The spiritual leader of the island’s 5,000 Sri Lankans says he was drawn to the monkhood from a very early age. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who has never got cross
Who am I interviewing? What do I call him? I glance down at the piece of paper where my contact, a Sri Lankan lady, has written down the name of the man I’m about to meet: ‘Revent Morawaka Soratha Thero’. So is ‘Thero’ the surname? – but no, it turns out ‘Thero’ is an honorific, like ‘Sir’ or the archaic ‘Esquire’. The surname is ‘Morawaka’ – though not the name he was born with but the village where he was born, the tradition being apparently that Buddhist monks use the name of their “native place” as their surname. ‘Soratha’ is his first name, and of course ‘Revent’ (often shortened to ‘Ven’) is a variation on ‘Reverend’ – because the small, round-faced, crimson-robed gentleman standing in front of me is a man of God, and always has been.
The setting is unpromising, a functional hall with white plastic chairs piled up at one end and a statue of the Buddha on a stage at the other. This is not the main Buddhist temple – that’s in Psimolofou, a village just outside Nicosia where Ven. Soratha lives – but a kind of adjunct-cum-cultural-centre which he visits a few times a week (mainly on weekends) to lead meditation classes, dispense advice and teach Sinhalese to Sri Lankan children. It’s a Saturday evening, the leafy side-street outside already dark, the silence broken only by occasional passing cars and the stray barks of dogs being walked. We drag plastic chairs to the middle of the room and wait, a little awkwardly, for Malkanthi to finish her phone call.
Malkanthi is the interpreter, a commanding Sri Lankan lady who not only translates the Revent’s answers but occasionally pauses to add her own comments or shush a rowdy child who’s strayed a little too close to my tape recorder (“Behave well!” she hisses). His English, perfectly fine in casual conversation, tends to falter slightly when he’s trying to express complex concepts, hence the need for an interpreter – and there may be something else as well, an unspoken notion that a monk needs a sidekick, a retainer, in the manner of a princeling or perhaps a celebrity. His handshake, after all, isn’t a handshake. He doesn’t shake my hand, merely touches it briefly, because a handshake isn’t the way he greets people. I witness the correct way of greeting a monk when Malkanthi takes her leave, after the interview is over, and prostrates herself before him in a sign of respect – not for who he is, necessarily, but for what he represents.
His flock doesn’t just bow before him; it also feeds him and pays his rent, an arrangement which may seem surprising to our materialistic Western eyes. We normally think of a priest as representing a grand institution, the Church, which takes care of his living expenses; some might even think it parasitic if a Christian pastor expected his congregation to pay his way in the world – yet that’s precisely the case with Ven. Soratha, who’s entirely supported by the local Sri Lankan community. Every day someone brings him breakfast and lunch – Buddhist monks only eat two meals a day – based on a rota drawn up by the temple committee (“We have now 5,000 Sri Lankans,” explains Malkanthi, “so we can cover, it rotates”). Every week a collection is taken up to pay his rent. “They will give me food and everything,” he explains serenely in English, “I will give them dharma”, i.e. Buddhist teaching.
It may seem like an excess of deference – yet it’s also the opposite. After all, as already mentioned, a Christian’s relationship with his or her priest is essentially passive: a priest is the envoy of a powerful employer, who’s been appointed (and paid a monthly salary) to relay certain teachings to his flock – whereas a Buddhist monk is both less and more, humbled yet exalted, dependent on his people for money but also ‘above’ the whole concept of money. Ven. Soratha went to university after being ordained, and has a degree, but “I did not want to do money-earning job”; some monks also work as teachers, for money, but he doesn’t agree with this. “Money is needed for normal people,” he notes, through Malkanthi. “Buddhist monks, we depend on what they offer, what our people offer. So I don’t care about doing a job. Everything is free, my service. Otherwise I could be a teacher very easily, I have more than enough qualifications to be a teacher. But I don’t want.”
He’s always been a monk, since the age of 14 (he’s now 49) when he first joined the temple “without cutting the hair”, i.e. as a trainee – though in fact it’s more accurate to say that he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “When I was growing up, I was different,” he recalls. “I was not attached to the normal family, I was very close to the temple”. Even as a tiny child, if he saw “this robe” – i.e. a Buddhist monk – walking in the street, he’d go and walk behind him. There were no other monks in the family: Dad was a civil servant, and none of his four siblings, two brothers and two sisters, have followed Soratha’s path (one of his brothers is an extremely well-known TV actor in Sri Lanka, adds Malkanthi in an excited whisper) – though he does cite a couple of possible role models. The headmaster of his school was a monk, and his beloved grandmother was extremely devout. “I used to go to temple with her,” he recalls, and “I understood that she became so quiet, calm and peaceful woman because of this Buddhism”.
Ven. Soratha mentions those ‘rational’ reasons – Grandma and the headmaster – near the beginning of our interview, as if reluctant to go any further. By the end, however, he feels comfortable enough to hazard the true explanation. “I strongly believe that this is not from my soul, [but] from my previous souls”.
So he used to be a monk in a previous life?
“No, I was wishing,” he explains. This compulsive need to follow the robe, even as a child too young to know what it meant, must’ve been the culmination of many lifetimes’ desires – though it’s also possible that he actually was a monk in some earlier incarnation, he adds with a shrug.
Either way, though, he believes he was literally born for this life?
“Yes. I strongly believe.”
