even gave them ice cream.  It felt amazing.  The kids sang for us and danced for us and we sang Twinkle Twinkle together while they were amazed by our iPhones and cameras. They loved the playground, all the kids jumped around and played.   Amazing experience. I don't think Ive ever been so calm in my life outside of that gecko incident.  

Afterwards,  Talpe asked us back for lunch.  We ran off for a mid day swim and returned for our final goodbyes.  Returning to the temple,  the monks led us to their dining hall which consisted of a long table, fitting all 14 of us.  I walked in and the table was completely full.  It was bursting with food,  with rice and curries,  lots of different vegetable and sauces, sambols and fish and peppers and then,  that's when it really got to me.  I hesitated before I sat down,  all of the sudden my eyes were filling with tears that I held back and I was very overwhelmed.  "These monks just made lunch for me" I kept thinking over and over.  This was my life,  if only for an afternoon but the fact that I was here,  in a Buddhist Temple in Sri Lanka and today I was eating a feast made for me was almost too much. 

But obediently I sat down and let them pile my plate high.    The food was so good,  I gorged myself on pumpkin squash curry, coconut daal and even kale salad.  Lauren had been momming me into trying fish while we were there,  I'm not the biggest fan of seafood,  and I figured now was the time. I ate a piece of seasoned sea bass and it did not disappoint.  Lots of fruit to follow. Afterwards the monks blessed us all with Sai Sin.  Its a ceremony given to people who donate their time or efforts to the monks.  A small white string was places around my right wrist and a blessing of good luck, prosperity and 100 years life was whispered and then lunch was over.  Talpe thanked us and invited us back to his temple any time.  The string bracelets are meant to stay on for at least three days or until the string falls off.  Its been 18 days since I got my bracelet and I have no intention of taking it off.  Looking at it takes me back there to a place where we took some time out to help some people and learn a few things ourselves about finding peace.