Until very recently, the site of Buddhist monks and the occasional sound of chanting in the distance was only a reminder of the magic of Sri Lanka. Here’s proof – a photo I took in May of ’06 with a caption that tells the tale (you can click on it to enlarge it):
One day we came upon an unexpected and unexplained parade of monks of all sizes, ages, sexes and backgrounds. It's one of the magical, odd things that occur here.
For more photos of this strange occurence: http://www.malaynadawn.com/May06/page2.html
See? I’m a fan of the monks and Buddhism in general. But it seems that too much of even a good thing can turn ugly.
I was reminded of the FBI’s strategy at Waco–trying to get people under siege to come running out by blaring loud, annoying music at them for long periods of time. Yes, it was almost that ugly.
The loud, invasive sound assault began at about 5:30pm and lasted TWELVE HOURS, not stopping until 5:30AM. There are a few things in common, see?
“The FBI brought in loudspeakers, and through the speakers came the high decibel sounds of laughter, birds squawking, sirens, rabbits being slaughtered, rock music, Tibetan chants, and recordings of "negotiation" sessions held between the Branch Davidians and the FBI (Justice Report, pgs.. 69, 73, 79).” http://www.public-action.com/SkyWriter/WacoMuseum/war/page/w_p.html
I’m sure you’re thinking to yourselves, “but it’s drums and flutes and Buddhist chants, wasn’t it all just blissful Zen? A chance for deep meditation?”
For one thing, I must admit I’ve never really enjoyed the traditional music of my people. The drums’ rhythms feel random to me. And I’ve been known to be a musical girl. I was even a music major in college for a year or so after being awarded a music scholarship, but my not-so-highly trained ear can’t identify any pattern.
And the flutes are closer to a cross between a recorder and a bagpipe. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but I heard a lot of that irritating squeak that makes one cringe when listening to a beginner on a reed instrument. So basically, it sounds like a bunch of impish street urchins have stolen some drums and flutes and are gleefully making a racket to torture all the straights.
The innocent beginnings of the siege
I knew something was up when I noticed first thing in the morning that a Buddhist Flag had been strung to hang across the road just in front of our house. It wasn’t tied to anything on our property, so I had no complaint there, and there is a Buddhist temple nearby that often has events in the ‘hood, so I didn’t think much more of it.
I know that it is customary here for people to celebrate the death anniversary of a loved one with something called a Dana (proper info can be found here) . From what I’ve seen at other neighbor’s houses, it involves the arrival of Buddhist priests announced by drumming and flute playing, and then a series of chants followed by a meal offered for the monks, family and neighbors called an almsgiving.
In my experience, it’s never lasted more than a few hours, when it ends as the monks leave with the same pomp and ceremony. Or maybe they’re priests. I don’t know how to tell the difference.
I still don’t believe that’s what last night was about, because I noticed around 5:30 or so that the house was covered with for want of a more descriptive term–Christmas lights. White ones that blinked in varying patterns and colorful ones that remained lit continuously.
And then the dance music started. True, it was kind of old-fashioned Sri Lankan and Indian music that I imagine was seen in films in the 60’s and 70’s, but it was festive and upbeat. So I began to think that my cook was wrong when she said it was a death anniversary. Aren’t those more somber? Or were they just really pleased that the person was gone?
Timeline of Insanity
5:30pm – Retro South-Asian Dance Hits played over a sound system.
7-ish – Somewhere between 7 and 8 the drums and flutes began. My cook’s 10-year-old daughter ran to the window to see what was happening (she’s visiting from their village during a school break). I asked if there were any elephants, cuz if there weren’t, I wasn’t going to bother looking. No elephants. Poo. (Speaking of poo, it’s probably a good thing there were no elephants, since the event was basically in front of our house…coulda been messy, not to mention highly odiferous.)
At 10:30, while hiding out in the computer room on the opposite side of my house, I told my friend, who lives about 5 miles away, that I thought she could hear the chanting if she stepped outside. It was that loud. When I told her I was hoping they’d quit by 11pm, I was merely being tolerant.
11pm– When I left voicemail messages for several people in the U.S. over the next hour, I was laughing in disbelief. But I couldn’t get anyone on the line to share the madness with me, so I called my husband in London. He was shocked about the noise level, but was also under the impression that they’d stop soon. He thought it might have been a house blessing ceremony for the guy who has returned from overseas to finish the eyesore of brick and cement that for the last few years has been attracting stray dogs, mosquitoes and people who have no place to put their trash. That guy is troublesome anyway. One more thing to add to the list when I tell my hubby to go beat him up.
My growing madness
At 2AM, I considered my options. I couldn’t call the police because they don’t know of such a thing as noise pollution. Besides, if I complained, I would be setting us up for future complaints every time we watch loud movies with explosions and gunfights until 2AM on a weeknight because of my pilot hubby’s weird flight schedule. Plus it’s a religious thing, and they’re monks. We’ve had louder non-religious parties that lasted that long, and no one has said a word to us. And maybe it would be worse if it were rude partiers and rock music. Maybe just the human voice alone isn’t so bad….
At 3AM, when I was sure they were finished, I shut down the computer, turned out the lights, and went downstairs to get a drink of water. That’s when the drums started up again.
I had thoughts of setting off the bottle rockets stored in the spare room.
I went to the bedroom, which seemed to be directly in front of one of the two speakers, and I called my friend Rhonda in Maryland. She, finally, could confirm how loud it was. She wanted to know who those two men were in the bedroom with me and why they were so loud. One sounded like a cross between Barry White and Abe Vigoda—low but throaty. The other was more of a tenor and sounded more nasal. They tossed it back and forth with occasional explosions of drums and flute. A very strange version of the dueling banjos.
3:35AM – All I could think was regardless of what they were blessing, couldn’t all of their good intentions be undone from the amount of hatred that I and surely everyone within a 5 mile radius were beaming at them? Why couldn’t they chant WITHOUT the sound system? Seriously.
At 4AM – I set aside the book I was reading (but having trouble concentrating upon) and turned off my bedside lamp. I was sure they were finally done. As I slipped into the blissful silence of sleep, they started again.
Too tired to turn on the light again, I just lay there drifting from disturbed waking dreams to conscious and back again. This went on until…
5:30AM – I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed into sleep.
The Day After
11am I woke up feeling guilty about sleeping so late on a weekday, even though it was with good reason. I went downstairs to see how the rest of the household was doing.
Selliah, our houseman whose room is even closer to the event, was suffering from red eyes and a headache. Our cook, Parmeswary, and her daughter, Sagilah, had the benefit of being at the back of the house with a loud fan, so they seemed to have fared better.
We all laughed, AND THEN THE DRUMS STARTED AGAIN!!!!! ARE THEY SERIOUS?!?!?!? And then I went insane.
Luckily, it was short, and the rest of the day was silent, as the entire neighborhood caught up on sleep. I can’t tell if I’m recovered yet, because I don’t think the insane know that they are insane. That’s why they’re insane, right?
Yet still, insane or not, I remain a fan of the Buddhist monks and Buddhism in general. I'm just sayin' let's look into the need for all-night chants over massive sound systems, shall we?