It’s certainly an unusual life, and one that demands constant sacrifice. “Always I try to live a simple life,” he asserts, that being probably the key to a monk’s existence. He only eats two meals, as already mentioned, and both are entirely vegetarian: some rice and curry for breakfast, much the same for lunch. He gets up at five every morning and meditates till six, one of two daily one-hour sessions aimed at leaving his mind “clean and pure”. He says something else, which Malkanthi struggles to translate. “Very light person,” she offers at last. “I know that I am very light. I don’t have anything heavy in my mind or heart.”
No worries? No problems? Does he never get angry?
“I haven’t seen it,” puts in Malkanthi, and Soratha smiles, shaking his head: “Not openly”.
Has he never shouted at anyone?
He laughs, shaking his head.
Has he never seen injustice, and been angry about it?
Malkanthi takes over, too agitated to remain in her role as interpreter. “I was with him for many things, legal matters. There are injustices – for example, he was deported two times! For very small reason, for nothing. If it was me, [she puts on an indignant voice, addressing the flunkeys at Migration]: ‘I have visa! Entering visa is valid’. No. He called me, [now in a low, sing-song voice]: ‘Auntie, they are going to deport me again’. ‘No!’ I said. ‘Speak with them!’.” She shakes her head, exasperated.
Talk of deportation brings us to more mundane matters – a reminder that Ven. Soratha is an alien in Cyprus (despite having lived here for 10 years), and also ministers to a community that’s often ill-treated or discriminated against. ‘What’s your impression of Cyprus?’ I ask, and he replies very softly (he always speaks softly), shutting his eyes to think. “First, I appreciate that – how to say? – people are very lawful,” translates Malkanthi uncertainly. “They respect people… Because he is not going out, he has not seen the racism in the country!” she interrupts herself, once again provoked into editorial comment. “Sorry, I just… He says people are very kind, lawful”. The lawfulness is apparently in contrast to Sri Lanka, where the sound of gunshots is not uncommon and people often take the law into their own hands; the Buddhist tradition has been weakened, says Ven. Soratha sadly, blaming colonialism and the evil influence of alcohol.
What of Sri Lankans here, predominantly young women working as maids? What exactly is his role? “My service has various parts,” he replies. “First thing, I teach dharma. Second one, meditation for their health, mental and physical health. Third one, advice for the better life.” He doesn’t give legal advice – if needed, he’ll refer legal problems to the Sri Lankan Consulate – but his remit does include “counselling” and even advice on managing money, if a girl looks to be on the wrong path. “They take very quick decisions,” he laments. “They leave the husband, and come to Cyprus.”
Above all, he tries to help with psychological turmoil: homesickness, family problems, bad employers. “First, I let her speak,” he explains. “Everything. I listen very quietly. From that first stage, from my listening, half of her stress comes out. She gets relief”. You could say he’s an all-purpose therapist for 5,000 lonely souls looking for a shoulder to cry on – and his main prescription, in accordance with Buddhist principles, is to urge his flock to be cheerful. The money doesn’t change if you’re angry or happy, he tells them, the work doesn’t change – so choose joy, and try to be patient. “Try to understand them, try to please them,” he importunes, ‘they’ being oppressive Cypriot bosses. “I advise to change their behaviour, so that Madam will love you”.
Some might say that Ven. Soratha isn’t really equipped to be offering advice on such worldly matters. Not only has he never worked himself (at least in a “money-earning job”), but he also lives in the realm of religion, a world of spirits and souls. Buddhist theology is complicated, more so than I’d realised – reincarnation isn’t just a matter of coming back after death; there are 31 possible realms into which to be reborn, 29 of them incorporeal (the other two are animal and human) – but it’s still bound to seem like superstition to the non-religious. What does he say to the notion that spirits don’t really exist, and Science is the only true measure? “Science is still not developed enough to catch these invisible spiritual things,” he replies serenely – and talks to me at length of Edgar Cayce, a 20th-century American mystic whose life he’s studied in detail.
There are two very different ways to view Revent Soratha Morawaka. Some may see him – and, by extension, every Buddhist monk – as a detached, inexperienced man who’s never soiled his hands with real life, and now fills the heads of impressionable girls with unhelpful nonsense. Others, however – almost certainly the majority – will discern a more noble figure, a man who’s devoted himself to a single cause, rejected any compromise with the world and spent his life reading, studying, meditating and keeping himself pure so as to retain some contact with those higher things which the rest of us have placed out of reach. If nothing else, his dedication is remarkable.
What does he do for fun? “Fun?” he repeats, as if not understanding. “Why I would want leisure or relaxation? I’m always happy!” No hobbies? Nothing? “My only way of relaxing, of being happy, is in front of Lord Buddha,” he insists – but then seems to relent slightly: “When, in my timetable, I have special time for my creativity, I write poems,” translates Malkanthi – but it turns out he doesn’t mean poems, he means Buddhist chants. Ven. Soratha is actually quite famous in Sri Lanka for his chanting; when he goes back home, he’s almost as popular as his actor brother – his diary fills up with invitations from radio and TV, and he’s on the air every day. But of course he’s very seldom in Sri Lanka, showing off his musical talents; instead he’s stuck in Psimolofou, nannying distraught maids and dealing with the idiots at Migration.
Doesn’t he miss Sri Lanka? “No. I live only today,” he replies instantly. “I think only about today. So I never stick to anybody, [or] any place”. He has nothing in his name, no property, no possessions, no job, not even any real friends (his fellow monks are thousands of miles away). Isn’t he lonely? “This loneliness is only for you people, normal people. For Buddhist monks, this loneliness is better”. Ven. Soratha peers at me from behind his oval glasses: “Most of my life, whether in Sri Lanka or here, I try to be alone!” And he smiles, as if sharing a secret.