Travel is about connecting with people and expanding your own mindset, even more than it is about seeing beautiful or interesting places.
I was fortunate to have such an experience in Sri Lanka, when I was invited to help with an English class at a local temple.
Saman, my friend and guide in Sri Lanka, casually asked if I wanted to make an extra stop that day to help with the class where his niece went to school. I loved the idea, so he parked the tuk-tuk at the end of a Kandy alleyway, where there was a partially constructed building open to the street.
I was greeted by three teenage monks-in-training, in fluorescent orange robes, and the English teacher. After joining them for tea, I was quickly whisked around the side of the building to a small temple. I learned that I was to receive a blessing prior to the class, as a thank you.
I entered the room, where long chains of multicolored fabrics streamed from the walls. In a small alcove to my left, there was a senior monk, in robes of a lighter orange color. The monk spoke only Sinhala. There was no introduction as to what I needed to do, so I followed my friend’s lead.
Saman bowed low, so I did the same. I stood up, and the monk tied a thin white string around my wrist. Next was an anointing with holy water. Then some type of decorative metal cone, or pagoda, was placed onto my head. My friend translated the monk’s words – he said that I was having pain in one of my legs, and that I have neck pain and sometimes headaches. This was incredibly accurate.
Before leaving, the monk instructed me to look at the blue Buddha statue in the shrine. He said that whenever I feel those types of pains, to think of this place and it would help.
In the few minutes that passed, the air felt lighter. I felt lighter. While I’m not a Buddhist, my spiritual and meditation practice has many similarities, so I feel a great respect and kinship for the Buddhists. I was honored to partake in the blessing, and I really hoped that I would be helpful to their class in return.
I didn’t have time to reflect for long, as class was about to begin.
I approached the school, which had two rooms, one upstairs and one ground level. My class was upstairs, so I balanced my way up a narrow wooden staircase with no walls or railings.
The classroom was open air, as only two of the four walls were fully built. When I reached the summit of the staircase, 60 students gazed back at me as I approached a chair they had set at the front of the classroom.
Were they expecting me to give some sort of talk or lesson? Butterflies started up in my stomach. I tried to remember my Toastmasters training for impromptu speeches.
Fortunately, they weren’t expecting a speech. The chair at center stage was just there for my introduction. After that, I spent some time at each table and talked one on one with the students, because they wanted to hear English pronunciation from a native speaker.
The students asked me a lot of questions about myself and about how I liked Sri Lanka. I asked them questions as well. The young learners were polite and fully engaged in their lessons, and seemed happy to hear that I was enjoying my time in their country. We also had some fun and joked around. One music student sang a short song for me.
As my time at each table ended, they all wanted a picture. “Can we take a selfie?” is one English phrase that they all knew very well! I was glad to see that everyone looked happy with the experience.
Leaving the classroom, I got a warm smile from the senior monk, who invited me to sit at their table for lunch, and then to attend the students’ show – it was the last day of school before winter break, so they had a performance scheduled.
At lunch, the administrators were pleasantly surprised to see that I liked the spicy vegetarian food (no problem there– I loved it!) and that I was willing to attempt eating it with my hands (not as easy as it looks).
Next was the show. After being welcomed by a little girl who gave me flowers and a kiss on the cheek, I participated in the opening ceremony of candle lighting. There was a beautiful centerpiece on the stage, with candles suspended by palm leaves. It was wreathed by jasmine flowers. The senior monk lit the first candle, and then passed it to me to light the second one. I continued by passing it along to the next person, and so on until all of the candles were lit.
Next, the songs and dances began. As I sat watching, I felt an overwhelming gratitude from the welcome I had received. They all completely opened up their home to me, offered me a blessing which was meant to continue helping me long after I left the school, fed me a great lunch, invited me to the show, and treated me with such hospitality and kindness. All that I had done in return was to answer some questions about myself in English.
They said that I was very helpful, but nevertheless, I felt like I was the one receiving a gift. While I cherish my experience of the Buddhist blessing, I must say that meeting the students of the school was also a blessing. Their lesson of generosity and having an open heart is truly an inspiration.